Liza Howard

A year ago, I sat in a room full of strangers. An odd lady with a squid hat stood at the front of the room. She explained that the things I would learn and the people I would meet over the next few days would change my life. What did she know? I mean, she obviously could not discern good head wear from bad, how could she know that the people in that room would change the course of my life?

That lady with an odd taste in hats was Liza Howard. She was the reigning champion at The Leadville 100. Most importantly, she was the person who had brought all of us together. She had assembled a team of trail and ultra runners in a camp outside of San Antonio. The purpose was to teach trail running to members of Team RWB.


Liza, the Squid hat and myself

Not only was she right, but she, herself was one of those people who helped shape my trail running future. Her love for teaching others has inspired me and helped me discover a love of sharing the knowledge that I gained from her and her team.

Knowing that you have made a difference in someone’s life is, perhaps, the most satisfying thing one can know. This is probably why you will almost always see her smiling.

But still, a squid hat? Why? Well, according to Liza, her friend Nikki was shopping for Halloween costumes and brought over some prospects. She accidentally left the squid hat behind and it was never returned. She wore it to camp because she thought it set just the right tone. As Liza put it “There’s room for everybody under the ultrarunning big top. Also it made me more visible.”

Ok, I will give her this, it does command attention in a fun way. Whomever was wearing the hat had the floor, one had to respect the squid hat. It does fit in with her personality. She has this fun way of teaching, where we ended up laughing our way through the planned lesson. This was usually due to bad acting or missed cues from the students she had chosen to help. Her teaching method involves anyone and everyone. Even bystanders are not immune to  becoming object lessons.

As someone who spends so much time giving advice, I was curious, what was the best advice she had received. She said that when she was at the 50 mile point of a 100 miler, a friend asked how she was doing, she replied that she hurt. He told her that everyone was hurting. According to Liza, “It was the perfect reminder during that race and during training, that, of course, it’s hard. Don’t expect otherwise.”

Since she told me about this several weeks ago, I have turned to it during my training. Yes it hurts sometimes, but if it didn’t hurt, everyone would do it. The pain we are willing to endure is what makes us. Even when I am trying to learn more about her, she somehow has taught me.

With so many wins and podium finishes, I thought she would have this great story of how she got into running. Alas, it was just a simple choice, she wanted to run a marathon. The training group was so much fun that, as she put it, she kept going and never looked back. Going is somewhat of an understatement, her favorite race distance is now 100 milers. She claims it is due to her love for belt buckles.

I asked her what her most memorable finish was, she said it was the 2011 Javelina 100. It involved being hauled off to the hospital with a case of rhabdomyolysis. This is basically when the muscle tissue breaks down and releases their contents into the blood stream. This can be a very serious condition that can lead to renal failure. You can read her account of that race here.

In addition to running, she coaches for Sharman Ultra. She also teaches first aid having instructed at the Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS and National Outdoor Leadership School.

Still somehow she finds the time to mentor me, answering even the smallest question, whether a running question or helping me plan a day long clinic based off of her trail running camp. Once I sent her a message asking for some input, her reply was that she would love to help me, but it would have to wait a couple of weeks since she was on her way to Morocco for a race!

I am sad to report, this will be the last year that she will wear the squid hat at trail camp. An operation like this cannot be an easy task. Her energy to teach and training as a world-class runner on top of being a mother to 2 small children is amazing, but she feels it is time to move forward.

Her impact on trail running will last for years to come, both through the one on one teaching 12096110_968416266532786_2936749125802329052_nshe does and through those she has taught at trail camp. My personal aspiration is to live up to her example as a mentor. While I may never achieve the impact that she has, I will still strive to. Even if it hurts, we all hurt so I might as well enjoy the pain and smile through it.

You are what you take in

As runners, most of us pay close attention to what we eat. We know that each meal is fuel for the next training run or workout. Myself, I feel the difference when I haven’t been eating right. My mental state goes down, I don’t want to train. If I go too long eating junk foods, then I will fall into a pit of laziness.

Have you ever put any thought into what your eyes and ears take in? They can affect our attitudes as much or possibly more than some foods. It may not be as noticeable as bad foods, but it can slowly wear on your psyche, draining energy. Attitudes, whether good or bad,  tends to breed upon themselves.

Recently, I have taken some time to reflect on the past few years of my life. While running has been the biggest change by providing me with a confidence and fitness, the next big change was the people I associate with. It’s true that physical exercise will cause a psychological change, but surrounding yourself with positive individuals will contribute also. Running has opened doors to allow me to surround myself with just such people, ones that I would never have met had it not been for running.

I look at some of the groups that I use to spend time with and I can see so much untapped potential. The bad attitudes, the feelings of being owed something, they all over power what could be. All of these thought patterns breed off each other and start a deadly downward spiral.

Many of these people could be contributing to their communities in positive ways. Several had the potential to be great leaders, but they let the negatives around their lives consume them. Goals were almost non-existent. There were no real future plans, just what was happening the following weekend. Big goals and dreams were scoffed at. It was as if a goal was just another plan for failure so why bother trying?

These attitudes seem to turn into an infection of apathy. This infection spreads to everyone in the group without anyone realizing or caring about what has happened. Passive concern of anything beyond the immediate is rare.

By contrast, in the running community, there is constant encouragement. The last one to cross the finish line is still a finisher and still deserves the encouragement that the winner received. How can a person not improve when they are constantly encouraged and expected to? When there is a set back, there is no degrading, only sympathy and suggestions.

There is a general interest in others and their goals. Passions are shared and encouraged. When I’ve said that I’d like to try new distances, no one scoffed; instead they encouraged and, at times, escorted me in these new ambitions.

The people we choose to surround ourselves with are the ones we will become. In a strange way, those we associate with are a reflection of our life goals and our own ambitions. Why would you make your reflection into such a negative?

No whining on the trail

Attitude is everything in running.  It can affect your results as much, if not more so, than any other single factor.  A positive mental attitude will push you through the tough spots and a negative one will only throw constant curve balls and walls in your path. Your attitude, good or bad, will be multiplied, this can be counted on as much as death and taxes.

Col. Chris Hadfield, who was at one time the Commander of the International Space Station, wrote a book called “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”.  In it he made a point that has caused me to stop and rethink my reactions more than once. He said “In space flight, ‘attitude’ refers to orientation: which direction your vehicle is pointing relative to the Sun, Earth, and other spacecraft. If you lose control of your attitude, two things happen: the vehicle starts to tumble and spin, disorienting everyone on board and it also strays from its course, which, if you’re short on time or fuel, could mean the difference between life and death.” (Sidenote on Col. Hadfield, he is probably most famous for his cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”)

The first time I read this, I had to stop and re-read it because it hit so close to home. What direction are you facing in reference to your obstacle? Is it a positive orientation or a negative one?  A negative orientation will cause you to lose sight of your goals and spin out of control, so to speak. When focused on the negative of the situation we often forget the path we are on and the reasons that we are on it.

Something that I have heard at races occasionally is people whining; either about the weather, the course or some hill or even an obstacle. I’m not talking about the joking that occurs, you know the kind, when you roll your eyes because there is yet another hill suddenly in front of you.  No, what I am referring to is the spoiled brat, obnoxious whining. If you signed up for a race then trained for it, you should be aware that anything is possible, whining won’t change the problem.  The only thing you can change is your mental orientation to the problem.

Verbalizing a negative attitude will do one of two things, it could spread to others around you, causing them to become disoriented and lose sight of their path and goal; or they could recognize what is happening and do everything they can to avoid you. Either way, you become like a person with the flu, the only people who are willing to be around you are the ones who share in your misery.

While we spend many hours training our legs, our cores and our feet, something else happens to most of us, our minds get trained as well.  We start to look at obstacles differently, sometimes without even realizing it.  We almost get desensitized to them. Yes, there will be those mental ups and downs; emotional highs and lows.  The trick is to learn to deal with them.

Bandera 50k January 9, 2016

A positive attitude is what helps us break through “the wall”, that point where almost every cell in your body says stop.  You suddenly become so drained mentally, physically and emotionally, but somewhere in there are a few ounces of positiveness that keeps you going.  If you’ve trained and planned, stopping now will only hurt worse tomorrow.  So you keep moving, knowing that that little bit of positive, that little peek of hope, will multiply.

Thoughts tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies, you can’t afford to let them overtake your effort. Embrace a bad situation as a learning experience and push through it with a positive viewpoint. You are out there by choice and should be happy to have reached this point. Any complaining should be limited to the real problems, serious injuries, thing like that.  Complaining about having to cross a creek doesn’t move the creek, it just makes it more miserable.