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.

Winners vs. Champions

Many people think the words winners and champions are interchangeable, but to me there seems to be a huge difference. Its all in their attitude, their approach to the game or challenge laid out before them.

Winners are easily satisfied. They get the “W” and are happy. Once the goal is in sight they can glide in. Like a boat approaching a dock, they shut the engines down and coast up the moorings and all will be OK. This approach will effect the results as much as negative attitudes will. A winning attitude may not seem like a negative one, but it’s  negative in the sense that it will not create the best possible results. I call it a neutral attitude.

Champions, on the other hand, are never satisfied. Champions are thinking of the next step. they are wondering how they could approach the dock better, more efficiently. They reach a point that others see as a pinnacle and ask themselves if they could get to that point again only better or faster. The unrelenting drive to overcome obstacles builds them, when winners are busy looking at what they have already accomplished, champions are looking for the next challenge.

Winners are happy that they have achieved a new goal. They will spend time relishing in their accomplishments. Not that there is anything wrong with this, but a champions is never content. They are constantly looking for a new goal.

Have you ever watch some sort of championship game where one team dominates the other? That is a prime example of winners vs. champions. It almost seems like one team comes out like a steamroller and the other has given up. The steamrollers will stop at nothing to get to the top, while the other team acts as if they’ve started the off season and are ready for a vacation.

Can a winner become a champion? What about someone who isn’t even in one of these categories? Can someone who has never wanted to achieve anything eventually achieve greatness? The answer is a resounding YES! It’s all in the mindset. One must work on the mental aspect of their chosen endeavor, but it can be done. Muhammad Ali said “Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them-a desire, a dream, a vision.”

It is up to you to create that desire, that dream and that vision. There must be a fire within that you ignite yourself. No one can do this for you. The only way to light this fire is with a passion. It’s this passion that will turn you into a steamroller instead of a early vacationer. Movies are made about champions not winners. The constant pursuit of excellence makes for a better story.

This being said, I’ve come to realize that I am a winner, I get close to the finish line and I cruise in. My next big goal is to work on my championship attitude. When I’m in the last stretch, drive harder not glide in.

Pushing Your Limits

At almost every race I’ve been to, I have seen people who were obviously broken and emotional. You can see it in their eyes, there is a lost look on their face. They stare off into the distance, oblivious to the bustle going on around them. Their eyes are glazed over, they move delicately. Some have finisher’s medals, some have tears, but all have a new appreciation for themselves and what they can accomplish.

These are the people who have my respect, above those on the podium. The runners who come in completely broken down, who have pushed themselves to a point that they never thought possible. When you look into their eyes, you can tell. It’s like they have scared the hell out of themselves and somehow in the process, they have learned what it truly means to live life to the fullest.

There are many things to fear, but fear of preconceived limits is the worst. We have no reason to think that we can’t do something, we just need proof of what is possible. Maybe these false notions of our limits come from others, after all negativity tends to rub off and multiply. These near zombies that I see at the finish line have ignored the limiters and naysayers. They have gone out and looked for that magical wall for themselves. This deserves nothing but respect and admiration.

For centuries we have celebrated great explorers, men who scaled the highest peaks, drove into the unknown forests or sailed off to the vast oceans, not knowing when or if they would ever return. We’ve idolized humans who have driven the boundaries of technology further than we thought we could ever achieve. I think that we should put the people who have explored their personal limits, and perhaps moved them, on the same pedestal.

There are times when a person hits a limit that they cannot overcome, the mental or physical demands are just too much. The task is just too strenuous to overcome. They scratch and claw to get past it, but to no avail. Some would see this as a failure, but is it failing when you have found what you’re looking for?

This journey is one of the most personal, internal struggles we face. Others can guide us or they go on their own journey that parallels ours, but in the end we must face these barriers on our own. We can have mentors counsel us, but the deep, dark trenches of our minds are our own territory to battle through.

The beauty of watching someone push these limits is that you get to see a newer, greater version of that person emerge.  It’s not like looking at a baby, who is a blank slate, full of possibilities. It’s much deeper than that. Like an entirely new soul being built from the ashes and recycled materials of the old one.

If done right, this is a never ending process. We will continue to push our internal limits, growing and evolving in the process. When we do find that point that cannot be overcome, that permanent boundary, we just turn and go another direction finding another way around that wall.

So the ones who are brought to tears at the finish line, whether of pain or of joy, are the ones who deserve our respect. The ones who limp in long after the awards are over, after the winner is home, they are the true victors.