This conversation started on March 9, 2018. What a journey.
Doug, could you tell us how young you are?
I will be 52 on April 22.
How did you feel about reaching the 50 mile mark as a human?
When I turned 50 I didn’t see it as a huge milestone… just a birthday with a round number. I have been very healthy for the past several years and one more spin around the sun didn’t really change my physical appearance or abilities. Mentally I know I am older, I have a harder time reading small print, I am more sensitive to certain noise levels (some are too loud, some I can’t hear). But my spirit is still young at heart. I attribute that to a conscious decision about how I run my life. I try not to get too worked up about things, I consume news at my own pace (newspapers and online articles, not the rapid fire of tv news). I also choose activities that feed my soul like running and camping and playing with my kids. Based on human life expectancy I know I am “middle-aged” and I don’t mind that label.
I do challenge myself and others to redefine those words for what suits them. For me, “middle-aged” means lots of energy and lots of experiences.
Why do you challenge the notion of “middle age”?
Well, I think for many people the notion of “middle age” means your life is winding down and you are one step away from the nursing home. I’m certainly not ready to wind anything down. I know my body is not as resilient as it once was, but there are still a lot of miles left in me, places I still want to go and things I want to do. My kids are young (10 and 12) and they are at the age when we can go out and have adventures and I don’t want to be sitting at home in a cardigan watching the news and reading the paper.
You mentioned human life expectancy. What is your relationship and feelings about impermanence?
I haven’t thought a lot about impermanence. I know I will die at some point. I hope it will be in my 90s. My great-uncle lived to be 100 and was still pretty lucid up to the end. I know he didn’t like going to the senior center because he felt it was a bunch of young people there. Sure, they were all in their 70s. He had fought in World War II. His peers were mostly all gone and I think he felt alone. I hope I have friends around at that time. Even if they are the “youngsters.”
Did he speak to you about World War 2? What he experienced or how it effected his life when he returned home?
I think you might be hard pressed to find WWII vets who talk much about their experiences. The ones I have met are pretty stoic about it. My uncle was no exception. Later in his life he told me a few stories. He knew how to type so he was in the regimental HQ of the Seabees and they followed the island hopping in the Pacific theater. He said he never saw any “action” but he had this story where they were on some island and the lieutenant told him and some guys to go and clear a minefield. They had to dig them up and deactivate them or something. It sounded frightening to me, but he was really matter of fact about it.
He was told to do it and went and did it. As far as it affecting his life when he returned home, I think he had harder times before the war.
He was an orphan, grew up in orphanages, worked in the CCC during the Great Depression, and I think he appreciated that the Navy provided him with a bed and three square meals – and random minefield work! He was really down to earth and a reliable guy and I loved that part of him. He also held some really intolerant and racist attitudes, I didn’t love that part of him, but it’s a package deal. To tie that back into ultras, I love the soaring highs and don’t love the painful lows, but it’s also a package deal.
Soaring highs and painful lows. What has ultra running taught you about living your life off the trail?
Well, there is always going to be some curveball thrown at you. You just have to keep your eyes on the big picture and you can’t let it shake you too much. Carol Dweck gave us the concepts of Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset. You definitely need a Growth Mindset in an ultra. So many things can go wrong or at least not as planned from something big like you get lost or get attacked by a dog, to something small like you got distracted and forgot to pick up extra gel packs at the last aid station. The Fixed Mindset person drops from the race at that point because of the sudden change in plans.
The Growth Mindset person rolls with it and moves on because the goal is not to run dog-free, to stay on the course, or to eat so many calories per hour, the goal is to finish the race.
The same things happen in your everyday life. Suddenly you owe $2000 in taxes when you thought you were getting a refund. You fall and break your arm just before you are supposed to go on an important business trip. Your child gets sick at the least convenient time. You can stew and worry about what all this means and lament about how you wish you had your life back the way it was X years ago, or you can embrace this new puzzle and know that this is your life now and your goal is still to enjoy it and create a healthy space for your children to live and grow in. Another thing that I have learned is how important it is to help and be helped by friends. Aid stations are not just on race courses. People need each other and things are easier when we help out. This runs contrary to a lot of the DIY American Ethos ideas or the people who cling to the adage ‘God doesn’t give me more than I can handle.” I feel strongly that there is nothing un-American or sacrilegious about asking for help. We need to do more of that, and conversely we need to reach out to people. How hard is it to say “Can I help you with that?”
How long have you been running?
I have run since junior high school. I ran a lot through college, but then took about 10 years where I was a recreational runner/jogger and didn’t keep track of miles/training/etc. In about 1998 I started running more steadily.
What triggered the 1998 resurgence?
I was living in Seattle and was running occasionally. I was probably logging 15 – 25 miles a week. Nothing more than 8 miles. No trail running. A friend of mine from the Peace Corps said she was going to run the Portland marathon. I told her I would come down to Portland and cheer her on. On my next run I thought, “Hey, I should just train a little and run it with her.” So I started training. I signed up for the race and at the time I was a little heavier. I was probably around 180 and I noticed on the entry form there was a “Clydesdale and Athena” division for larger men and women. I just had to gain 5 more pounds to qualify! I considered that, then I remember thinking “I don’t think I want to be 185 pounds…” It wasn’t an image thing, it was more of one of those turning points. I could gain some weight and settle in to my 30s as a larger person… or I could really start training, drop some weight and see what my body can do. I took the second route and before long I told my pal that I would not be running with her, but rather racing. I was hoping to regain the post college form of my last marathon 10 years earlier. The Portland Marathon went really well, and I was hooked. I immediately started looking around for other longer races (roads, not trails) and within 3 years I had done 8 marathons including New York and Boston.
You said the words “see what my body can do,” can you explain why that is important to you? And what you have learnt through that journey?
This was a situation of just wondering “What happens if I try this?” Not unlike taking a new way home, trying a new restaurant, or reading a new book. I have tried lots of things that just don’t work out or don’t resonate with me. This was one of those times when I wanted to see where this running thing would take me. I think a parallel can be drawn to people discovering hidden talents or re-cultivating talents that they had left behind. I think a lot of what I have learned has bubbled up throughout this interview.
When did you become an ultra-marathoner?
After reading Born to Run by Christopher MacDougall, I got interested in ultras. I tried some 50Ks in 2012 and those went pretty well. So, those were my first ultras. I set a goal of moving up to the Zumbro 100 in 2014. Well, after a couple of 50 milers in 2013 I thought “why wait???” and entered the 2013 race. I dropped out at 67 miles but knew I would be back and I finally finished it, my first trail hundred, in 2015. I had run over 100 miles in the FANS 24 hour race so I knew I could go that far.
What was the trigger for you in the Born to run book that lit the fire?
I had heard of ultras but didn’t know anyone who did them. I knew I was always so totally spent after 26.2 that I couldn’t wrap my head around going farther. When I read Born to Run and got to know the cast of characters included in the book, I was fascinated by all their different approaches to ultras and running. As he unfolded more and more about the ultra culture I understood how an ultra could look for me… “oh, you walk up the hills… or whenever you feel spent”, “oh, you eat substantial food during the event”, “oh, this is something I really need to get into.” I have always loved wilderness adventures. When I was in high school I went to a YMCA camp that focused on wilderness trips and when I was 18 that culminated with a 30 day trip backpacking in the Yukon territories. When I was 25 or so I went with three other buddies up to northern Saskatchewan and we put our canoes in the water and 50 days later we were in Baker Lake, North West Territories. I would love to still do adventures like that, but there is no way I could take that time away from my family and work.
So, a weekend of running in the woods, with friends, and pushing personal boundaries, is a great way to scratch that adventure itch.
What did you learn from dropping out at mile 67?
Well, that was at Zumbro in 2013. For those who don’t know, Zumbro is a six lap 100 mile event. I learned an awful lot in that race. It was my first trail 100 and it was going fairly well for me. The weather was a real factor that year and the trail conditions were either snow, ice, slush, mud or standing water. After four laps I was having some trouble with my gear. My shoes (from the sale rack at the Sports Authority) had some big tears in the uppers and were filling up with mud. I had a spare pair at an aid station but after my fourth lap I didn’t have the motivation to go get them. My headlamp (from Home Depot) was not very bright and so visibility was becoming an issue. I was very new to the trail community and didn’t know very many people. I was looking for Todd Rowe because he was volunteering and I had hoped he would be able to help talk me through the mental low point I was at. I couldn’t find him though and didn’t get it that anyone at any of the aid stations would be more than happy to help me rally. I sort of knew if I could just get to aid station 2/3 I could finish the loop with good shoes and then finish the race, but I didn’t have a pacer. Again, I am sure I could have asked at the start/finish for someone to run with me at least for half a loop. But I didn’t.
I learned that there are lots of people who are more than happy to help you rally and literally give you the shirt off their back if that would help you to keep going.
I also learned that I draw energy from friends (didn’t I learn that in the Peace Corps? Well, I guess I need some lessons more than once) and I do better when I have a crew and at least one pacer lined up to help out. I learned that you should never drop out of a race just because your spirit is low. The old adage about ultras is that it almost always gets better. It is so true. You just need to keep moving. I also learned to invest in some better gear. I no longer shop at big box stores and my current headlamp has about 5 times the lumens of that first one. Finally, I often think of something Frank Shorter said about dropping out. He said it is a lot easier to explain to friends why you had a slow race than to explain why you dropped out of a race. Of course, if you are physically injured then that is a good reason to drop, but things like blisters, chafing, nausea, cramps, and flagging mojo are not reasons to drop. Those are reasons to slow down and perhaps hang out at an aid station for a little while, but not to turn in your bib. It is easy to talk yourself out of a race, especially if you are alone or if the people around you are going negative as well. Just like you need to work to stay hydrated and fed, you need to work on your mental game and keep that positive and upbeat.
Find joy throughout the race. Celebrate the aid stations and the sections you have completed. Spread good vibes around and they will come back to you.
The old adage it almost always gets better, just keep moving. That is a tough mental door to walk through. When did you first walk through it and feel its immense power?
It is something you have to take on faith the first few times. It takes some serious perseverance to hang in there when you feel like you are ready to die and just want to get to an aid station where someone can come and fetch you. I don’t recall the first time I grabbed onto that one, but I know it comes up in almost every ultra now. There are often times when I get totally down on running and tell myself “I am only going to do 5Ks from now on, these long runs are such bullshit.” and then I pull into an aid station and reload and get pumped up and before long I realize I only have X amount left and then it’s all over. I can remember the jubilation I felt at Zumbro one year when I got to mile 74 and said “Sweet! Just a marathon left!” I know that sounds ridiculous to my friends who have yet to run a marathon, but I bet anyone who has run a 100 knows exactly what I mean. The big payoff comes at the finish line. You run, walk, shuffle, stagger your way through all that and suddenly you are done. Then you feel like everything you did, all the miles logged, all the sleep deprivation, all the low lows, was all worth it.
Then you ask yourself “What else can I work through?”
What else can I work through? Do you have any plans for something that puts you out there totally exposed?
I am doing this interview, aren’t I? Haha. It is surprising to me that people are interested in my take on running and related issues because as I have mentioned, I still feel like I am trying to make sense of it all. But experience will teach you a few things if you keep your eyes open. Not too long ago I would have been very reluctant to share my thoughts like this – mostly out of a fear of public ridicule. I feel more confident now so that is good. There are challenges that part of me would like to try to do – I would like to pack it all up and do some more international service work for example. However, I need to temper that ambition with my family needs and right now we need to stay here. So, ultras help to satisfy that part of me. I would like to do more advocacy work locally, although I am still struggling with how that will look and whether I need to start-up my own organization or should I tie in with an existing group. So, no immediate plans, although I am continually thinking about new ways to stretch myself.
Could you please explain to those who have never run 100 miles how that act leads to peace of mind?
I think a lot of people who don’t run ultras think it must be just a painful suffer-fest. It isn’t. At least not for me. There are parts when I am sore and it might hurt to stand up if I sit down (the lesson there is to never sit down if you can avoid it!). But the big thing is that I just get really tired. My muscles are tired and my mind is tired and that is the hard part. So, set that aside, and what do you do for the hours and hours that you are out there. Part of the time is spent in race maintenance like “how far to the next aid station?” and “when should I eat next?” but the other 95% of the time is just free thought. You are unplugged, out in the woods, hanging it over the line, and mostly alone. So, the peace of mind is once your legs have figured out what you want them to do and they keep doing it on some meta-autopilot, then your mind is free to roam. Rehash old conversations, reconsider old decisions, wonder what if, what if, what if? Repeat phrases like a mantra and that leads to some new frontiers in the mind. It really depends on what you are working on, what you are looking for, what brought you to the 100 to start with. I like to think that very few of us are racing out there, even the people on the podium. Most of us are working through stuff and our therapy is called “trail ultras.” This is why the camaraderie is so awesome.
I think this “therapy of trail ultras” is unspoken and understood by lots of us, and so we have so much respect for everyone we are out there with. We know that lots of us are working on stuff and doing it beautifully.
The therapy of trail ultra’s. What a beautiful expression. What have you worked through or found out in the woods?
This is hard to say. I have worked a lot on what I am supposed to be doing on this planet. I have thought a lot about my role as a father and what I can do to best support my two daughters and to help them grow up to be strong individuals. I think about what are the negative pieces of my life and how can I isolate them and keep them at arm’s length. Without going into too much detail, I wrestle with issues of anxiety, mild depression and self-esteem. I don’t start a run and tell myself “Today I am going to unpack my self esteem issues.” I just go on the run and as Cat Stevens said “I’m on the road to find out.” I will be listening to some music or a podcast and something will pop into my head and I will turn off the music or whatever and just hash out what it is. Sometimes I revisit old conversations I have had with people or create new ones and imagine where they will lead. There is no empirical formula for my process. Just letting the mind wander and settle on what it wants to work with.
I find the 100 mile distance very spiritual. What is your feeling on that word and that race?
I totally agree. There is a lot of room out there on the trail to wrestle with your issues that are keeping you from being the best version of yourself. So, you can get into a good meditation, a good mantra, a good mental space. This lowers your affect and I think opens up a spiritual plane that you can get into. And you are out in the woods. I think of the title of that Peter Matthiessen book — At Play in the Fields of the Lord — and that is sort of what goes on out there. Last Fall at the Superior 100 my mantra was this three-part chant: “Lord lift me up. Lord make me strong. Lord help me do what you’ve blessed me to do.” I pulled that out on some of the tough hill climbs and technical rock hopping. It helped me keep a spiritual thing going on while I was physically up against it. As I mentioned earlier I struggle with my “purpose in life.” A few years ago I had the revelation – a long time coming – that maybe my gift, my calling, is being able to run for a long time. If this is indeed my “gift” it leads to more nebulous questions. If God blessed me with the ability to run like I can, then to what end should I use it? Of course running just for my own pleasure and self-aggrandizement is not a good use of my gift. However, it does make every run a celebration of my blessing. Like an extended prayer. So, how can I use it to help others? A few years ago I got involved with the group Defeat the Stigma which worked to raise awareness for mental illness issues. I was an “ambassador runner” for them and wore Defeat the Stigma gear in races and spread the message of mental health advocacy whenever I could. I felt like that was a great use of my gift and that was very satisfying. Last Fall the group broke apart and so I have been casting about for a new cause to rally my running around.
I get great spiritual benefit from using my running as a vehicle for helping others.
Meister Eckhardt said, If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” Can you describe your gratitude for your ability to run like you do?
That’s a great quote right there. And who do you say Thank You to? Certainly thank you God for the blessing of being able to run. But also thank you to everyone who has helped me along the way from my coaches in high school, to my parents who still come to my races, to teammates, to Chris Swenke who has tirelessly crewed and paced me through my best ultra performances, to everyone in the aid stations who cheer and support me. I don’t know if I can describe my gratitude. I am very thankful that I can run like I do because it gives me a lot of satisfaction. I am not saying “Thank you because now I have some nice awards to decorate my trophy case”. I am very thankful not just to be able to run but that I have cultivated this gift. This is what I can do. It may not be much, but it is what I can do. Keith Haring is one of my favorite painters. He loved working with young artists and kids. He died young in 1990 and he knew he was dying when he said “I will paint as much as I can for as many as I can for as long as I can.” My running will not have nowhere near as big an impact as he had, but I will run for as long as I can for as many as I can for as long as I can.
Why do you want to help others with your gift?
What else are you supposed to do with a gift?
I don’t usually get asked back a question, so I feel compelled to answer. I’m not sure as humans we are always capable of recognizing our unique gifts, so I feel sometimes they are wasted and not shared. I also can make an argument that some humans with extraordinary gifts use them in ways that do not help humanity and the betterment of this world. I also believe that someones gift can also be their tormentor and can cause an individual much pain and suffering on others.
Let me try this question. Why do you want to help people?
I think about my great-uncle and his “Greatest Generation” who survived the depression, won the war and then went to work. That was their accomplishment. I would argue that it was a goal of many of my parent’s generation to “Make more money than your parents”. This stemmed from that 1950s-60s sense that science and financial gain is a great way to mark progress. So, what was handed to our generation? We could pick up where they left off and “Make more money than our parents” but I think a more important goal is “To be better people than our parents.” This is not to say that our parents were bad people, but what other goals should we set? Financial goals are so cold and empty and in the end no one cares how much money you made. So, I want to have a human-based goal. I want to leave my little corner of the planet a better place because I was here. I think if everyone did that we would be able to hand a better world on to our children and grandchildren. Helping others makes me a better person.
I can’t give you the math formula for that, so don’t ask me to prove it. It is something I just know to be true.
What do you believe is the best version of you? How will you know or will you never know?
When you can look in the mirror and know you are doing the best you can. When you feel confident that you made the best choices you could with the information you had. This extends to interactions with others but also to your own life. For example, I read a fair amount about vegetarian and plant-based diets and how they are so much better for you. So three years ago I became a vegetarian. Since then I have been shuffling towards a completely plant based or vegan diet, but I’m not there yet. Knowing what I know about healthy choices and the animal agriculture industry, I think that is the best version of me diet-wise. My children are important to me and I think the best version of me works to give them experiences that will help them grow as individuals and value our family time, so I work on that. As you know, my friends are also important to me so the best version of me works on setting up times to meet up with them and to spend quality time together. Just this year I have tried to make a commitment to make more real connections with people via phone calls and get-togethers rather than just making comments on social media sites.
You used the word meditation. I love that word attached to running. Can you describe what that means to you?
For me it is just that mellow hum you get in your head during a long run when your legs are doing their thing and your mind is free to wander a little. I do some more traditional meditation where I sit and work on breathing and relaxation and as odd as it sounds, I can get to a similar space out on a long run.
This does not sound odd to me. I also did traditional meditation but found the longer I ran, the more I got into a deeper meditative state. Running is my meditation. I tend to go empty mind, no thoughts. You seem to wander and work things out. Can you explain the process that happens in your head? Who are you talking to and why?
I am not sure how to describe the process. One thing I have worked on for many years – in therapy and on my own – is negotiating with my inner critic. An inner critic can be helpful… it is the voice that says “hey now, is this the best course of action?” So, it’s good to listen to that voice, but when you feed it a lot it can start pushing some boundaries, and it isn’t too long before it is saying “Hey now, you are a complete fraud and it is only a matter of time before you are found out.” So, taming that voice can be a full-time job.
When I am running it is usually a good time to redefine the role of the critic and to send it back to its little office at the top of the stairs and not out on the main floor.
When someone asks you what do you do, what is your answer?
It depends on the situation. Usually I just tell them I am an elementary school teacher. That satisfies most people. If they have an interest in education I tell them more about my school and that I teach in a Spanish immersion fifth grade. This leads to discussions of family and it might come up where my children go to school. I may also talk about how I learned Spanish while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer and still love to travel. I usually don’t lead with “I’m an ultra-runner!” I feel like that is more of a means to an end. I do ultra-runs because it helps my peace of mind, I love the community, and it keeps me young at heart.
What drove you to do peace corps work and what did you learn from that experience?
I can remember being interested in the Peace Corps in high school. I saw some flier or poster somewhere. So it was always in the back of my mind. I have struggled my whole life with wondering what it is I am supposed to do with my life. I know people hear of people who had a clear idea of what they wanted to do professionally since they were 10, or at least by the time they finished with college. I have never had that clear vision. So, I was finishing up my undergraduate work. I had a double major in Biology and Latin American Studies. I wasn’t interested in going to work in a lab or pursue a graduate degree at the time, so the Peace Corps seemed like a good way to do something exciting and interesting and perhaps give myself 2 more years to figure my life out. After two years things were not much clearer. No grand revelation as I sat and watched sunsets in the Andes. I am still learning things from that experience though. The best education came from the people I met there. First of all, if you go to the Peace Corps you expect to have a lot of cross cultural experiences and live in situations that challenge your perspective and cause you to re-evaluate your world view. This certainly happened. But an unexpected piece came from the other Americans I met during our training and the two years of service. I got to know people from all over the United States and this was very informative. Rural folks, city folks, older people, younger people. There was a real mix of us. To this day many of us stay in touch and we get together for reunions every few years. One of my Peace Corps pals put it this way: We are a community of people who shared a time/space/experience that has bonded us forever. And just saying that sort of explains it, but it runs a lot deeper than that.
So, perhaps there was a grand revelation… my friends mean a lot to me. Those are the types of revelations I get though… none of them are “Go to law school!” or “Go start a business!”
You said you have struggled your whole life with wondering what it is I am supposed to do with my life. Has turning 50 shed any light on that view?
Funny you should ask. Right about when I turned 50 I read the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. It was about his work through the Southern Poverty Law Center with people on death row who have had almost no access to quality legal counsel. Many of these people are people of color who have traditionally been marginalized and have received the short end of the legal stick. Many of them also suffer from mental illnesses after years and years of being incarcerated and overcome with the sense of being left behind by society. I was very moved by the book and told myself that if I had read something like that in the early 90s I would have gone to law school and tried to work with people like that. Issues of justice and an equitable society have always intrigued me and I have thought about law school at different times. I just never connected the dots and thought “Oh, I could be THAT kind of lawyer…” I shared that story – in kid terms – with my fifth graders earlier this year as we were talking about what to do when you grow older. I said something like “I feel if I had done that then I could really help those people to have a good life.” One of my fifth graders, bless his heart, said “But now you’re here helping us to get ready to have a good life.” So, I guess that sheds some light on my choice. On one hand there is the lawyer for the SPLC reaching out to those falsely incarcerated, hitting a home run with every person who is exonerated and set free. On the other hand is the elementary school teacher getting up every day and teaching math, reading, and everything else for 30 years. Every day is like hitting a single, or striking out. But it is the grinding work of social justice. I do see my work as an educator in a much different light now than I did when I was younger.
After so many years and so many classes and so many students I just hope it has made some difference.
Buddhist’s believe we are all teachers and all students. That little boy seemed to gift you with a life lesson. If you reflect on your 30 years of teaching, what have you learnt from your students? What difference have they made in your life?
I think my students have taught me a lot about being in the moment and about starting each day fresh. On another level I have learned that there are some students who resonate with me – we share a similar sense of humor, we enjoy the same sorts of books, we share intellectual curiosity. Those students are fantastically easy to teach. I think when I was a younger teacher I would point to those kids and think “They get what I am trying to do in the classroom, what’s wrong with the rest of the students?” Well, what was wrong was that I wasn’t trying to meet their needs. I was a great teacher for the students who were on my wavelength, I was a little dismissive of the others.
Once I figured that out, I became a much better teacher. One image that I learned at some point was that of “meeting halfway.” We use that idea a lot when we are talking about building relationships with others.
What we forget is that often there is a power dynamic going on. Someone has more power or agency in the situation due to a variety of things. So it is not a level field and while it is still important to meet in the middle somewhere, it is a lot easier to come down the hill than it is to go up it. This means that it is incumbent on the person who has power (like the teacher, the boss, the parent, etc) to make more of an effort to reach out because they can. I will tell you it isn’t easy trying to connect with all of my students, but I no longer just focus on the ones I have an easy rapport with. I work hard and get out of my comfort zone and try to make our classroom a place where all the students feel some sense of place and belonging. Of course, in the classroom I have a professional obligation to teach all the students, and a community obligation to the parents who send their kids to me every day – they hope that their child will have a safe, fun, and enriching day – and I can facilitate that to a large extent. So, extend that to the rest of my life. I think a lot more about power dynamics in relationships (me with my mechanic, me with my pastor, me with my paper delivery person, me with the librarian) and do what I can to climb the hill or come down the hill as needed. I also know that there are people with whom I resonate more and those with whom it just doesn’t come easy. It’s safe to say that my best friends and confidants come from the first group and while I have friends in the second group, they take a little more maintenance and attention.
Climbing up a hill or coming down a hill. Sounds a lot like an ultra race. You said is was easier to come down a hill. Isn’t that really only true when you let go and don’t fight yourself or the mountain or possibly the person?
Well, if we are still talking about human interactions, it is easier for the person who has the power in the relationship to compromise than to ask the person with less power to give something up. Of course it is easier on paper, but emotionally it is never easy to compromise. You do need to let go of more than just what you are offering as a compromise. You have to let go of your image of yourself with that resource.
I read this quote somewhere: “If you have lived with privilege than equality may feel like oppression.” This is so applicable here.
Take the so-called “War on Christmas”. I teach in public schools and I can remember a time when every school (sometimes every classroom) had a Christmas tree. I assume they were paid for by the school district with taxpayer money. Well, as we evolve as a more progressive and inclusive society we discover that there are many people who don’t celebrate Christmas (Jews, Muslims, 7th Day Adventists, atheists, etc). If we are serious about providing an equitable and inclusive educational setting then we need to not celebrate Christian holidays in public schools where we have a captive impressionable audience that shouldn’t be subjected to carols, gift exchanges, and stories of wise men following a star. Since Christians are the hegemonic majority in the country it is up to us to decide to keep those celebrations out of schools. That is an easy policy to pass at a board meeting, but the emotional backlash can be considerable. Families will call in wanting clarification. Many will feel like it is a personal attack on their traditions. They will call it an “attack” and that they feel “oppressed for their beliefs.” I imagine you have all heard these comments circulating. This all happens because we try to level the playing field. Christians who have lived for generations surrounded by celebrations of their faith being on exhibit in all parts of their communities are suddenly told that certain areas will be secularized. As I mentioned before, the Christians in this example need to reimagine themselves as people who don’t celebrate Christmas at school, or work or wherever. They still have Christmas and their special traditions; they just don’t have it everywhere. This issue was a hard one for me. My Christian faith is very important to me and for a long time I had the attitude of: “We live in a democracy… MOST of the people here celebrate Christmas so we should put up a tree.” I probably held onto this well into my 30s. Then I had a change of heart and reconsidered what our school’s mission was, and how we shouldn’t create a climate where any student is purposely excluded. Of course we don’t live in a democracy. We are something like a “Federal constitutional republic founded on democratic principles.” It’s never easy right? There is the old saying that in a democracy two wolves and a sheep get to vote on what’s for dinner. That was my attitude before. Now I know that if we are to move forward as a society then we need to have the wolves advocate for the sheep’s interests. Like you said, you have to let go and don’t fight it. This can be so hard for some people and for some issues that may resonate to your core.
It is hard for us to reimagine ourselves as better people after we change so we resist the change and the compromise.
You sound very philosophical and I say that with respect and admiration. Do you have any teachers or schools of thought that influence your path?
I don’t subscribe to one “school of thought” or “spinner of adages”, but I do enjoy reading and get inspired by different sources. I don’t think there is one person to whom you could attribute the quote “have no expectations” but I try to keep that in mind. I do not interpret “Have no expectations” as “Have no goals.” I have goals and standards that I try to shoot for and sometimes I get there and sometimes I fall short, but they are still there. Also, “Have no expectations” doesn’t mean “why bother preparing…” Another quote I am fond of I first heard attributed to Dwight Eisenhower although I have heard it linked to others as well. He said something like
“Before a battle, there is nothing more valuable than planning. Once the battle begins there is nothing more useless than plans.”
I interpret this to mean that I should do my work, train, prepare, think it all out, get ready. But once the race (or whatever the undertaking is) begins, you have to react and adjust in real-time to what is going on. You may be able to work your plan and execute as you expected, but more likely than not, there will be some bumps in the road and you will have to swerve and adjust and figure out how to go forward. There is the great quote from Basil King: “Be bold and great forces will come to your aid.” In the movie Almost Famous this is misattributed to Goethe which makes good copy because more people have heard of Goethe than Basil King, but It was King. My friend Todd Rowe has recrafted this to “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid station” which is also inspiring. I think of this quote along with the one by Robert Browning “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”
Finally there is this one by Thomas Jefferson: “If you want something you’ve never had then you must prepare to do something you’ve never done.”
All of these encourage me to raise my sights a little and set higher goals. With these in mind it was easier to take the plunge and run a 100 miler and do other ultras. Another consistent source of inspiration for me is the bard of Asbury Park, Bruce Springsteen. I appreciate his lyrics and while he doesn’t run ultras, he writes about the virtues of getting up each day and going to work and that there is some redemption at the end and if you keep the faith and do the work then you will get to the promised land. Of course, it may be different from you expected and may not end up as you supposed it would, but those were your expectations (see the first quote I mentioned). There will be redemption, just not always what you were anticipating. Finally, there is the old classic “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” but I will follow that up with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians “Run the race as to win.”
Have you considered joining the 200 mile club?
I can run and finish a 100 in a long weekend. I am still able to go to work on Monday. I think a 200 miler would take a huge piece of me from a physical perspective and a family/work perspective. I try to balance both my running with my family and work responsibilities and I think a 200 miler would really tip the scales. Yes, I would be very intrigued by pushing into and through a second (or third?) night, but it is not in the plans right now.
What is your relationship with fear when you toe the line for an ultra?
I don’t think “fear” is on the menu when I am lining up at the start. I have fears in the days/weeks before the event. Did I pack enough? Did I train enough? And there is a little immature competitive part of me that is worried about not making a good show out there; like people will be sorely disappointed if I don’t light it up. I know from direct experience that the same number of people will love me whether I do great or DNF after one lap, but the “sin of pride” still drives me a little. At the start though, I am giddy and excited to get out there. The energy in the starting area is palpable and I can ride that for the first few miles.
Maybe it is fear for some people but I think it is raw human potential!
You have broken the 24 hour mark for the 100, by a lot. Do you have a time you would like to achieve at that distance?
I don’t have a goal time for the 100. I think my days of chasing PRs and time goals are behind me. Not that I can’t train and beat my 100 time from last year, it just isn’t a priority. I want to run 100s to push myself and run my race. If that ends up with a great time then all the better, if I end up just under the cutoff, then it is still better than sitting around the house. Another factor is that the 100, in my opinion, is such a date and location specific race. You can’t compare a time at Zumbro to a time at Superior to a time at Hard Rock. They are such different races because of terrain, time of year and elevation. Also, I am not going to compare my effort last year at Zumbro to any other year because the weather was perfect. I don’t think I even put on a windbreaker last year. I ran all night with just a long sleeve shirt. I may run this year in wind pants and a turtleneck. Compare that to a road marathon. Although some courses are known to be “fast”, if you break 3 hours at Grandma’s then you can probably break 3 at Twin Cities or New York or Chicago. They become a little generic in that sense. Each hundred in comparison is its own unique adventure.
What is the toughest race you have run and why?
It is hard to say for sure, but there are parts of several races that were very difficult. First of all, Zumbro 100 in 2013 was very snowy and muddy and I dropped out as I mentioned before. That was hard mentally and spiritually. It shook up my self-image I had developed of myself as a gritty runner. I had to retool that image and rethink what I needed to do if I was going to be that person. Last year at the FANS 24 hour run was probably the hardest physically. It was very hot all day. It was in the mid to high 70s with early June humidity. I remember feeling like I was trying to solve a puzzle of hydration and nutrition all day. I didn’t want too much that would make me nauseous and didn’t want too little that would leave me tapped out.
I managed to work through it all (I ended up puking somewhere after midnight oddly enough) but it was a tough battle.
Do you have a race that calls you? A race that speaks to you and tells you, you have to run it? And why?
There are some destination races I would like to try. I am very interested in Hardrock and Western States but destination races like that would take too big of a bite out of our vacation budget. I also really enjoy reading about some different international races. I think it would be extremely fun to do an ultra in another country and to see what their race culture is like and share some trail camaraderie with people with whom I may not even have a common language. One race that looks really interesting to me is the Big Backyard Ultra that Laz Long puts on in Tennessee. It is a 4.2 mile course and you need to complete it in an hour and start a new one at the top of every hour. There is one winner who is chosen once everyone else DNFs. I think it would be fun because you could run the lap with friends and conversation or with your head down and at a good clip. I think it would be a very social race. There is a similar race in Duluth starting this year (June 9th) called “Last Runner Standing.” I may try to do that someday.
If you could speak to 25-year-old Doug what would the soon to be 52-year-old Doug say to him?
My first thought is that I would tell him to spend another year in the Peace Corps! The usual Peace Corps hitch is 2 years but you are able to extend your service for up to 5 years. I wish I had stayed one more year at least. I was living in a really nice little mountain village and the 6 months before I left were perhaps the most productive of my whole tenure. But I was 25 and was ready to “get on with my life…” I didn’t realize that my life was getting on already and there I had this awesome opportunity to live another year in the rural Andes, but I wanted to throw that over so I could “get on with my life”! There are always other forks in the road that maybe I should have taken and looking back I might wish I had made choice B instead of choice A. But, I have two girls who came into our lives through adoption. And I am very hesitant to tinker with any formula that brought them to me. Next to “I am supposed to be a runner” I have this ironclad belief that “I am supposed to be my daughters’ dad.” So, there is that. I guess I would just try to tell the younger Doug to relax and enjoy the ride a little bit; that things were going to work out pretty well.
I would also tell him to not take that stupid telemarketing job I did in Seattle for 2 months. That was a real waste of time.
If you could be reincarnated what would you come back as and why?
I haven’t read a lot about reincarnation but one thing I read once is that you are reincarnated as something that forces you to address an area of weakness in your former life. The loner or anti-social person comes back as an ant or bee. The humble pack mule comes back as a celebrity pop icon. If there is something like reincarnation then that seems to be a good rationale for it. So, maybe I would come back as a tree – something sedentary and stoic that has life moving around him rather than me moving through life. Maybe I would come back as a reclusive accountant or some task oriented number cruncher who doesn’t draw energy from community. I don’t think people get to choose what they come back as because then literally all the good spots will be taken. If I could choose though, I would probably want to be some sort of raptor. I think it would be really cool to see the world from a whole new perspective.
If you could write the 3 opening sentences to your eulogy what would you like it to say?
This is difficult for me because I don’t want to sound self-congratulatory or prideful. I think I might go back to that Keith Haring quote and try to work in something like “He did as much as he could for as many as he could for as long as he could.” But that makes it sound like my life is all about service and I certainly have my selfish times. So, maybe I would go another route like “Doug did the best he could at being a good husband, father and friend. He loved his family and his friends and wanted to leave his part of the world a little better for him having passed by. He also loved a good joke.”
Maybe that sounds boring but pretty much sums it up.
Doug Kleemeier Husband, Father, Friend, Ultrarunner.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the nicest badasses I’ve ever met.
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amen brother. amen.
Doog’s the man! The HS runners I coach are loving these quotes and words of wisdom.
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Thank you for reading and sharing Doug’s words with others. Especially a younger generation. Doug the teacher! Namaste
I read this yesterday and thought I posted a comment. But old age must be setting in😂. Loved this interview! You guys are all awesome! 💚
Thank you for reading. Very grateful. Doug is an amazing human. It was a privilege to chat with him.