By Jeff Bryan
Face to face with the devil that you’ve been dreadin’
Eye to eye finally has arrived
But bad as it was, well now brother wasn’t it better
Dealin’ with him face to face
– Garth Brooks
Editor’s Note: On June 1, 2002 , Jeff Bryan ran a controlled pace to win the Pennar 40 mile event in a time of 5:58:08 and to fully redeem himself and kick the devil in the shin one time.
Many times the toughest battles are the ones we fight in our minds. Reliving past personal defeats are usually the hardest. Time and again you play the tape. Backwards, forwards; fast, and slow. Always searching for an answer, hoping that there will be a next time. Constant doubts abound, echoing between your ears. Your inter-voice is always your toughest adversary. The hills of your mind are always longer and steeper than reality. The heat of the day is more intense, and the finish line never seems to be reached.
Everyone seems to have a memory of past adversity and/or failure burned into their mind. A race that has either forged them into becoming a better runner or quite possibly prevented them from becoming the runner they were destined to be. The movie that was playing in my mind’s cinema for the past year was the 2001 PENNAR 40 Mile Endurance Run. This is a 40 mile out and back run from Pensacola Beach to Navarre Beach that will make you question yourself repeatedly. Believe me when I say this, I have been questioning myself since last year and I’ve always considered my strength as a runner to be my mind and my relentless determination. To me personally, if Satan designed a race course then this would be it. How bad are the hills? There are no hills but you will badly wish for one. How bad is the heat? Ask anyone that has ever experienced PENNAR. They will assure you that it is brutal. The shadeless scenery along the beach course is simply incredible. The course winds through the pristine Gulf Island National Seashore. You are never more than a couple hundred yards from the water, the sight of which can mess with your mind. If the heat alone isn’t bad enough , then you throw in the birds. The terns are nesting at this time of the year and they tend to get very protective of their habitat. Many a runner over the years has become a victim of a well-orchestrated bombing run. So why would anyone choose to run this event?
This June, I chose to return to find some answers to some questions that have lingered since last year. At this time a year ago, I was an inexperienced ultra-runner with this event being only my second ultra. I took off with the expectation of running a 3:30 marathon pace and then holding on for the next 14 miles. It turns out that this is not a bright approach to take in sauna-like conditions. I have been asked if I hit the famous wall. I like to reply that I didn’t but that the wall hit me repeatedly. I still remember the pain and agony of those final 5 miles of the race. It has haunted my dreams and fed me with an internal fire for an entire year. This event was the only test in my life where I feel that I was pushed to the outer limits of my running. I have since run further than this. I have run more hills than this. But I have never experienced extreme temperatures as this.
It was with all of this in mind that I prepared myself and toed the line for the 2002 edition of PENNAR. An unknown author once said “Will is as important as skill. Feeling fear is normal – just don’t surrender to it”. My whole focus for the past year has been on returning to this event. Every race and every run was with PENNAR lodged firmly in my mind. I even adopted as my mantra: “unfinished business”. I found myself driven by the sense that there was something left to be completed and questions to be answered. What they were I didn’t totally know or understand but the search for the answers continued to spur me on.
I have determined through my running that there is an unlimited power of the mind. Buddhists believe that the mind must be systematically trained, focused, concentrated, and tempered by experience. I have been told by my mentor and fellow ultra-runner, Gary Griffin that you will learn something new about yourself in every ultra that you run and I have found that he has proven correct. I strongly believe that it takes a few ultras to develop the behavior and habits of the mind to guarantee any success in the sport of ultrarunning. Essential ingredients needed to accomplish this training include determination, effort, and time. Former Los Angeles Dodgers’ Manager, Tommy Lasorda once said: “The difference between the possible and the impossible lies in a person’s determination”. However, determination will only take you so far, reasonable expectations must also be established. If your expectations are too high, then you set yourself up for disappointment. If they are too low, then it diminishes your willingness to challenge your limitations and achieve your true potential. Thus to me, the challenge that PENNAR presents is reasonable, you must be able to overcome the extreme heat, isolation, and ultimately the 40 mile distance.
Legendary Alabama Football Coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant once said that “If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride and never quit, you will be a winner. The price of victory is high but so are the rewards.” I have learned that believing in yourself and never quitting are the fundamentals of ultra running and all running for that matter. Belief and tenacity go a long way towards achieving personal victories on the race course. You must always recognize the difficulties that you will encounter during a race and the fact that it may take time and a continued effort to finish the event. There are race courses out there that are designed to mess with your mind as well as punish your body. You can be successful in running or any vocation if you just believe in yourself and run your own race. Perseverance is the key. Never give up. The race is only lost when you tell yourself it’s lost. Always remember that face to face, the race course isn’t as tough as it is in the darkness of your mind.
September 15, 2002