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Amy Donaldson: In finally finishing Squaw Peak 50, I learned some lessons about failure and living a brave life

Amy Donaldson poses for a photo at the Squaw Peak 50 miler in 2017.
Amy Donaldson poses for a photo at the Squaw Peak 50 miler in 2017.

PROVO — Failure is a necessary part of growth and evolution. It is, in fact, an integral part of any great achievement.

It is a truth shared so many times, in so many beautiful ways, that it seems obvious and easy.

But failure is also incredibly debilitating. Somehow it gets bigger, heavier and more humiliating the longer you wrestle with it. Eventually, it feels defining.

It feels like the truth.

And somewhere, deep in your heart, a resignation takes hold, and it asks you, begs you, quite reasonably, to just accept it as reality.

And deciding what is real and what is possible suddenly becomes very difficult.

Saturday, I meant to make my reality more clear. I meant to banish some demons that have haunted me for two years.

Three years ago I had my first DNF (did not finish) in a race of any kind at the Squaw Peak 50-miler. It was disappointing, but a conversation with Olympian Jared Ward for a story gave me some peace and perspective.

I would, I decided, sign up for the 2017 race and prove myself capable of finishing. Unfortunately, I failed even more miserably last year, and this time, the demons got louder, more critical, and their hold has been much more difficult to escape.

Over time the negativity seeped into how I viewed my athletic ability to my mental fortitude. Then it began to bleed into my work, my goals, and one day I woke up and realized the stench of failure just seemed like a part of everything I did, every day.

It’s not like my life was awful. It just wasn’t brave. Instead of making conscious choices, I was reacting and just surviving.

So a few months ago, I decided I would battle Squaw Peak one more time.

Saturday was the day I was determined to prove my resilience and banish my demons. It turned out to be the day I realized courage has little to do with how much physical pain you can endure.

As one runner told me as we discussed the fact that some days you just struggle from start to finish, “Like they say, running is like life. If you’re struggling, keep going because it will get better. If you feel great, enjoy it because that won’t last either.”

My training was not as good as the first year I attempted the race, in part because I spent a month in South Korea covering the Winter Olympics. I didn’t have training partners, like I did in past successes, but maybe the most difficult reality to overcome was the way my failures permeated my usual optimism.

Instead of being energized by training runs, I always felt a tinge of “This isn’t good enough.” I started to do exactly what Jared Ward told a group of high school runners not to do.

Ward told the runners attending a meet-and-greet at Wasatch running that you have to run your own race. During the Olympic trials he had a plan, and it appeared the leaders might pull away from him, and he briefly thought about abandoning his plan. He decided to run his race, the one his body needed, and the one that gave him the best chance to make his first Olympic team. It worked.

In fact, it worked so well, he went to the 2016 Summer Games and shocked most people with a top 10 finish.

Comparisons are a large part of the reason we get into trouble. But it is also an almost unavoidable reality of any kind of athletic training.

It could be valuable if we were machine like in our ability to take in helpful or new information and not beat ourselves up with it. Or, if someone’s advice doesn’t work for us, understand that there are many paths to success and we have to choose what works for us.

But what happened to me was a lot of self-doubt and criticism. I couldn’t get it out of my head that the race has a 90 percent success rate, and for some reason, I couldn’t seem to make the only cutoff at mile 33.

Still, no moment was tougher or felt more negative than my desire to bail on race day. I laid in bed for about 10 minutes running through a list of excuses I could use to justify not showing up. Even as I was getting ready, I was trying to find exits.

Two things kept me moving to the start line — the knowledge that I could more easily live with another DNF than my first-ever DNS (did not start), and a yearning to live brave, even if it was just for one day.

I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve suffered so long — 18 hours, 45 minutes and 52 seconds — both mentally and physically in my life. Most of the time, there are moments where the suffering subsides, and you feel strong, free and almost feel a little superhuman.

I never felt that Saturday.

The Squaw Peak course is beautiful. It is also pretty brutal. The viciousness of it is that while it features more than 14,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, with five major climbs ranging from 1,100 feet to nearly 3,000 feet, the most demanding climb comes about 36 miles into the race. Luckily, I’d latched onto Ruthie and Royce Veater, who were running with their pacer, Bonnie. We moved slow but steady, and it was nice to just enjoy some company, as I’d spent the 10 miles before the cutoff inside my own head, desperately battling with myself about whether or not I’d finally make the cutoff.

As we rested in one of the few shady spots (amid ants and bugs and decaying feces), we shared some food and stories, and I realized that there isn’t anything, the best experiences or the worst ordeals, that aren’t improved with affection and friendship.

I left them at Windy Pass Aid Station (the highest point on the course) because I knew I needed to get to the finish. My body was shutting down, and I knew I couldn’t bear to drop out at this point.

But running the last 9-ish miles alone was almost as difficult as the final 10 miles before the cutoff.

I started to do exactly what Ward advised us not to do. I started thinking about my faster, more athletic or more accomplished friends, and I started to feel like an interloper, a pretender. I started to feel like I didn’t belong in this race — or any race.

As I started to shiver in the dark, I realized I needed to find a more positive mindset or I might become the first person to drop out at mile 47. Then, one after another, I started thinking of all the acts of kindness I’d experienced throughout the day. From the aid station workers who filled my pack with ice and water, offering me a hug and encouragement, to the fortuitous timing of a pacer and runner passing as I struggled to put my shoe back on my foot after riding it off a rock.

I felt like a stinky, sweaty Cinderella, and as I ran in the dark, I laughed thinking that only in an ultra could you find people willing to jam a shoe on a filthy foot, discuss bowel movements, or share life-altering experiences.

As I thought of the conversations I’d engaged in or those I’d just listened to as I ran, and I took great joy in reliving the details of how running saved people or succored them, how they found peace or better health in physical challenges, and how goodness is all around us if we just notice.

As I approached the finish line, I saw my husband and stepson standing nearby in the dark, and I burst into tears. At first I didn’t know why. But it was what I’d been feeling all day — gratitude for the support.

It isn’t the big sweeping gestures that change lives, it’s the small stuff. It’s giving up a Saturday to help people like me banish some demons. It’s volunteering to run as a pacer just so you can see someone else accomplish a goal. It’s a sweaty hug from a friend you only see at races, but who always makes you smile.

It was only after a long walk helped me sort out some very complex feelings, that I realized that I had something besides another 50-mile finish to celebrate. I did not feel great Saturday. It was a hard day, start to finish, in every conceivable way. But I didn’t hide from my fear or the reality that I could have had another failure.

I tried.

And, as my new friend Royce repeatedly reminded us during the most painful parts of our miles together, the only way to accomplish something great is one step at a time, by continuing to move, however slow, forward.

When you do that with a purpose or a goal, whether it’s in athletics or life, you find yourself living brave. And that, in this moment, is my truth as I realize that finally finishing Squaw Peak was really about defeating my own demons.