|John Sharp - runner, philosopher, good friend|
If I had to think of one word to describe John Sharp, that word would be "genuine". He's just a larger than life character - a big, affable, generous, funny guy with a big heart. If John is around and you can't see him, you will definitely hear him. People like him are the reason I enjoy trail running.
I first met John during the Rocky Raccoon 50 mile race in February 2008. We exchanged some friendly smack talk in the last few miles and finished within a minute of each other, enjoying a good laugh about it at the finish line. It's a trick we repeated at the Austin marathon two weeks later, despite not having seen each other once during the race. Our friendship grew from there - we've run a few races, relays and training runs together, and I had the honor of pacing him at one of his 100 mile finishes at Cactus Rose last year.
John's writing is very open, up-front and challenging. Knowing him, I expected nothing less.
Oh, and good luck at Hardrock Sharpie - go get 'em boy.
When I'm Running
by John Sharp
You know how, sometimes, you have things on your mind that you just need to work out? Recently, a friend and running buddy of mine asked for guest writers to contribute to his blog for his “Other Voices” series. He asked for volunteers to write about running and fitness and how those things had made an impact on their lives, etc… It just so happens that for the last few months I felt I wanted to write a little on running and what it means to me. Like a sort of, “WHY or WHAT FOR”, so to speak. I couldn’t really discern an exact "why" or "what for" as I thought about what I would say. So my approach in this essay is to talk about what goes through my mind when I run. When you start thinking about something, ideas flood at you all at once, and it’s hard to make heads or tails out of it. But, sometimes there is a singular moment of clarity which comes at you, and in a flash it’s gone. For that instant you are at peace with yourself and with your surroundings.
In August of 2007 I was unhappy with myself. I finally came to the realization, that I was an alcoholic. Yea, I went to work on time, I had recently finished a BA in management, owned my own home, etc… But, alcohol, I could do that, and I liked it, a lot. Eighteen liters of single malt in 3 weeks once. I never really investigated what it means to be an alcoholic or how you come to be one, or what distinguishes one from some intermediate state. But, what I did know is that I was not happy with the kind of person that I was. We were in D.C., my sister and I, we were doing morning jogs around the capital mall, and I decided that I would run a marathon before I turned 30. That is when I started on the road to recovery, the road I am still on.
Theory of Forms: One of my hobbies is reading western philosophy, particularly classical philosophy. Yea, that probably sounds pretty boring to most folks, but I picked up my first book of philosophy when I was fifteen. Do I know a whole lot? Not really, but it’s enjoyable. On a run one day I was started thinking about Plato’s theory of forms. Like there is a perfect triangle, but when you draw one, it’s never perfect. Or a circle or any other geometrical shape. The form though, is perfect. That got me to thinking about myself. If we are unique in the eyes of God and we are created in his image, then we have a perfect form. But, when you look at yourself or others around you, you notice blemishes. I noticed plenty of blemishes about myself, how I am selfish, narcissistic, and who knows what else. I felt that there was a better me inside, but I was hiding it, to my own detriment. Why? Not sure, but it probably has a lot to do with ego. When I run far enough for long enough, the ego goes away and what’s left is something that is closer to my true form. That me that wants to cry when I am sad, instead of hold it in. That me that wants to help my fellow man. Not because of what I get from it, but from a true sense of compassion. That me that can let another runner finish a race ahead of me and not try to belittle his accomplishment. Some may say, “Well that isn’t what a man does.” Humm, maybe. But, I think “What is a man who can not allow himself the full range of his own emotions?” That is the me that I want to be every day, the me that lives up to the virtues of fidelity, truth, courage and magnanimity.
Choices and Opportunity Costs: Over a series of runs, I started kicking around this idea of choices and opportunity costs. In life, sometimes it’s the choices you make, and sometimes it’s the choices you don’t make. I was trying to talk a friend of mine into signing up for a half-marathon. He was undecided, saying things like “Jeez, its like $80!” Yea, sure it is, but when you cross that finish line for the first time, the feeling you get, you’d pay $1,000 for. Because it’s not the $80, it’s all the things you had to give up to get to the finish line. You know, with the training you have to do, the lifestyle choices you have to make which will allow you to get to that finish line. You have to train, maybe not eat that greasy food when you really want it. All the sacrifices you make leading up to the point where you cross that finish line, that is what makes it worth it. Maybe it’s not the finish line you cross, maybe it's the new car you forego, so that you can save for your kids college. When they cross that stage, you cross your finish line.
Hero: Everybody wants to be that Hero that saves the world. Not many of us get the opportunity where circumstances put us in that place that we can “save the world”. I thought about this one time while I was running. But you have the opportunity to be a hero everyday. I think that for each one of us, we are a hero to someone. Whether it be to a friend, a child, a neighbor, niece, nephew or maybe a complete stranger. One of my heroes or, rather, heroine is a lady from California named Catra Corbett. She is now fifteen years clean and sober. She is an ultra runner. I have only met her twice, but what an example. Or Dick Beardsley, give his book a read. What an inspiration. For me, both of these folks were complete strangers but they have made a huge impact on my life. Other heroes are Joe Prusiatis and Allen Wrinkle. Joe is my coach, he ran Hardrock and Badwater (these are ultramarathons, the hardest, toughest 100 and 135 miles races, respectively) in the same week! Allen ran 203 miles in 68 hours once! Wow!!!
Other heroes for me are 1st Sergeant Jacob Walls. He was my first team chief back in ’96 when I was in the Army. I looked up to Sergeant Walls. We used to have pushup competitions in the motor pool in Germany. I think we did 150 consecutive pushups one day, a challenge. Or Coach Pensik, he gave us a speech once during half-time at a football game which we were losing, against a town called East Bernard. He talked about, effort and hustle. He said, “What, do you think Earl is gonna make the tackle?” Who the hell Earl was, I still don’t know (maybe Earl Campbell) but what we realized is, if we don’t hustle we aint gonna win. We each have an opportunity to change the world, one person at a time, by our example. By our zest for life, our desire to seek out the best of every situation and make the most of it.
Validation and Self-Confidence: I have thought about this idea quite a bit while running. My conclusions may or may not be valid but I have hit upon a few ideas that seem to resonate with me. I think that what drives a large majority of human behavior is the seeking of validation due to a lack of self confidence. We choose to do some things like college, career, or relationships, not because it’s what is true to our own nature, but because we are seeking validation. Validation from a significant other, a mother, a father, or some idol that we choose which we think will validate us. What does validate mean in this sense? To me it means, if I do this thing then I will earn respect, acceptance, etc… Then I will be complete as a human being. We seek this validation because we are not sure who we are, what we mean, and what our significance is in this world. We feel that if someone can just tell us, then all will be well. Maybe so, maybe not so. For me, the biggest thing is the recognition of what underlying desires drives my action? Have you given any thought to this? Try it sometime, you may be surprised as to the answers you come up with.
For a long time, and sometimes still, what drives my actions, whether it is power lifting, body building (back in the old days), drinking, dancing or running is validation. I was seeking validation because of low self-confidence. Through running I was able to find self confidence, maybe it was the self-confidence I lost, or the self-confidence I never had. It happened to me at about mile 87 of my third attempt at a 100 mile run. I sat in the aid-station tent for two hours wanting to quit. I didn’t give up, even though I had already given up in my mind. I finished that run that day, and a good friend, Mark Richards, ran about 45 miles with me. Another good friend, Bill Johnson, came to watch me finish. I am glad I didn’t quit. A month later, that’s when I realized how important that day was for me. I was at the same place, Hill Country State Natural Area, and I had an epiphany while running. Funny, now that I try to recall it I don’t remember a damn thing about what I was thinking. But life was simple, clear, I finally understood. I was confident in myself and who I am for the first time in my life. It was during a training run, and after 15 miles I had to quit and walk 5 miles back to my truck because of my hip flexors and I was okay with it. I didn’t feel like a puss. It was the best 1.5 hours of my life and I was all alone. What a beautiful day.
Courage: Courage is a word of French origin. Something about the heart, I am not sure exactly and I don’t feel like looking it up just now. What is courage? It is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, or pain without fear. I went out to Lake Tahoe in July of 2008 for my second attempt at a 100 mile run, a run that I didn’t finish. A month before this run, I had just run my first 100 miler. Running a 100 miler is crazy, that’s all I can say. But I wish everyone could do it, so that one could experience the life changing experiences one has when one runs one. The two weeks after my first 100 I got drunk everyday and smoked cigarettes. Yea, I know, you are thinking, “This guy is a freaking douchebag!” But, drinking was/is how I cope, it’s what I know can “fix” it. Well, I was sitting at work on a Saturday and started thinking about courage and what it means to me. Courage is one of my four “cardinal virtues”. I thought, I have to run this thing. I signed up for it, I know now how bad it’s gonna hurt, but I gotta do it. So, I bought my plane ticket finally. I was sitting at a restaurant in Carson City, Nevada the day before the race and decided to call my friend Bill Conway. We have been friends since ’97, and have grown a lot together over the years. He is like my older brother. He had recently become a Christian, which he still is, and I noticed a change in his approach to life. Some things I agreed with, some not. But, he was better for it, not only as a friend but as a person in general. I wanted to discuss with him this idea of courage. I says, “I think that if there is a God, then he favors courage over obedience.” Maybe I was coming out of left field, but it made sense to me. Courage, as we defined earlier, is a quality which allows one to face pain without fear. So, take for example, Jesus. Much courage he possessed as he drug his own cross to his own crucifixion. Obedience will not get you there, but I think courage will. I don’t remember what he said in response. But, I think about courage a lot. It takes courage to make a change in ones own behavior. To be able to step outside of yourself and ask tough questions. Who am I? Do I matter? What do my actions say about me? In what context am I making these decisions? It takes the most courage to give reasoned responses, and in most circumstances being honest with yourself.
My old boss, Brad Cooper, told me about the Mobile Theory. It’s a theory about a mobile, you know, the one above a baby’s crib with the little horses or whatever hanging from it. When you move one out of balance, all the rest of them try to put the protagonist back into its place. It’s what happens when you try to make some change in your life which makes those around you uncomfortable - they try to put you into the place where they recognize you. It takes courage not to be put back, to stay on your path and become the person you can be. The person that, in your heart, you know you can become.
These are the things I think about when I run. Among a whole host of others, but these are the leit motifs of my running thoughts. Do I have any answers? Probably not, but for me the most important thing is that slowly, surely I am on the road of self-discovery. Will I be a better person for it? Yea, I think so. I don’t drink as much now. I am more empathetic and compassionate. I value people now as an end of themselves, as opposed to a means of a selfish end. I have more patience now. I believe in the value of others and that everyone has something to offer. I talk less and listen more.