γνῶθι σεαυτόν

My decision of whether or not to sign up for the Bear Mountain 50K comes right as two of my running friends have also been writing about ultras and self-confidence, though to very different ends.  Vanessa’s most recent post is brimming with positivity and published just before her first 100 mile race.  It’s all about not ever following the rules and doing what feels right and finding success.  Trisha’s, on the other-hand, is titled “Why I Might Not Run a 50K,” and is about the second-thoughts she’s having after signing up for her first ultra, and how she thinks she might not be ready for it yet.

As opposite as they seem, however, I think they share an essential truth — that running is about knowing yourself.  Vanessa writes:

I went from running in shoes to barefoot/minimalist almost overnight. I went from only street running to only trail running from one day to the next. I went from zero elevation in Toronto, to almost exclusively elevation runs in the mountains from Day 1 in San Diego. My first day on a mountain, I ran 20 miles. I had never been on a mountain in my life. I’ve broken all the rules.

Which is awesome and awe-inspiring and motivational — if she’d stuck to the “rules,” she might not be where she is today.  Of course, I tried to transition to minimalist shoes just a bit faster than the “rules” say and I gave myself an acute case of tendonitis.  The rules weren’t for Vanessa, and she knew that, so she could discard them — but the rules are there for a reason, and they might apply to a lot of people.

Trisha wrote about all the positivity she’s received from other runners encouraging her to try her first ultra, but that “the problem is that it’s easy to overestimate someone else’s endurance capacity if you’ve never run with them.”  All her friends don’t know her, where she is, what she is capable of.  And while self-confidence is great, self-knowledge is just as important.  You can’t run 50K on happy-thoughts and positivity: you actually have to run it on your own two legs.


I actually have a huge problem with the self-help guru mantra of “you can do anything” because the fact is you can’t — at least, not at this moment.  I can’t be President of the United States.  Maybe there was some point years ago when I could have pursued that path, but at this point were I to dedicate the rest of my life to becoming President, I’d be wasting all my time and effort.  Time and effort I could use pursuing achievable goals.  The same goes for conducting the London Philharmonic, or being Editor in Chief of Marvel Comics, or joining the US Olympic Team as a marathoner.  None are actually objectively impossible goals, but none are things I could accomplish from where I stand today.

Trying to run an ultra 6 years ago would have been idiotic, whereas today I think its a thrilling risk.  There has always been the theoretical possibility floating in the miasma of some theoretical future, but only because I have been running and working on my endurance has it become an actually concrete possibility.  It is possible for me to run a 100 mile race?  Not tomorrow.  In the future?  Yes, if I actually work towards it.  If I just say “gee, that would be fun” and never increase my running, never do any real training, and have nothing to support my fantasy other than inflated self-confidence and a lot of really supportive friends on Facebook, no, it won’t be possible.


As I said in my last post, I want a real challenge, something that I just might actually fail at.  I’ve looked at myself, my physical fitness, my determination, and decided that completing a rugged, 50K mountain race just might be possible.  Not guaranteed, but I’m willing run the risk of a DNF, to push that limit to what might be the braking point.  But I’m doing so with consideration and some degree of self-awareness.

In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes between stupidity and courage — throwing yourself off a building to your certain death isn’t brave, it’s stupid, because it doesn’t involve a calculated risk but a blind ignorance or denial of reality.  But most acts are not objectively one or the other: one man’s “courage” is another man’s “stupidity.” Starting a race like this might be brave for me, stupid for my co-worker, and just another Saturday jog for Jason.  I like to think that signing up for a race like the Bear Mountain 50K would show courage, not stupidity.  However, there is only one person who can know which it is and that’s myself, as I’m the only person who actually knows the factors at play.


Vanessa’s track record of success after success even while flying in the face of common-sense and “the rules” clearly shows she has courage.  If I’d tried the same path, however, I might be seriously injured.  And Trisha?  Is contemplating dropping her 50K a lack of self-confidence, an act of cowardice?  Or is it a smart decision, saving herself for future races and avoiding a pointless and painful failure?

She’s the only person who can answer that.

So while I’ll throw in my encouragement along with the rest of our motley tribe, I’d like to temper it with the immortal advice once inscribed at the enterance to the temple of Apolla at Delphi: γνῶθι σεαυτόν.  “Know thyself.”  Trisha, no one can tell you the right choice, because no one else can run those 31 miles except you.


About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
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5 Responses to γνῶθι σεαυτόν

  1. Wow – I feel like a celebrity now. Thanks Chris. A lot.

  2. Pingback: A Runner Puts Her (Bare)foot Down « Barefoot Monologues

  3. Well said Chris. Having just run with Trisha this past Sunday, I think she can do it but only she knows… (mysterious music).

    I know you can’t afford the time to drive to Maine but you are welcome to come up and hang with a bunch of hopefully not DNFers at Pineland.

    • Chris Van Dyke says:

      Thanks, Brad. I actually considered Pinelands last year, but again, the time with two small kids is too much. In a few years, when they’re older, I’ll join you guys. Looks like a beautiful course.

  4. Sally says:

    Another amazing post by Chris…you should totally write a book.I love your writing .And very very common sense ,I might add. I am in the same boat as Trish. Struggling to come out the othe rside of injury and figure out how far to push.Thanks Chris!

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