The format of this letter, which is meant to be a race report of sorts, was taken wholesale from NAZ Elite’s Scott Smith, who has recently taken to writing letters to his younger self on social media. Scott, thanks for giving me the means to talk about things that are hard for me to talk about otherwise.
Photo: Paul Nelson (IG: @trailjunkiephotos)
Dear Younger Eric,
It’s 2021 and you just finished the Western States Endurance Run for the second time. You finished in 23 hours and in 78th place back in 2018. You blew up really hard, man, but you gutted out a finish. Nice work. Then you dropped out of the race in 2019 at mile 85. You were really disappointed. The race was cancelled in 2020 because of a global pandemic. Crazy, right? You probably don’t know what a global pandemic is, younger Eric, but don’t worry, I didn’t either until recently.
This year, you finished a few clicks under 21 hours, and you were 13th male, 24th overall. It was really hot and the course chewed people up. But you stuck it out. The ladies tore through the course this year and you were rightfully very impressed.
You might be wondering how you got to run Western States three times. I know you know that it’s a hard race to gain entry to. Well, you earned Golden Tickets on three different occasions, which means you raced so well in qualifying races that you gained automatic entry into Western States each time. You should be really proud of that.
Do you remember when you first learned about the Western States 100? You probably do but I’ll remind you. You read a book calledUltramarathon Man, which your friend Eric Karaszewski gave to you. (You’ve probably thanked Eric for that kindness, but make sure you do it again next time you talk to him.) It was 2007 and you didn’t think about running Western States then, but you did start to run and you even ran as far as the marathon distance the next year. You’re a competitive guy, and I’m sure you know that, so it won’t surprise you to learn that you started running farther because you realized you could be more competitive in races that require more than just pure speed and running talent. By the time you ran your first 50-mile race in 2011, you decided that you wanted to someday run Western States.
You actually moved to Boulder, Colorado in 2011 to train for six months between undergraduate and graduate school. Do you remember sitting on the floor in your apartment, flipping throughTrail Runner magazine, and landing on a page about Kilian Jornet? He had finished in third place at Western States the year before and then he had won the race in 2011. You never said it out loud, and you definitely never admitted it to anyone, but you thought maybe, just maybe, you could do something like that someday. Maybe not win, and maybe not third place, but, you thought, maybe you could finish in the top 10. Do you remember that?
Do you remember ten years ago, when you were living in Boulder and just starting out as a trail runner? You’d run the Boulder Creek Trail, which is basically a flat, dirt road, and you thought that you had really discovered trail running. If you ever ventured up into the foothills to summit Green Mountain, you’d hike every step. You didn’t think people could run up those mountains. How funny is that? I hope you don't find my amusement condescending. It’s really just amazing how far you’ve come, and it’s a testament to how you can get a whole lot better at something if you pursue it with consistency and vigor.
I was listening to a song the other day and I actually thought of you, younger Eric. The song is Beat of Your Own by Katie Herzig. The start of the song goes like this:Where you wanna go / Who you wanna be / How you gonna get there soon / If it don’t come naturally / And if it’s not now / Then when’s the time / There’s only so long you can pay no mind / To the burn inside.
Those lyrics really choke me up. I feel like they speak to my very condition in the sport of ultrarunning. Do you see what I mean? What I mean is that you really weren’t a runner. You played football and lifted weights in high school, and you joined a fraternity and drank a lot of beer and partied a lot and never ran at all when you got to college. Then you read that book and you started running. And you did something that probably seemed innocent at the time, but it turned out to be very, very powerful. What you did was, you dreamed. You dreamed big. It’s a dangerous thing for someone like you, dreaming big is. When someone like you sets a lofty goal, you don’t stop until you’ve achieved it. You pursue the task with dogged determination and when people tell you that you can't, it makes you all the more committed to prove that you can. When you fail, you try again. If you ever manage to achieve what once seemed impossible, you just raise the bar and reach higher and commit yourself to another seemingly impossible goal.
Do you remember that Friday night freshman year of college, when all your friends were going out to party, but you had decided that you wanted to run a marathon, and so you went to the track in the dark and ran 10 miles instead of hanging out with your friends? You felt like you were floating through the dark, like time was infinite. Your worries disappeared and for a moment, if only a moment, you were happy and fulfilled and content. And do you remember the first time you ran eight miles in less than an hour, and how that was a really big deal to you, and you could see yourself getting better and it filled you and you wanted more? It was like a burn inside. You started that burn and kindled it and stoked it and honed it and grew strength from it. You couldn’t ignore it and you still can’t ignore it. It’s that burn that’s allowed you to overcome failures and downplay successes. And it’s that burn inside that’s kept you dreaming bigger and bigger.
At first you just wanted to finish a marathon, which you did in 3:37:05 in 2008. Then you wanted to break three hours in the marathon, which you did in 2011. And then you wanted to see if you could run farther, which you did when you started running ultramarathons in 2011. But then you wanted to see how fast you could run them, and you got beat a lot and had bad races a lot and progress wasn’t linear but you kept dreaming and dreaming and dreaming. You actually managed to win some races, and you ran quite a few races quite fast, just like you had dreamed you would. But you still had that dream of running Western States. You dreamt what it might be like to finish in the top 10, and every time you dreamt, those old, familiar feelings from that Friday night on the track in college would come rushing back as you pictured yourself stepping onto the track in Auburn to finish the biggest and most competitive 100-mile race in the country among the top finishers.
And now, Younger Eric, you’re 32 years old and you’ve been running ultramarathons for 10 years. But you still haven’t finished in the top 10 at Western States. Despite three attempts at the race, you’ve still only been able to dream about what that accomplishment might feel like. I hope that doesn’t disappoint you. I’m not disappointed. Frustrated, maybe, because I think we’ve got what it takes to do it, but not disappointed. Don’t worry though: Your dream isn’t dead yet. It’s just that it’s a big dream and big dreams aren’t achieved easily or quickly.
The real reason I’m writing you this letter, younger Eric, is to thank you. You couldn’t possibly know how much that innocent dream would shape your life in the most positive of ways. Your big dream will eventually take you to Flagstaff, Arizona, where you’ll train with some of the best ultrarunners in the country. You’ll fail a lot and you’ll get frustrated a lot but you’ll never really show it. Instead you’ll do what any big dreamer does: You’ll keep your head down and put in the work. You won’t complain and you won’t give up. You’ll keep showing up. You’ll learn about patience and perseverance and fortitude and dedication. You’ll learn that sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do in the moment in order to eventually achieve something you really want later on. In other words, you’ll learn about delayed gratification. You’ll learn that your mind is a powerful tool that you can utilize to accomplish difficult things. You’ll learn how to deal with failure and success, and how to lose with dignity and win with integrity. In that way, you’ll learn a lot more about dignity because it’s hard to win all the time. You’ll learn about the value of friends and the virtues of love.
I thought about you a lot during Western States this year. There were a lot of times that I wanted to drop out of the race but I knew you wouldn’t want that. And I knew that I owed it to you to see it through to the finish, even though you weren’t having the day you had dreamed of. In the end, younger Eric, we got awfully damn close to that top 10 goal. A lot closer than the last two times. It’s not the result you wanted, but it’s the result you needed to eventually get to where you want to be. I’m going to keep being patient and I’ll keep putting in the work. I promise I won’t give up our dream.
Younger Eric, thanks for teaching me how to dream. It’s the greatest gift you could have ever given me. Keep on dreaming, just like you taught me. I’ll check in again next year, and I think I’ll have better news for you. But then what will we do once we achieve a dream that seemed impossible? I think you know the answer.
Oh, and by the way, you have a wife now and her name is Jacky and she’s wonderful. I know you thought you’d never get married, but I think that’s because you hadn’t met her yet.