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The courage to start

Doug Mayer ponders if perhaps getting to the start line isn’t the ultimate victory.

Doug Mayer

February 1st, 2022

4 min read


Standing at the starting line of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in 2017, I witnessed perhaps the widest range of emotions I will see in my life. 

Relief. Tears. Fear. Excitement. Wonderment. Contentedness. Seriousness. Focus. Trepidation. 

You could pick almost any emotion a sentient being could feel, and it was there somewhere in the crowd.

It was in those minutes before the starting gun to what is indisputably the world’s most famous trail race, that I realized something. In a sense, I was already done. 

Let me explain. 

I’ve lived in Europe off and on now for more than a decade. And through the years, when I’ve met other trail runners, they’ve always concluded our introductory greeting with one question. “Have you done UTMB yet?”

The race, in those days– and perhaps today still– is a sort of benchmark for ones’ seriousness in the sport, and not just because it is 100 miles long and has 10,000 meters of climbing. Mostly, people asked the question because getting to the start line requires a mix of discipline coupled with hard work, over many years. There are qualifying points to earn, and no shortage of training and travel is required, too. A certain amount of luck is also part of the equation. And that math needs to hold true for several years, at least. 

My own feelings that evening at 6:30 pm were a mix of satisfaction and excitement. The excitement was obvious. One of the world’s great trail races was about to start, and 2,200 of us would run through the streets of Chamonix, France. 

But the feeling of satisfaction, well, I found that more interesting. “I’m here,” I told myself out loud. “I’m f-cking here!”

Doug Mayer at the UTMB starline 2021
Photo courtesy of Powell

The fact is, starting lines are a sort of finish line, too. 

Stop and think of what it takes to get to a start line. There are the obvious things, such as time, money, health, and training.  But even before those barriers are overcome, getting to a start line requires passing through other stages, too. First, there’s dreaming– a sort of personal dare. Then one day, perhaps in a moment of overconfidence or curiosity to test the reaction among friends and family, you verbalize it. Finally, with the support from those around you, you begin training. 

Each of these steps is a courageous act. Not dragging-your-buddy-away- from-the-machine-gun-nest, World War II courageous. It’s a small act of courage. But it counts. 

Skyrunner Hillary Gerardi, an American living in Chamonix who is sponsored by Black Diamond, has talked about this courage in a few public talks– she calls it, “Little c” courage. It, too, has its own equation. It looks something like this: c+c+c+c+c = C. Add together a number of small courageous acts, and you’ll barely be able to see where you started. 

Here’s the other thing about those small, courageous steps. They’re infectious. They spread internally and they spread externally. You’ll inspire others, and you’ll inspire yourself. I know it to be true because I have lived it. I’m not particularly courageous in the bold sense of the word. But I have stood at the starting line of the 330-kilometer long Tor des Geants in Northern Italy, twice now. And you don’t get there with leaps and bounds. You get there an inch at a time.  

It doesn’t have to be a monstrous ultra, either. The challenge is relative to what we bring with us to starting corral. We all know that feeling, even if it’s “just,” for example, the 10 km Randolph Ramble in Randolph, New Hampshire. 

So, the next time you find yourself at a starting line, take a minute and step outside the moment. Congratulate yourself for making it there. Note the effort you made, the internal voice of doubt you squelched, and the hurdles you’ve overcome. Perhaps, too, others have been part of the effort. (Who’s taking care of the kids right now?)

And when the gun goes off, know that most of the work is already behind you. Enjoy your race. Whatever comes of it, you found a way to show up. You’ve already had a kind of victory. “The credit belongs,” as Teddy Roosevelt famously reminded us, “to the man who is actually in the arena.”

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