By HPRS Race Director “Sherpa” John Lacroix
“For all the talk of exploring human potential, and seeking our limits, ultra-runners tend to play it safe. They line up challenges they know they can finish and run them carefully within their limits. At the Barkley, success is about overreaching our abilities and living to tell about it.” ~ Gary Cantrell
The aforementioned quote is attributed to Gary Cantrell (Lazarus Lake), Race Director for the famed Barkley Marathons, opined during the 2018 running of the event. For many years Gary has written prose for Ultrarunning Magazine, and has entertained us on Social Media and email list servs. For some, his word is gospel. I have thought about this quote off and on for the last year, and more so over the last month as it gets recirculated with this year’s running of the Barkley.
In this post, I want to take a moment to explore Human Potential a little deeper, that includes the definition of Human Potential, and the direction The Human Potential Running Series will take towards the goals of helping athletes such as yourselves experience and realize yours. Before I begin, I have the utmost respect for Gary and appreciate his take on the subject; I am hopeful that this post will offer opportunity for continued discussion within your own running circles.
It was during my undergrad at the University of New Hampshire that I first came across the concept, Human Potential. It was actually while on a long training run with my good friend Nathan Sanel that the words were first spoken to me. In our conversation Nathan quipped that “all any of us runners are doing out here is trying to realize our human potential.” Neither of us had any idea how profound that conversation would be to me. In the months that followed, I had to write a paper on my philosophy of Outdoor Experiential Education, and the paper focused on Human Potential and how I believe the human brain is neither left or right dominant, but up and down functioning.
Since then I have dedicated my life to the concept of Human Potential. I have continued to do research on how it is that individuals self-actualize, or become more enlightened beings. It is through the more than a decade of research I have done on Human Potential that I am able to carefully craft the experiences here at The Human Potential Running Series. HPRS truly is more than just running, and I have continued to impress upon our runners that the race doesn’t matter here.. the experience does. What you learn matters most.
As I continue to craft a new 5-year plan for HPRS, I have come to the conclusion that the focus will be on continuing to create an inclusive, accessible, safe space for runners to come and realize their human potential. So what is Human Potential and what does it mean? How does HPRS intend to provide the space and accessibility for you to come and realize it?
Adjective: Existing in possibility : capable of development into actuality. Expressing possibility
Noun: something that can develop or become actual
By the very definition of the word Potential, it is not something that has come to fruition. Potential is defined as something that is possible, and something you are capable of.. not something that is actual or yet realized. It is something that can be developed. Potential refers to a currently unrealized ability. It’s really important to understand the definition of potential because it tells us that it is not something that is yet known. It is an unknown, something you aspire towards knowing.
I’m not going to dive into the Merriam-Webster dictionary for this one. My question for you is, what is it to be human?
Sure, we can take a stab at it by saying that a Human is a being. Bags of meat and water, held onto bones and kept intact by skin, with an electrical charge. You are a human, I am a human, etc. But within the definition of human potential, the definition of human is so much more than that.
When you come to an HPRS race, it is my goal to provide you with an opportunity to not only be human, but to experience humanity. This means that you, and all other runners present, are flawed beings. You all have hopes, dreams, goals, desires, feelings and emotions, and life experiences to draw from. You also seek to belong, and ultrarunning is one of many tribes you belong to. You also seek to love and be loved, or at the very least cared for and about.
So when I think of the word human, I think about who we are as a people, and who we are as individuals. At an event like an ultramarathon we each bring our own unique set of life experiences, our knowledge, and contribute it to the collective. We bring things to teach to others, and others bring things to teach us. We feel our feelings and experience our emotions. We are flawed, and so we make mistakes and work to fix them. We have hope, dreams, goals, and desires and those hopes, dreams, and goals are tied to the overall experience of the event.
Human Potential is the possibilities human beings are capable of accomplishing. I like to take it a bit further and define it as the possibilities that exist within your being, that allow you to be human, or allows you the opportunity to experience what it is to be human.
I hate to break it to you, but your human potential.. your potential as a human.. is not at all tied to your ability to run a specific distance or not, nor is it tied to the time on the clock when you reach the finish line. That’s right kids, realizing your human potential has nothing to do with your ability to perform. This is why your strava, or ultrasignup ranking, or race results in general really don’t matter. Neither are an accurate measure of your ability to be human, or your potential as a human. So many of us spend our energy attaching our abilities, our potential, to our final results. I can promise you that after someone asks you what your time was, they’ve forgotten it seconds later.. because it doesn’t matter. The next questions are typically “how was it?” or some other similar question. Clearly the experience matters.
The Barkley is a race that was created for runners to fail. I don’t for a second believe that we realize our human potential through consistently failing at something, nor does a Barkley finisher realize their human potential by finishing the event, because success is defined differently by each of us individually. In 2010, I completed one successful loop at the Barkley and within the cutoff. By Gary’s definition, I did not realize my human potential while “out there,” and because I refused to continue after one loop, I didn’t go far enough outside of my comfort zone to realize it. Yet, I understand that simply being out on the Barkley course was indeed outside of my comfort zone, and I chose the level of challenge I was willing to take on, in working towards realizing my potential. I succeeded at the Barkley, by reaching the pre-race goals I had set for myself, and Gary doesn’t get to define that for me. I do.
This is where we need to be careful. We have made it a business in our world of pushing each other to the absolute limits, erroneously assuming that doing so allows us the opportunity to experience our human potential. This is dangerous, because by solely focusing on the comfort zone and being outside of it, we ignore the other growth zones and the process with which each of us chooses (Challenge by Choice) in attempting to realize our potential. We also ignore the differences between an educative experience, and a mis-educative experience and how having a mis-educative experience stymies our ability to learn and grow.
What Is Challenge By Choice?
Challenge by choice is an important philosophy in outdoor programs, because it encourages the participant to achieve their goals while providing them a safe environment to do so. It is the empowerment you are given to decide your level of participation in an activity. In ultra, we are faced with challenge by choice on the regular. We face it when deciding to sign up for a particular race or not.. and we use it during the event in choosing to continue or not. Simply put, the challenge you face is your decision and your decision alone.
When we look deeper at the various growth zones, we can clearly see that as we progress through the zones, the individual is determining the level of challenge and in turn the level of potential realized. The race director doesn’t decide this for you, you decide it for you. My job as the director of an event (besides the obvious logistics) is to facilitate a safe space for you to grow in; and I take this role very seriously. I also specifically design my courses to push and pull you through the various growth zones by utilizing the relief of our lands as the mode of creating challenge. Whether you take on those challenges or not, is entirely up to you.
Many of us run in ultramarathons because we fear failure. Finishing an ultra is never a given. It requires you to put all of your acquired skills together in such a way that you can reach the finish line; and by starting the event you acknowledge (inherently or not) that failure to finish is a possibility. Fear of failure is how many of us are operating within the fear zone. It’s the reason many of us have a longer story for why we DNF’d than we have a story for how we finished. It’s the place we reside that allows us to find or create excuses for our misadventures. But if you can extend yourself beyond the fear zone and into the learning and growth zones, you can realize so much more of your potential than should you only remain in your comfort or fear zones. So when you craft your delicate DNF stories, you should also craft your “lessons learned” stories, and share those with others as well if not instead.
As humans, we strive to remain in the comfort zone. This is what Gary is talking about in his quote; but as ultrarunners.. it is clear that many of us are already outside of our comfort zones by having even started the event. We know that we are outside of this zone because we are literally launching ourselves into chaos that we seek to control. As ultra runners, I believe that we’ve already left our comfort zone and have entered into the fear zone by simply starting the race; and we spend the race wandering back and forth through the Fear, Learning and Growth zones. This is what makes ultras such a profound life experience for us all, and why many of us choose to work through our “life-issues” at ultras instead of through other avenues.
This has gotten heavy enough for now and I truly hope that this gives you a lot to think about. For now, the things I want you to take away from this are as follows:
• Your human potential is not tied to your performance. It is tied to the learning, the actualizing, you accomplish while in the arena.
• You alone have the choice to be as challenged as you want during an ultra.
• No one defines success for you, only you define success for you.
• There are three more zones beyond the comfort zone, and simply by starting the event you’re in one of them.
• It is important for us to remember that we are human, and ultra affords us a place to continue to experience being human.
The Next 5-Years at HPRS
Moving forward, I will continue to work tirelessly towards providing you the opportunity to express yourselves and to realize your human potential through athletic endeavors. HPRS will continue to work towards being a safe space for you to come and explore your potential as a human and provide you with the opportunity for challenge by choice. Our series will be a safe space for all participants to experience being human, while also encouraging you to be human towards others.
HPRS will continue to provide events that challenge participants physically and/or mentally. We will provide a safe space for realizing what is possible, most notably by developing a multi-step process for our volunteers to follow in convincing a runner to not drop from an event, while also respecting their decision to do so. Care and compassion will be at the forefront of our responsibilities for you, and to you. This process will also be mindful of the reality that vast majorities of runner’s who participate in ultras are working through some form of life trauma, and we will therefore offer comfort and compassion to every runner who decides to end their day. HPRS will afford runners an opportunity to flex themselves through the various growth zones in a facilitated learning environment, which does not denigrate or overly celebrate runners based on performance or ranking.
HPRS will remain a safe space for all runners regardless of age, race, color, national origin, religion, gender, or disability; per the required statue in all USDA-USFS permitted events. To go a step further, HPRS is an LGBTQ safe space and we will provide events free from discrimination based on the gender, gender identity, or the sexual preference of our participants.
HPRS will continue to provide running experiences at reasonable costs, typically below the industry average of events similar in distance. We acknowledge that not everyone can afford the ever-rising fees associated with participating in these types of events, and we acknowledge that financial accessibility is imperative to affording runners from various walks of life the opportunity to explore themselves with us.
“For all the talk of exploring human potential, and seeking our limits, ultra-runners tend to play it safe. They line up challenges they know they can finish and run them carefully within their limits…” Ultra-runners do not tend to play it safe. By signing up for an event and daring to reach the starting line, they have already accepted that finishing is unknown, and that being there is already outside of their comfort-zone and the act of extending ones known limitations. Finishing is never a known in ultra, growing from the experience is.