It’s Not What You Do, but Who You Are

Thank you and shoutout to Katlyn Marchbanks for allowing me to share this digital single line drawing she created. A fellow runner and artist, she wrote, “I find your adventures inspiring. So I drew a picture.” Check out more of her artwork on her Instagram here.


For so long the future has seemed limitless and full of possibilities. I’ve always been a dreamer and have really attached myself to the ideal that if I’m a good person and work really hard, I will reach or achieve the things that I desire. In Conan O’Brien’s final episode of “The Tonight Show”, when he stepped down from his job as host after NBC decided to change his time slot to make room for a Jay Leno program, he said this:

“All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people that watch: Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.”

This message had a really big impact on me, but even back then, I don’t think I totally got it. Here was someone who just landed his literal dream job as “The Tonight Show” host. He had arrived. He “made it”. But it turned out that “it” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The time slot was conditional on TV ratings and O’Brien was pretty much at the mercy of his NBC overlords. Instead of rolling over and accepting the late night time slot, he stepped down, took some time away from TV due to contractual obligations, went on a big US tour, then began a new show on TBS. I’m sure that pivot was never how he envisioned things would go, but it sure seemed to work out for the best.

I think I optimistically took what he said as, “If you work really hard you will get what you want,” when in fact that was the opposite of what he was saying. The whole point was that no one gets exactly what they want, but those basic principles of hard work and kindness can open up all kinds of possibilities… or at the very least, you can look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and hopefully be happy with what you see.

There’s nothing like running or being out in nature to remind me of how mortal I am and how finite my physical capacity is. There’s nothing like spending five or so years in the pop music industry to bring home how fleeting one’s time in the sun can be. This shouldn’t be news to anyone, but if you’re placing your sense of worth on results, times, likes, plays, mentions, etc. you’re setting yourself up to be a perpetually unfulfilled person. It’s all fine when you’re getting a steady stream of good results or positive reinforcement, and you might even one day reach your ultimate pinnacle dream. But then what’s next? How do you feel about yourself when the moment is over and when those things go away?

With running, up until January 2020, I had a very clear purpose in doing so: to qualify for the Olympic Trials. It gave me a sense of purpose and direction. I did not walk away with the prize, but ultimately I’m okay with it because I feel I did everything I could. I don’t think anyone can fault themselves for that. Now, I have no clear goal with running, at least in terms of desired tangible results. And I’m talking about road races and ultramarathons here. I feel I have unfinished business on the Long Trail, and I feel compelled to revisit the AT one day, among other long distance trails, but I would look at those as long term projects and will save that for another letter. This is a very new place for me to be. I don’t really have anything to prove and I don’t have a chip on my shoulder.

I had it in my head that it would be difficult returning to running this fall, after putting so much focus on the 100 mile and Long Trail this summer, both of which I did not complete (I only technically completed the Long Trail since I’d already done the AT portion of it last summer). I also just spent ten days backpacking and didn’t run at all. I thought I’d have this big rebuilding phase, that I’d be sluggish and slow to return, that it would take some time. Prior to this month, I don’t remember the last time I’d gone for a true run without plenty of walking intervals throughout, as I’ve been been doing mostly long, slow distances on mountainous trails.

The weird thing is that I seem to have returned to running like nothing has changed in the first place. I’m running higher volume weeks like it’s no big deal, and I’m hitting times in my workouts that I feel I have no business hitting right now. It’s like, I spent ten plus years trying and trying so hard, and now that I’m feeling kind of blasé about it, my legs are rearing to go. It’s almost annoying, actually. It’s like a long lost love saying, “Hi, want to meet for coffee?” Like… no! You had your chance! Leave me alone!

I’m feeling apprehensive about putting a lot of stake into performances and results, mostly out of self-preservation and in wanting to keep a healthy, lifelong relationship with running. When it comes down to it, if I were asked why I’m training at all right now, it’s simply because I like it. It makes me feel good. I like having something to work toward. I like working hard. I like running fast. I like running long. I like running with friends. It’s a lifestyle and a way to be.

Jennifer Pharr Davis recently shared about a friend that came to visit her and her husband Brew. She wrote, “One of our friends who’s hiked a million miles came to visit this weekend (okay really, he’s only hiked 43,000 but close enough). When he left, we weren’t talking about his miles or adventures, but his kindness and generosity. A good reminder that it’s not what you do but who you are that matters.”


Thanks for reading. If this was relatable or inspiring to you in some way, please consider buying me a coffee. Another great way to support is by sharing this to a friend or family member that you think would enjoy it too.

If you’re visiting me here on my website or received this letter through a WordPress update, please take a moment to subscribe to the Mercury on the Run newsletter for weekly stories directly in your inbox, many of which are exclusive only to subscribers (it’s free!). Until next week! ~Mercury


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