In the Pursuit of Excellence

“I don’t know where the limits are, but I would like to go there” – Eliud Kipchoge

I took the above photo in Philly on my first run post-JFK over Thanksgiving weekend. There’s no better time to reflect than in the days/weeks of rest and recovery following a big effort.

I think we (when I say “we” I guess I mean Americans since that is my experience) have evolved a lot over the past few decades in terms of the culture surrounding pursuing excellence in whatever medium, whether it’s education, sports, arts, or what have you. Or perhaps, rather, we have expanded and normalized other methods outside of the “win at all costs” approach (and in America, let’s face it, we care about winning–a lot), such as coaching the whole person versus treating them like a race horse or a machine, and promoting a balanced lifestyle versus living a monastic life dedicated to practice and practice only.

Becoming extremely good at something requires discipline in your daily life in order to do so. “We are what we repeatedly do,” etc. etc. Most of my daily life this season has been centered around music school, work study, practicing piano, and running. I didn’t really know how the workload would feel until I was in it. Now I know, and it is a lot. A lot, a lot, a lot. Before the semester even began, I had planned a bunch of weekend trips, feeling excited about living in New England for the first time and wanting to explore everything. No regrets–but the reality of adding in all of the extra stuff left not as much time to rest, recoup, and prepare for the next week ahead.

This resulted in feeling like I was always playing catch up and on the verge of burn out. I want to do everything and see everything. I have found that it is very hard for me to stay in one place. I can’t help myself but say “yes” because technically there is time. Life is for the living! There is so much to see and do and experience! But now that the season is winding down, and the things I have been working hard toward have either culminated or are about to, I feel unsatisfied with my work, knowing that I can do better. I want to be better.

Fulfillment, for me, on a daily basis, is reaching toward my potential. I don’t think actually reaching one’s potential is something that is ever meant to be fulfilled. Even the great Eliud Kipchoge said, “No human is limited”. He is a world record holder and the statement still applies, even to him.

I wrote earlier this season on how it’s amazing what you can accomplish by even doing a little bit of something every day. It’s amazing what kind of work you can eek out given even ten minutes. I’m glad I can whip up a piece of music and have it performance-ready in no time. I’m glad I can train for an ultra distance on 50 miles per week and still squeak by and do okay on race day. But, I don’t want to simply get by and be “good”, I want to excel and be “great”. And you don’t become great at anything simply by wanting it badly enough.

During my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I fell behind the women’s record pace in Shenandoah National Park. As I continued on toward the Mason-Dixon line I was convinced I could make up the time and catch up. I felt angry and in denial about adjusting my goal to under 50 days versus 46.5 days. So I’d get up early with the intention of hiking the amount of miles needed to make up for the amount lost, but would inevitably stop short at the end of the day, saying “enough”. My desire didn’t match the reality of what was actually required. Hiking even more hours. Going with even less sleep when already getting by on very little. I was stretching my physical limits to the very extreme, perhaps something that could have been remedied with more experience, strategy, and efficiency; but it was still a choice of where and when to stop at the end of the day.

So, the question I have for myself is, if I’m dissatisfied with my output now, what can I reasonably and sustainably change in my daily life–because our daily lives are when the unglamorous grunt work happens–to get toward where I want to go? And being a human and not a machine, how do I balance that with caring for the people (and cats) in my life and caring for myself? The upside is that I have a much better idea of my workload and what to expect, so how to maximize the time I have for work, rest, and play? Is it possible to excel as a multi-disciplinarian or do I have to pick a lane? The perpetual question!


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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