Saturday, January 16, 2016

A Healing Season

In reflecting for 2015, I’ve been at a loss for thought and direction. It was a difficult year for me. Laden with injury, failure and depression.

2014 was a hard year to beat. It came with a couple trips to the top of the podium in the 100-mile. I set PR’s and established new limits. Ending the year a little worn down from 3 hundo’s, 2 50k’s, a 50 miler and couple marathons in just 14 weeks, my spirit carried a stoke into the next season that my body just couldn’t handle.

Training only highlighted my body’s fatigue and need for rest, which I declined to indulge in. I started the year off with my sights set on Black Canyon 100k. I felt confident that I could compete for a Golden Ticket to the big show. Tangled legs and hard fall just a few miles into the race brought about an injury that forced my first ever DNF. I was crushed. I never had felt so defeated.

Sitting in a comfortable third place early into a failed Black Canyon 100k
Unfortunately, the season continued down this path. Antelope Island 50 miler I was certain would be a hard fought win and new 50 mile PR. Instead, the Black Canyon injury stuck around and it ended up the slowest 50 miler to date. My pride at Bryce Canyon was destroyed when a body pleading for rest decided to give up and wouldn’t let me push hard for the race. Then followed another frustrating DNF at Skyline 50 miler and a broken down performance at Bear 100. The only win of the season came from the Skyline 50k where Andrew Knapick should have beaten me had he not let himself get dehydrated and literally collapse from heat exhaustion just a mile from the finish. Even though I ended up on the podium for every finish but Bear, the once fiery stoke was beginning to diminish.

This was also the year that I entered a doctoral program at the University of Utah. The stress was compounded greatly. My desire to be outside and training when I should be inside studying ended up winning half the battles. Which led to less than desirable results in my studies. I never failed any exams but education was something that normally came so easy and natural to me but not for these semesters.

Showing the look of a fatiguing body late into the season
Now for the hard part. I suffer from depression. It’s not something I’ve been open about previously and it’s one of the reasons that I began running a few years ago. Running clears my mind, it allows me to focus on the beauty of the Wasatch, and there’s no doubt that daily dose of endorphins keeps me chemically balanced. Sadly though, the two things that I could once pride myself on, scholastics and running were becoming points of frustration and shame. I was ignoring my passions because they weren’t a happy refuge for me anymore.

Bear 100 really was the breaking point. I struggled to find identity after that performance. The finish wasn’t what I was capable of, which led me to the conclusion that I had failed… the one single most destructive word to the human psyche. The darkness soon overtook and it once you’re in that deep pit of despair and self-loathing, there isn’t much that can take you out of it.

Sitting a few hours behind schedule at mile 75 of Bear 100
At first I ran for me, for my health and happiness. But then came success, the notoriety, and shortly after came sponsors. Sometime during that period, my self-worth became fused with my successes as an athlete. You become known more as an athlete than a person. One bad performance and you’re less successful that you were when the race started.

And when you add the pressure of sponsorships and the expected results, it’s easy to stop racing for you and start running for everyone else and that can lead to poor choices in training and racing. Choices that can lead to your detriment if you aren’t careful, which will only add to the spiraling decline in performances. The innocence in running, the beautiful catalyst that keeps the training honest and sustainable, is lost.

Training in places like this should be so much more special than they were
I’m still learning to separate my self-worth from my accomplishments. I am not the amount of podium finishes I have in a season. I am not the amount of likes I get on a social media post. It’s a difficult balancing act to keep your personality separate from your performances. To appreciate the many other attributes that make up your character and who you are is key to keeping the separation there.

I’m so grateful for those around me who show unconditional love and support. The only thing that matters to them is that I’m happy. My wife, Caitlin, is constantly by my side to lift me up and support me in whatever way she can. My closest friends are there to, mostly unknowingly, inspire me and keep me positively motivated.
It wasn't ALL terrible... there were still plenty of good times with great people
A big thanks to all the sponsors and supporters that carried me through the year. Altra Footwear kept my feet happy, legs healthy and races swift. Vfuel tasted great through the whole season and stayed down every time. Stayed blister free all year thanks to Injinji’s toe socks. I stayed hydrated all season thanks to Ultraspire hydration packs. Their support means the world to me. Thank you.

Now that I’ve taken a few months off of training, focused on school a little bit and worked on myself, I’m ready to enter 2016 with the freshly healed scars of lessons learned. Emotionally I’m feeling better and fitness will come back soon. I’m happy to be back running for fun and for happiness. Each run no longer feels forced and taxing in effort but freeing and full of elation. 

2016 will be the year that I relearn to love running and love myself. It will be the year that I allow myself to enjoy the moments and harness the positive in each run and each day. This will be a season of healing for me. I don’t know quite what that entails just yet, but I can promise that I will listen closely to my body and do what’s best for me.

I will not promise results, and I don’t know if I’ll ever win another race. At least that doesn’t seem to matter now. All that matters is I get back to the mountains and trails that are calling my name and that I find solace and happiness and get back to the mindset that freed me from depression years ago.

Finding the happiness with some great friends


  1. Great read buddy! Sounds like you're getting back to your roots - said a lot of stuff in there that I needed to hear. Happy trails in 2016!

  2. Zac, this was very well written and good to read. Of course no one on the outside really knows what's going on inside. But I think several of us (myself included) struggle with inner demons and at times it's not easy. I look up to you and respect you both as an athlete and a person and thank you for sharing this. Looking forward to sharing some trails with you this year and wish you the best- a season full of healing and happiness :)

  3. Thanks for sharing Zac. It's a good reminder of why I first fell in love with running and how it helped me climb out of my own pit of despair. I often times focus too much energy on being the best runner i can be and not enough on being the best man i can be.

  4. Great read. I too run to escape depression and found in your words saying "yeah me too". They were also inspiring to me to continue to run for me. Thanks.

  5. Fantastic and relatable read! Here's to the higher miles!

  6. Fantastic and relatable read! Here's to the higher miles!

  7. Great read and it takes a lot of guts to be honest. Good on ya! Run for fun and if it all falls into place, then well done.

  8. I stumbled across this post by a share on Facebook. I related quite a bit to the beginning. Needing to perform in order for least that's what I tell myself.I'm not a sponsored athlete,but feel the need to make up for some kind of lack in my life. I also struggle with clinical depression and find running to be the best outlet so far. I finally crashed after my last marathon in July due to fatigue and the onset of major sleep deprivation. This year has started out slowly,and I'm working with listening more to the signs my body gives. While it is a long journey, hope is just on the horizon. Keep moving forward.

  9. really great post Zac. Best of luck in 2016.

  10. Thanks for the post. I've been there. At the suggestion of a trusted friend, I had a full blood panel done, and discovered that I had pretty significant Vitamin D, and Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid, also called pantothenate) deficiencies. Addressing these through diet and supplements helped immensely, in addition to more sleep, talk therapy and other support. Good luck in 2016.

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  12. Thank you for sharing your experiences, thoughts, and reflections Zac. It takes strength and courage to open up like you have in this piece and I hope it has helped to share this with others. I work with athletes who have experienced or are going through depression... it's honestly something many elite level athletes face throughout their career, but sadly something that often goes unnoticed or talked about. Sharing your story is a powerful way to break the stigma associated with mental health, depression, anxiety, etc. in the culture of sport. Many thanks and enjoy your healing mountains. Best, Dr. Kristin Keim

  13. Great read Zac and I can totally relate depression sucks! It is hard to separate achievements (although mine come from way back in the pack) and my self worth. Wasatch 2010 was a kind of rebirth for me and when I am having those dark days I revisit those memories and realize I can indeed do anything. You have came so far since your 100K at Bryce, as a friend of mine says run for joy and the rest will take care of itself. See you on the trails but only if it is an out and back otherwise you'll long since be home and taking a nap.