Sunny Moments, Cloudy Days, and Silver Linings on the Roller Coaster

Sunny Moments

When I was a competitive runner, I enjoyed a lot of modest success. In high school, I earned All-State and All-Conference honors as a runner. I was voted the MVP of the cross-country team three times, and was the third-fastest in my high school’s history. In college, my team won three straight conference titles, and I was even conference runner-up my sophomore year. Running was a big deal for me. It helped me stand out. Even people who weren’t my friends recognized I was good at it. It gave me a place where I belonged and helped give me purpose.

But during my sophomore year college, I stopped improving, which started a long journey of frustration and questioning, right down to my very purpose as a person.

Cloudy Days

During my junior and senior years, race times slowed and workouts that once were easy became hard. What used to be fun and a release from the normal stresses of life turned into dreaded chores. In cross-country, only seven runners are chosen to represent the team at championship meets. My senior year, I finished as the eighth man at our conference championships. Placing eighth meant that I was the alternate for the NCAA Regional Championships squad that year; it was the only race of my competitive career that I wasn’t on the varsity squad. The regional race was an epic spectacle where the races were delayed for an hour as eight inches of snow was cleared off the course. That’s the kind of stuff you live for as a XC athlete And I watched from the sidelines.

It hurt, and when I got back to my dorm room, I threw my shoes in the closet, and didn’t run for almost two years.

The Roller Coaster

I took my first teaching job right out of college. I also got the opportunity to coach. That first fall, I ran in a community five-kilometer race that many of my athletes would run in. I ran it about as fast as I had when I was an eighth grader. I was horrified. During that school year, I got back to training and ran a 5K faster than I had since my collegiate decline. But soon after, I fell back into old habits and began a battle with body weight that I’ve struggled with ever since. Four years into teaching, at the age of 27, I weighed in at more than 200 pounds for the first time in my life on New Year’s Day 2012. Most people would go to the gym, start a diet, etc.

I signed up for a 50-mile ultramarathon instead, and dedicated the next six months to training for the June race.

The ultramarathon started at 7 p.m. in Prince William National Forest in Virginia. It was a major challenge, but I placed seventh, completing the course in ten hours, 15 minutes; there was a 50% dropout rate as well. Once again, I had found something that I could excel at. I signed up for the USATF National Championships the following October, and ran 8:29. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it felt easy, but it was enjoyable, and soon after I was thinking about when my next ultra would be.

Then graduate school consumed my life.

Riding the Downs

During seven years of grad school, I spent a lot of time learning hard lessons about taking on too much. I was barely keeping up with obligations and commitments which left little if any, time for me to stay active and take care of myself. The result was that I spent the first four years being sedentary and I gained 60 pounds. Once a lean and fit trail runner, I was now clinically obese.

In the summer of 2016, I felt like I had gotten stuck during my doctoral program, and to distract myself. I started a routine of doing the elliptical for an hour a day and walking 5 miles every night. I lost 50 pounds in three months and got the itch to run again. After a few weeks of running regularly, I once again enjoyed recreational runs of upwards of 15 miles without much trouble. I was profoundly amazed at how quickly I turned things around, but as the end stage of my doctoral degree ramped up, I fell back into old habits and gained back all the weight I had lost.

By August 2019, I was a doctor of philosophy in sport and exercise science. Ironically, while becoming an expert on exercise and performance, I had become the opposite of health and fitness. By many standards, my efforts had worked. I had earned a doctorate and I was now a professor responsible for doing research and using my expertise to teach students. But I felt that in the process, I had completely lost sight of who I was.

April 2016  →  December 2016  →  August 2019

Silver Linings

Following the completion of my doctoral degree, I found myself browsing through the AT materials I had assembled during periods of procrastination. Soon to turn 35, I recognized that the likelihood that I would have the time and fitness to attempt a thru-hike would decrease as I got older. At the encouragement of my wife, I pitched a proposal to my university, who agreed to let me leave in April to hike the AT if I could directly tie it to my research.

In 2012 I had signed up for a 50-mile race to motivate me to get in touch with who I once was; seven years later, I eyed up a 2,192-mile self-supported hike to do the same.

Since dedicating myself to training for my AT thru-hike, I have lost almost 20 pounds in eight weeks; I’m also on track to lose another 40 pounds in time to start my hike on April 4, 2020. Each week I see evidence that my measures of fitness are improving, but more importantly, I’m finding that I’m rediscovering the sense of calm and contentment that was missing for so long.

Learning how to overcome challenges are the silver linings to the last 12 years’ dark clouds of frustration. As I prepare for the challenges of thru-hiking, I’m reminded that the journey to the trail, and on the trail, will be accompanied by more sunny moments, cloudy days, and silver linings. I’m optimistic that the challenges that lie behind me have helped prepare me for the challenges that lie ahead.


Twitter & Instagram: @EvBasedAthletic

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Comments 3

  • Longsleeves (Trail Name) : Oct 13th

    Enjoyed reading your blog this morning and relate to the ups and downs of the past several years pertaining to lack of exercise and the resulting weight gain that follows. Will look forward to following your thru-hike and perhaps will even see you along the trail. I plan on being on the trail March 23rd.

    • Marshall Milbrath : Oct 13th

      Looking forward to maybe doing some sections with you and sharing some stories!

  • BC Charles-Liscombe : Oct 17th

    As a now 46 y/o professor of athletic training and exercise science, I can definitely relate to your roller coaster and applaud your ingenuity at getting your proposal through the faculty development committee for funding and support. Completing a doctorate, 7 years time and 3 kids (of now 5) and working up the ‘academic rachet and ladder’ to tenure has proven to be an ups and downs endeavor. I look forward to reading about your preparation. – BC


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