More Than I Expected

Just a few days before my 55th birthday last year I found myself in Austin, Texas at a running camp. I was sitting on a couch having a talk with Matt Fitzgerald about running and writing. It’s worth mentioning, as a runner and aspiring writer, that I was also having a bit of an out-of-body experience. By all accounts I did not belong there.

“Let your passion, not your ability, decide how far you go.” Matt Fitzgerald

I had returned to running only five years earlier after a twenty year break. But I didn’t just take a twenty year break from running; I took a twenty year break from myself. Life had thrown down some obstacles over those twenty years and I coped with donuts and denial, and when I couldn’t solve the mounting problems, I just chose to eat them. Ironically the more weight I gained the more invisible I became in the world, until one day I realized that even I couldn’t find myself.

Diane Miller

But let me backup forty years to 11th grade when I joined the cross country team. I’m not sure what compelled me to do that, and I have no idea what compelled me to remain on the team given that I was dead last on junior varsity. But I did stay on the team. I showed up for every practice and ran my heart out, even though most of my running was solo since I couldn’t keep up. I finished in last place almost every race, and oftentimes I would cross the finish line and run straight to the bus where the team was boarded and ready to take off for home.

In retrospect I think I do know why I stayed on that team: I had a coach who saw me. Coach Flim made me feel like a valued member of the team and, in fact, I was a valued member. Somehow I gleaned the lesson that winning points was not the only thing a team needs in its members. A team needs people who are dedicated and who care. A team needs people who show up every day with a good attitude and a good work ethic, and so that’s what I gave my team.

My coach used to wait for me at the end of long runs to cross a busy highway, and on that last mile running back to the school he would check in on how I was doing and what I was thinking. During those times he would often recite a quote that he shared with the team liberally throughout the season:

It’s not your aptitude
But your attitude
That determines your altitude,
And that takes intestinal fortitude.

I remember him telling me on one of our runs that I had a good attitude and a lot of intestinal fortitude. No one had ever recognized these qualities in me before, and his words and that quote were imprinted on my brain and in my heart.

I have often felt that there is this little runner inside of me who tends a fire of belief and dreams and grit and desire. I did everything in my power through my thirties and forties to snuff out that fire, but she wouldn’t have it. She was born during that cross country season of 1983. She believed Coach Flim and stoked my love for running. She kept me running when the first season ended. She encouraged me to squirrel away money so that I could buy actual running shoes before the start of my senior year–a pair of blue and gold Sauconys that felt like running on clouds. I was so proud of those shoes and of the two pairs of split shorts I also saved for. I switched out those shorts every other day, and I had that one pair of shoes that I wore for every workout and every race. I didn’t have a lot materially or genetically to run on, but I was dedicated and focused and I got better.

During my senior year I ran close to the top of JV, and I left high school with that little runner deep inside of me fanning the flames of confidence and vision and determination.

The fire burned brightly through my twenties and I ran and biked and got more and more fit, but around the age of thirty things changed and life hit hard. I didn’t have the tools to look life squarely in the eye and the next twenty years were tough. Long story short, I was shaken awake eight months before my 50th birthday and I said ENOUGH. I needed big help, and for a second time I was blessed with a coach who saw me and valued me and believed in me from the start. It was a match made in heaven, or maybe it was orchestrated by that little runner in me who was tenaciously keeping the embers alive all of those years. I believe that the day I met Coach Kirk, broken and surrendered, was the day she got the oxygen she needed to fan those embers back into a fire.

My first runs were awful. My coach had me do 30/3 x 45 minutes, i.e. run for 30 seconds, walk for 3 minutes for 45 minutes. It felt impossible; I don’t know where I found the fortitude to do it. I was mentally and physically unfit. I could feel what I had done to my body and my mind for twenty years; it was inescapable. I was embarrassed and defeated being among all of the runners on the path, and yet I kept going. I didn’t want to disappoint my coach, and I know now that he held a belief in me until I was strong enough to hold it for myself.

My first 5K came a few months later. I was not able to run the whole thing but my coach wanted me to jump in and give it a try anyway. It was a Christmas holiday themed race and people were dressed in costumes—lots of reindeer and Santa’s and candy canes. They were out there to have fun; I had no idea why I was there. I stood at the start line so nervous I thought I would throw up, and the gun went off and the race began. And then, over those 3.1 miles, something happened: I found my competitor. The race wound through the state fairgrounds and I was literally dogged by a beagle dressed as an elf for the entire race. As we circled back to the finish line where I knew my coach was waiting, I decided that I was not going to be beat by a beagle dressed like an elf. I dug down and found a gear I didn’t know I had and a desire I didn’t know existed in me—the desire to find my limits. I crossed the finish line ahead of the beagle, and the entire trajectory of my life changed. I was not just trying to lose weight anymore. I was on my way to becoming a runner and an athlete, and I was coming into myself again.

From that point on I was all in, and with every run my life changed a little. I wanted to track everything and I wanted to know everything. I asked questions relentlessly; I invested in all the gear; I wanted a watch and a heart rate monitor. I went from one pair of running shoes to three pairs of running shoes, and pretty soon I had seven pairs. I watched races and documentaries and listened to podcasts. I bought books about running, and books about runners, and books about coaches, and books about mindset. I dissected my training plans with my coach and made a race calendar. I wanted to see what I could do. I wanted to see what I had in me. I ran countless races and tried my hand at obstacle course racing. I did an Everest Challenge and 1,000 Mile Challenge and worked to improve my 5K and mile times. I tore my meniscus, which sidelined me for a number of months, so my coach had me cross train. I got in the best shape of my life and came back strong to running, cutting even more time off my 5K and mile times. Most recently I’ve dipped my toes into the world of ultra running, skipping from 5K and 10 mile races to 24 hour races.

Diane Miller

But woven through the years and these experiences were many setbacks and lessons, too. Many. I was an adolescent athlete in a fifty-something-year-old body, and I had a lot to learn. I had to learn how to rest. I had to learn how to push. I had to learn how to hurt. I had to learn how to race. I had to learn how to stay in my own lane. I had to learn how to shake things off. I had to take a hard look at my attitude, which had taken a turn somewhere along the way. And every time I learned these lessons they illuminated a parallel path in my life. The more I ran and learned about myself as a runner, the more I learned about myself as a person. It wasn’t easy in either arena, but it was dynamic. It was often a circuitous and gnarly trail, but with every passing training block and race the desire to know my limits grew. I was no longer bullshitting myself about my life. My eyes were wide open and I loved it. I was not a great runner and I didn’t fit any runner profiles in regards to age, genetics, experience or body type, but inside my head I toed the line with the elites. And in my heart I was as dedicated as anyone could be to their craft. I just couldn’t prove it with a performance.

So how did I land in that room talking with Matt about writing and running? I landed there because after running woke me up, it reminded me that life is an adventure. It reminded me that I only go around once and growth happens outside my comfort zone—and so do all of the coolest experiences. It told me that I don’t have to be able to explain why my calling is running despite my unconventional profile; I just need to be faithful and follow the breadcrumbs. And the breadcrumbs led me to Endeavorun, and Endeavorun introduced me to Matt. Matt took me seriously as a writer and a runner. Matt listened to me and believed in me. I did not have to prove myself to him with my running data, he believed in my passion and the right to find out what my limits are as a runner and, ultimately, as a person.

Becoming a runner again at the age of forty-nine gave me all that. I know who I am again. I like my strong body. I like my big dreams. I’m developing a strong mind. And my heart is opening. I am driven. I have a competitor in me. I have confidence and a sense of my worth. But mostly I have abundant gratitude that infuses every single part of my life. There is no better gift I could have received and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
Running made me wealthy, and I want to reward running for all of these treasures by taking her out on the open roads of Flagstaff, Arizona to find out what she’s really made of.

I guess after all of this I should introduce myself: My name is Diane. I’m fifty-six years old. I am a writer and a runner. I took my life back. I’m all in, and I want to go to camp. The BIG camp. Dream Run Camp. I want to throw myself in joyfully, unapologetically, and push past my perceived limits. I want to show up at camp and go through all of the anticipated phases: the nerves, the honeymoon, the settling-in-to-the-routine, the doubt, the elation, the grind, the breakthrough, the what-am-I-doing-here, the thank-god-I-came-here, and all of the other phases I can’t possibly imagine. I want to find out who I am and what I can do when I am immersed in the daily life of a pro athlete.

Am I going to the Olympics? Of course not.

Is my life going to change? Yes.

I am going to have the experience of a lifetime so yes, change is inevitable. Running has transformed me before, and I think it’s about to do so again.

Matt has assured me that I belong there and I believe him.

So look out Dream Run Camp, here I come.

Let's dream big together

Have you ever dreamed of being a professional runner, or at least living like one for a period of time? Stop dreaming and come to Dream Run Camp!

Inspired by Matt Fitzgerald’s book Running the Dream, which chronicles his experience as a “fake professional runner” with Flagstaff, Arizona-based HOKA Northern Arizona Elite team, Dream Run Camp is the first and only pro-style training camp that welcomes runners of all abilities.

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