As a runner, you might consider a leader to be the one who finishes on the podium. Lead from the front, right? Wrong. Being fast doesn’t make you a leader, it just means you are fast, congrats for that. Being a leader means that you are making a difference in the world and in the lives of those who follow your example. Marines are leaders, and the Marine UltraRunners Club of America (MURCA) is not just a bunch of runners who used to be Marines, it is a group of leaders in the running community.
“Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don’t have that problem.”
Members of MURCA are affectionately known as MURCAns. These folks are different than other runners, for several reasons. MURCAns have a unique background, having served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Marines are bred and trained to lead men and women in the most demanding and challenging situations life has to offer, combat. The Marine Corps is unique among the other services in that every Marine, regardless of military occupational specialty (MOS) is expected to possess basic skills as an infantry rifleman, and in the case of Marine officers, a rifle platoon commander. Additionally, Marines live by three core values: honor, courage, and commitment. These core values have no expiration date, they do not become irrelevant when a Marine leaves the Corps, they apply for life, and more specifically, as a runner and MURCAn. MURCAns have an incredible opportunity to use what they learned in the Marine Corps to help people become better runners and better human beings. Let’s look at how some of the leadership traits, principles, and core values map to being a leader in the ultrarunning community.
Ductus Exemplo (Lead by Example)
If you are identifying yourself as a MURCAn, then you are identifying yourself as a Marine, and therefore you are looked at in a certain light, with some expectations. Marines have fought, bled, and died since 1775 to establish the worldwide reputation we have today. It comes with earning the title “Marine.” Because of this expectation, you have the power of influence. Everything you say and do (or fail to say and do) will make an impression on those around you. As a MURCAn, you must strive to be a positive example for other runners to emulate. This means expressing gratitude to aid station volunteers, cleaning up after yourself on the trail, helping runners in dire need even if it means some extra time tacked on to your finish time, encouraging runners who are struggling, and helping race directors and their staff in their mission to put on a successful race. It means working hard in training, putting in the right mix of workouts and the appropriate weekly volume to get you to your next goal. Distance running is a lonely endeavor, by nature, but by using your power of influence as a leader, you can make a difference in the future success of our sport by influencing others in a positive way on the road, trails, and track.
Know Yourself and Seek Self Improvement
No one, not even Frank Bozanich, is without weaknesses. You have to look at yourself in the mirror, through an objective lens, and assess your own individual strengths and weaknesses. This is not easy, particularly if you have been running for years and have a wall full of medals and accolades. The temptation to rest on your laurels and be smug with your accomplishments is strong, but giving in to that temptation can lead to resentment, bitterness, and elitism…all character traits that no one wants to be around. Knowing yourself means being humble in your accomplishments. It is fine to be proud of your hard work, but know that people around you may be struggling with a life situation more challenging than one you have ever known. Further, you do not know what tomorrow holds, your great success may soon be overshadowed by hardship. By knowing your weaknesses and striving to improve them, you become stronger daily, and better prepared to take on the next big challenge that life throws in your face. Chance favors the prepared mind. Knowing your weaknesses will allow you to emphasize certain parts of your training that will bring targeted improvements, so that on race day you can exploit your strengths without letting your weaknesses slow you down as much.
Know Your People and Look Out for Their Welfare
This means being a good listener while running with others. Everyone has a unique life situation with their own challenges, joys, past, and opportunities. Be open to hearing a story you’ve never heard before. By listening and getting to know your fellow runners, you may discover how you can help them in some way, or maybe simply listening to them is enough to make a difference in their life. We are all human beings on this planet together, for a short period of time. Don’t waste it so self-centered and crabby that you miss out on the unending joy of true personal relationships with other runners. MURCAn Chris wrote a fantastic article called Make it Matter, in which he goes into detail how important it is to “listen to understand, not to respond.”
Be Technically and Tactically Proficient
As a Marine training for combat, this means mastering your craft, your military occupational specialty (MOS), as a professional. Tactically, it also means knowing your enemy and how you will employ your force to break the enemy’s will to fight. The stakes are high in combat, a lack of proficiency can mean mission failure and casualties. In running, this means educating yourself on all things running. Whether its reading articles in magazines, reading books, getting someone’s advice, or formal certifications, seminars, and workshops, there is so much to know and learn about the sport of running. Running is one of the most natural human movements, but that doesn’t mean everyone does it efficiently and in a manner that will optimize performance while guarding against injury. Running is a skill and there are countless ways to improve, commit to being a lifelong learner and be open to new methods and approaches to training. Tactical proficiency in running can be thought of as race strategy. There are many ways to approach a race, you can start fast and hold on as long as you can, or you can pace yourself, conserving energy for the last few miles when you want to be able to hasten your pace to outkick your opponents, to name a few. The point here, is that you must think about and plan how you will race, considering factors such as pacing, hydration, fueling, mitigating environmental factors (heat, cold, humidity), etc. As a MURCAn, strive to be a technically and tactically proficient runner, just as you are as a warfighter.
Integrity is a quality that people expect out of Marines. Alone at night on the trail, when no one is around, do you toss that gel wrapper after you consume? Or do you stuff it in a pocket? Integrity is about doing the right thing when no one is looking. Sure you could toss it, but once you do that, you are setting a habit that will creep into other parts of your life, and eventually it will come back around to bite you. MURCAns are the ones who pick up a gel wrapper that they find on a trail. MURCAns are the ones who can’t turn a blind eye when they see someone cheating or littering on the course.
We spend a lot of time thinking about and planning how we will successfully complete an ultra. We do the best we can with forecasted weather, elevation profile, course specifics, gear, nutrition and hydration needs, pacing strategy, aid station flow, and mindset, all based on what we expect to happen on raceday. But there will always be some uncertainty going into a race. In combat, the enemy has a vote on how your plan will turn out, so does the weather and a host of other unpredictable variables. There is a fine balance between executing your well-laid plan, and adapting to changing circumstances in execution. This is where good judgment becomes crucial. The ability to weigh known facts and possible courses of action, in the moment, is one that comes with experience and with understanding the bigger picture. Without your own experience from which to draw, you must rely on the lessons of those who have learned the hard way, or from something you learned in a book.
Samuele Marcora defines endurance as “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.” Distance runners are familiar with this struggle, often referred to as the pain cave, but it is in these tough times during training or in a race, that we find out what we’re made of. Your human body is capable of so much more than you give it credit, as David Goggins says: “when you think you are done, you are only at 40% of your body’s capability.” As MURCAns, withstanding pain, fatigue, stress, and hardship are the root of the challenge that is so attractive.
“I get to.” MURCAn Mark U. won a Body-for-Life competition in 2006. At the competition he met a young girl in high school who was dying from brain cancer. She was incredibly gregarious, and simply lit up the spirits of everyone that met her. One morning over breakfast Mark and a few others were “complaining” about the commitment and work required to maintain their physiques. The girl looked them each right in the eye and said, “Maybe you should say to yourself, ‘I get to’ instead of ‘I have to’ ”. The purple bandana she wore on her bald head, the smirk on her face, and the sadness in her eyes will forever hang as a picture in the hallways of Mark’s soul.
The mantra, “I get to” has gotten Mark through a lot of difficult workouts and runs. There are lots of people who can’t run, for a variety of reasons. There are people who don’t run and who are oblivious to how much better their life would be if they discovered the joys and health benefits of running. MURCAns get to run, it is part of what keeps us sane, grounded, happy, and healthy. This is something to be enthusiastic about, and enthusiam is contagious. Do not hold back from sharing your love for running with others, it may help them get through a tough spot in their life, or inspire them to do more than they ever thought they could.
MURCA is a young club, quickly approaching its first birthday. But the impact it has had in its short time since inception, is significant, and the future looks promising. The ultrarunning community does not want a MURCA, it needs a MURCA. Ultrarunning has grown tremendously in the past 15 years, which is why it is important for us to lead by example, and bring the best of what the Marine Corps has taught us, to the sport. Once a Marine, always a Marine, we make a difference in this world, for good. MURCAns are ambassadors and leaders who lead by example, never give up, always faithful.