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Q&A

Finding Purpose In Sport and In Life

  • April 14th 2019

Megan Roche is a physician, national ultra-running champion, professional coach, and clinical researcher at Stanford. With her husband David, she wrote the book “The Happy Runner: Love the Process, Get Faster, Run Longer.”

She spoke in the 2019 session The Science of Endurance and Superhuman Feats. We caught up with her about endurance in sport and in life.

You wear a lot of hats in your life: competitive runner, doctor, coach, author, and wife. How do you find the right balance?

I genuinely love all of the work that I do. Given that love, work usually feels like play and little things that could be viewed as sacrifices like early wake-ups or deadlines, become an enjoyable part of the process. Overall, the balance gives me confidence. When I am struggling with one aspect of life, I find I rely on other areas of life to give me strength. My husband helps too. He’s great at providing perspective, comedy, and pretty much all of the cooking.

For most of us, just the thought of running a 50-mile race is exhausting! Can you describe what it’s like at say, mile 42, during such a race?

I try to break down longer races into manageable chunks. When I’m on the start line of an ultramarathon, I never think about mile 42, but instead think about just getting to mile 5, then 10, and so on. Ultrarunning is about celebrating the little victories. I also try to zoom out for larger perspective. Running 50 miles is a bit of a ridiculous undertaking when you really think about it, so I try to remind myself that it’s a privilege to be carrying my body long distances and an opportunity to be pushing the limits of my own performance.

Your book The Happy Runner, gives tools to help people start their “own happy runner mission.” You wrote in Trail Runner Magazine that it may involve “thinking about life, love (of self and others) and mortality.” How can anyone, runner or not, live more fully?

I think one of the keys to living more fully is inching closer and closer to unconditional self-acceptance. Living a full life does not mean consistent happiness or striving towards perfection, it means working towards accepting ourselves whenever we can. Siri Lindley, a world champion triathlete, talks about the idea of “being fearlessly authentic to who we are.” If you work to combine authenticity and self-acceptance, it’s easier to focus on love and the things that truly matter in life. Mortality emphasizes the importance of these principles even more. We are all here for a short time and so we might as well appreciate where we are and who we are, laughing as much as we can along the way.

You’ve said that functioning at a high level — in sports, career, and relationship — is all about simplicity. Can you expound on that thinking?

I do very little outside of sports, career, and my family life. I find it’s hard for me to balance more than three disciplines at a time. Given that I love what I do and find joy in the simple things, I feel fulfilled. By itself that sentiment sounds easy, but it took difficult decisions and a re-evaluation of my path to get to the point where I love what I do each day. For example, I decided to forego clinical practice in favor of research, coaching, and writing. When I made that decision, I sketched out a dream work day. For me, that involves an early wake-up, a sunrise (or pre-sunrise) run, challenging work, time for creativity, and a pizza dinner date with my husband and dog. Every decision that I make is filtered through the lens of fitting into that dream day and continuing to find joy in simple things.

What best practices can amateur athletes and other mere mortals adopt to improve at any level?

I encourage the athletes that I coach to reflect on their “why.” If you compete long enough, work hard enough, dream big enough, eventually your brain will start asking the why questions: Why make sacrifices to do this at all? Why keep going in the face of failure? Having that why answered up front can prevent crises and promote consistency over time. It’s helpful if the why is grounded in internal justifications -- purpose, joy, or community -- rather than external justifications -- achievement, comparison, or judgement. Consistency over time is often what leads to improvement. Having a why answered up front makes consistency a heck of a lot easier.

Have humans reached our potential for peak performance, or is there still room for improvement?

I think that peak performance is still many miles up the trail in almost every athletic event. Athletes are constantly redefining what is possible through an exciting mix of evolving training philosophy, increased scientific understanding, and good old fashioned hard work. And I think that process is just getting started. It's a fun time to be an athlete, a sports fan, and a scientist!

The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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