Brendan Leonard Pushes Way Past His Pain
The creative was a reluctant runner until he realized that telling himself stories could get him through any distance—and help him be the person he wants to be
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Brendan Leonard shared his story with producer Paddy O’Connell for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It was edited for length and clarity.
I needed to be training for this race, so I just decided to do laps on this road until I hit 52 miles and 12,000 feet of elevation gain. I saw somebody when I was training and they saw how many laps I was doing and they said, “What are you training for?”
And I said, “Something way worse.”
I grew up in a bunch of small towns in Iowa. I am a writer, artist, filmmaker, ultra-runner, dad. And I have a brand called Semi-Rad that I’ve been sort of figuring out how to use to avoid a day job for almost 11 years now. My chiropractor called me an athlete last week and I was like, Whoa, bud, I don’t know about that. I feel like athletes can probably touch their toes.
My passion is not relaxing. I like to do things. I think a lot about making yourself do hard things, and what’s the point? To keep me in whatever type of physical condition I’m in right now, which is fairly okay for a man of my vintage. I set up what I call a fear based fitness plan, where you pick out something to do a few months down the road that’s big enough to scare you into preparing for it.
Running a Marathon a Week—For a Year
In 2019, I was turning 40 and I wanted to do something interesting. I was living in Denver and I decided that I was gonna try to run 52 marathons in a year. Not marathon races, but 26.2 mile runs. I realized I could run a hundred mile ultra-marathon. Not, well mind you—I’m not like a fast person—but I could be in shape for it if all I did was run 40 miles a week. Like that was all I needed to do. And 40 miles a week also being a great number for me to eat basically as much pizza as I wanted.
I think it was January 2, I was staying at my parents’ house in Iowa and I just went and ran down a gravel road until I got to whatever, 13.1 miles, then turned around. Got home, 26.2 miles, it went okay. So a few days later I ran another one and then I just kept going through the year. And in the middle of this year, I signed up for my second 100-mile ultra-marathon, which was the Hellbender 100, in North Carolina, which is really, really hard and steep. This was easily the hardest thing I’d ever done physically at that point.
It’s dark, you’re by yourself. A lot of the time in the forest, not a ton of views. It’s just lower altitude, There’s really no time above treeline in the entire race. And I got to about mile 65 and realized I was having some sort of hot spots on the bottom of my feet and they turned into blisters. By mile 70 or 75, I had pain that was just shooting up into my legs from the bottoms of my feet, and it kept getting higher. It was this crazy amount of pain, to the point where every step I would grunt because that seemed to help with the pain.
I had this one moment where I was going through this big stand of trees and I’m by myself. I haven’t seen a headlamp in hours. And I thought, Man, this would be a really great spot for an ax murderer to come flying out of the trees and kill me, like in a Friday the 13th movie or something like that. And then I thought, Why are you thinking that? This is like three to four in the morning. You know, like, Why are you doing that right now? Just kinda shook my head: idiot.
I’m a complete disaster, grunting with every single step, just trying to get through it. I’m in so much pain. It’s so stupid. Why am I doing this? Just grinding this thing out.
I have had these moments running long distances in the mountains where I feel almost like a freight train at some point. Where I’m a machine and I can keep this pace going and I’m just moving. And there’s this joy in this well-paced moving, where you’re just like, duh, duh, duh, and you kind of feel unstoppable for a few seconds or a few minutes. I had a few moments of that. You think, I gotta finish this race. Just keep moving.
I ended up getting through it. People like me, the whole value of it is the finishing. Objectively, I’m always doing poorly. I’m not winning any of these races. So it’s up to me whether I want to finish or not.
When you meet somebody, maybe on an airplane or in conversation, and they find out you are like a marathon runner or ultra-marathon runner, a lot of times, people who don’t run will say, Oh, I could never do that. And I don’t believe them most of the time. If you can keep going for one more minute, you’ll be fine. If you’re me and you’re trying to run a hundred-mile mountain race, you’re out there for like 30 hours. You can break those 30 hours down into bad minutes and good minutes. And if you’re going through a bad minute and you can keep going for another minute, it’ll go away. The pain will move to a different part of your body, or you’ll forget about it for a minute and your brain will go somewhere else. So if you just get through the minute you’re in, you’ll get to the next one. And then you’ll be prepared for the next bad minute, whenever that is.
My brain just shuts off for a long time and you just kind of keep trudging ahead.
People don’t like running. I get that. It’s not that fun. It’s a very ridiculous thing to do, like putting yourself in so much pain because you’ve decided that this race has meaning for some reason. Hopefully it prepares you for other hard things or whatever. Or gives you some sort of confidence or identity, or helps you deal with things in your past. But everybody’s got their own reasons.
If you finish, you tell yourself a story that you’re successful for some reason. And if you don’t finish, you tell yourself another story that there were a lot of positive things that happened, or you found out what you wanted to find out. We all have success and failure and we sort of interpret those in different ways. I don’t know. Finishing is an easy one for me. It’s like, okay, got that taken care of. It’s done. I don’t have to do it again now. Thank God.
The person you want to be would do it. I think about that. Like, Oh, the person I wanna be would finish this race. That’s way too cheesy, but if that’s what keeps you going.
Brendan Leonard is a humorist, essayist, artist, and doer of often silly, often grueling things in the mountains. You can follow his misadventures and his work on Instagram @semi_rad and subscribe to his enthusiastic email newsletter at semi-rad.com/subscribe.
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