ML Cavanaugh

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

According to legend, Prometheus stole knowledge (in the form of fire) from the gods and gave it to humanity, which, apparently was packaged in shoe-form for me.

“Daddy, those are your fire shoes,” my four-year-old told me when I first opened the box. They’re three-quarters engulfed in a blazing red, with heels of white, as if some shoe company elf had simply walked off his assembly line before finishing the bright red paint job. We’d just gotten back from camping and so fire must’ve been top of my little pyromaniac’s mind.

Sometimes kids call our attention to see things we miss, and this was one of those moments.

Running is an act of safe self-immolation, but what’s weird is what’s left is stronger and purer than what first entered the flames. And with runners readying themselves for fall races likely numbering in the hundreds of thousands across the state, it seems like now’s the right time to share a couple stories from the road to illustrate the point.

Running reveals. It’s raw but honest. It’s who you really are versus what social media tells you. You can always lie to yourself, but the finish line never does. And it’s paradoxical, because you often find that it’s in your physically weakest moment you feel your greatest accomplishment of strength, when you’ve fired every round of stockpiled energy-ammo and lay limp from the expenditure, grinning.

Noble as that may sound, it’s not always pretty. It’s spit and sweat. Tears and dust. And much worse.

Like when, early on a morning run this past summer, I set out on my normal loop through the Garden of the Gods. Halfway through, something just didn’t feel right. Cable for the audio player alright? Check. Shirt tucked in? Check. Hmmm… what’s that… breeze?

I looked down in horror to my own “uniform malfunction,” one that made Janet Jackson’s mishap at the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show seem tasteful by comparison.

A terrifying thought flashed: When? How long? Did that little old walking couple I pass nearly every day see? Could I ever face them again? Running reveals the bad and the ugly.

But sometimes it gets us to the good, which isn’t always physical. Sometimes running’s cathartic, the “runner’s high,” a revelation about life and its direction and these moments can be true gifts that only come when the lungs are empty and the soul is full.

My moment came at Manitou’s Pikes Peak Marathon in 2008. I had a break in service from the military and I missed it; I’d failed in law school and a relationship. As the American economy began to tank, my life crashed.

I was at a crisis point, a pivot, a bend in my life’s space-time continuum, and so somehow preparing for and finishing this race meant more than just traversing some set distance. Finishing meant something to me.

And as I neared the finish line, zigging and zagging my way to the end on the Barr Trail’s endless Ws, that’s when a lightning bolt of blended sadness and joy struck me. I started to cry. Not tiny tears. Buckets. Overfull buckets. It wasn’t pain, or even happiness. It was something more. It was a sense of wholeness. Completion. I felt full, like I’d progressed in some way, beyond any race distance. And then…

…that’s when I fell hard. Twice, which meant I crossed the finish line with bloody knees and a toothy smile.

In hindsight, that might’ve been the Almighty’s reminder to keep my eyes on the trail. I don’t know. It’s hard to describe what that wave of emotion felt like. But it felt important. Meaningful. And ever since I’ve known that running burns everything away for me — the distractions, the abstractions, the frictions, the fictions. The self-generated harm that holds up progress. And I know that what’s left is the better stuff worth keeping.

After granting us the gift of fiery knowledge — Prometheus was tortured, revealing a tragic Greek truism we’d do well to keep close — pain and insight are often a package deal. We suffer to wisdom, just as we struggle to strength. So I’ll hold onto those fire shoes. They make great ash.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, a professor of practice with Arizona State University, and co-edited, with author Max Brooks, Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict, from Potomac Books.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, a professor of practice with Arizona State University, and co-edited, with author Max Brooks, Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict, from Potomac Books.

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