lacing up for the long haul with zac marion
For Zac Marion, running is not only an outlet but a way to regulate, to reset. “One thing I've gathered over time,” he says, “is knowing that movement helps me process a lot of those mental emotions I experience. Running and movement have not only been a way to meditate everyday, but it's also been an opportunity to hormonally regulate a little bit better. It's my daily anchor – it anchors me to reality and allows me to connect with myself to then bring my best self to the rest of my day.”
This day in age, if you were to go searching for information on Zac, you’d likely head to his Instagram page. There, you’ll find images of him racing, running through stunningly beautiful landscapes, and testing his limits. But take a deeper look and you’ll find there is so much more to Zac’s story. Believe it or not, it doesn’t start with running. In fact, there was a point in Zac’s life when he found it difficult to walk up a flight of stairs, let alone go for a run.
As a kid, Zac was often referred to as, “big boned” or, “just one of the bigger kids.” The recurrence of hearing that sticks with you and over time. “I just kind of accepted it,” Zac says. “And that’s how I worked through life–I guess this is what I am.” It wasn’t until his mid twenties that he had what one might coin as a lightbulb moment. “I vividly remember walking up a flight of stairs up to my apartment and I got two flights up and had to stop and catch my breath because I had an arm full of groceries. I thought, someone should be able to do this–this is not okay. And literally, the next day, I went out for my first run.”
Running has an extremely low barrier to entry. “I just threw on whatever sneakers I had and went out for a run because I knew it was quick, it was easy, it was all I had time for.” While not his favorite activity, he became dedicated to the process of getting in shape and feeling better about himself. This dedication turned into losing 100 pounds in a year. Zac notes, “I started this daily process of checking in with myself. I was able to find this flow-state activity that allowed for me to re-anchor to myself. Instead of an activity that I had to do, it became a ritual that I looked forward to every day. I ran the same loop for probably six, seven months, six days a week. I didn't even know how long it was and I had no idea how fast I was doing it, but that was my ritual, every day. And that was arguably when I enjoyed running the most.”
That flow-state and re-anchoring didn’t just affect Zac’s body composition. “I was feeling better about myself, I was feeling more confident, I was checking in every single day,” Zac says. “It translated into school, it translated into everything into my life.”
What started as running the same loop day in and day out, turned into so much more. “Anything I do, I tend to want to go all in with. I'm not a “half” kind of person.” Which is worth noting, why? Zac’s neighbor had noticed him running and when that same neighbor needed to fill a spot on a team for an endurance running event it was Zac he thought of to ask. “I was not very confident when I signed up. I wasn’t even sure if I could do it,” Zac says. Although a competitor at heart and unsure as to why this group was going out to race just for fun, Zac committed. His very first leg of that race was a 5 kilometer run (or 3.1 miles) which he completed in under 17 minutes. That’s about a 5:30 mile pace. What makes this story even better is that Zac had been running with no metrics. No watch. No idea of pace or mileage. Just running. Being the “all in” character that he is, Zac found himself committing to a half marathon just two weeks after that first race, and after a first place finish in his age group, his competitive side kicked into gear. Showing up to that race Zac notes, “I was the guy that was wearing a pair of TJ Maxx running sneakers, some gym shorts and a cutoff t-shirt. These other runners up front were in their split shorts and singlets and they were looking at me like, ‘this person doesn't belong here.’ I think that's a driving factor for me–when people tell me I can't do something, I'm like, let me prove to you that I can.” And man, he did. “Maybe I wasn’t the fittest or technically the fastest, but I can dig deep when it comes to my ego, my pride, and wanting to prove something,” says Zac. Following the half marathon, Zac realized that not only had he discovered something that benefited his mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, but he had discovered something that he had the ability to compete in. “I do enjoy competition,” he says. “I would be a complete liar if I said I didn't do this because I want to do well. But now, I have a different understanding of what competition means than I used to. I want to see how far I can push myself and how far the human body can go.”
When Zac first started getting into running competitively, his goal was to get out there, have fun, compete, and see how well he could do. The act of running was just for him. Once he became a sponsored athlete, something he hadn’t anticipated, he found himself no longer racing for himself. “My identity became who I was as an athlete and the name across my chest,” Zac says. “Everything became about the race and the race result.” And when your identity changes like that, it becomes easy to be consumed with either success or failure. “As a coach now, I see so many athletes who get caught up in the metrics of it–in the pace, the time, the placement in races.” The thing about metrics is, they’re never 100% consistent. They’re extremely useful as a tool and a guide throughout training but there’s also a level of trust for one’s self and the ability to listen to one’s body that comes into play. As Zac calls out, your value does not come from your numbers. That’s a reason why he emphasizes the importance of having a strong mentality. “I think the mental aspect of training and having a good mindset going into it is important and diversifying your self worth, your self value,” he says.
This mentality shift shows up for Zac in a variety of ways within his running. “My focus is more about the pursuit of fitness and the pursuit of chasing those goals. Races are still goals–there's still opportunities to test myself to see how my training's been going and the pursuit up to that point. But my end goal is far beyond the finish line of any race. It's a lifelong pursuit that I'm chasing now and switching back to that has created such a healthier relationship with running, with racing, and with competition.” In the end, it really is all about the pursuit. While Zac may be able to tell you who won last year’s Western States (the Super Bowl of all 100 mile races), in his mind, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter? “What matters is what I take away from it–the character building experiences, the personal experiences. I'll never forget certain sunrises and sunsets during races. And I can't tell you how I finished in that race. I could never tell you a place, but I've changed my focus to exploring the most and getting the most out of the day. And some days that means I win races. Some days it doesn't. And it's okay. But I'm walking away with far more from that finish line than just a number in a placement.”
From running a few miles in worn out tennis shoes and gym shorts to running Ultra Marathons and endurance races, running has become an extension of who Zac is. It flows through his blood. As someone who’s openly talked about his struggles with depression, Zac has been able to utilize his strides as a way to process. “Mental fortitude, your mind, it’s a muscle,” Zac says. “Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you want to look at it, having gone through depression and having felt a lot of pain in a lot of different ways, I can get into a really dark, painful place and I can live there pretty comfortably because I’ve survived that pain. Because I’m still here.” That dark place Zac speaks of is what he attributes a lot of his success in longer, 100 mile races too. “I don't just get into the pain cave,” he says. “I redecorate while I'm there. I'll live in it.” That pain became all too familiar for Zac again last year when he lost his brother. “Losing my brother last year was a really, really tough, emotionally and mentally draining experience,” he says. But part of what running has allowed him to do, is recognize that he is capable of getting through those extremely difficult times. While grief and healing is a forever journey instead of being a victim, I look forward to running in the mountains because that's where I feel closest to him. I’ll go out and run off all of that daily energy that we bring on and we take on throughout the day. Then, once I find my flow state, I become a lot more connected to myself and to whatever higher powers you believe in and for me, those are moments I feel closer to brother.”
It’s not just these euphoric running moments where Zac has felt his brother. “He was a very competitive athlete as well and I know he’d be cheering me on from the sidelines. There’s been races where I’ve felt like I was falling apart but then I can just hear him, his voice, Come on, dude, you got this!” Zac has been able to reframe his outlook on grief and hardship and instead of falling victim to it, he’s become empowered by it. And when you think about Zac’s story, it’s really full circle. “For me, endurance sports is all about being comfortable with the uncomfortable, whether that's mentally, emotionally or physically. I think we all gain a mental perspective when we succeed in transcending that discomfort, transcending that pain.” For Zac, he’s been able to take things that have happened to him and transcend them through running. Instead of sitting with the discomfort, he’s decided to move through it.
Moving through emotions becomes just a touch easier when you find landscapes to run through that sound like they’re straight out of a Lord of the Rings movie. When asked about his favorite loop, Zac notes the Alta Brighton Loop in the Wasatch Mountains. “It starts in one ski resort, crosses over the ridge into another ski resort and then comes back. You go through so many different terrains, plenty of dirt. And if you catch it just in the right season in July, you get wildflower season and the Albion Basin is just blown up with all different colors. It's absolutely gorgeous.” Sounds like running through a real-life painting.
Running is one of the biggest metaphors for life and the more you put into it is exactly what you're going to get out of it. You can't you can't go into the gym and not put in a lot of work, but expect to be able to hit a new squat max. It takes time. It takes dedication. It takes patience. Running is no different. You’ve got to bake the cake before you can eat it. - Zac Marion
While not many may experience that light bulb moment that struck Zac, if you’re looking to start, or get back into running, Zac will tell you it all starts with one key word: patience. “Be patient with the process,” he says, “it does take time. It can take from 4 to 6 weeks from your run today for it to show up completely in your body in terms of the adaptations. So don't expect to run today and feel great tomorrow.” Just like many things in life, there’s no quick fix or protocol that’s going to make you an incredible runner overnight. Patience is a virtue. “Be patient and kind with yourself and commit to knowing your why,” Zac says, “because that’s what’s going to get you to lace up your shoes in the morning.” Another key point? Having consistency. “Consistency is the most important thing. That's what tells our body to adapt and to change and to turn into something,” Zac notes. “Your body is really, really great at doing whatever it's used to doing. So if it's not used to running, guess what? It's really good at not running. So, give yourself some time and have trust in the process and at the end of the day celebrate every single little victory, even if it's just getting the run done for the day.”
As Zac’s more recent focus has shifted to coaching, one can learn so much from his story. When you think about it, running really is simple: move yourself from Point A to Point B as effectively and efficiently as possible. The physical act is one thing, but if we’ve learned anything, it's that running can transcend the physical and emotional wellbeing of a person and become something so much more–something spiritual. It can be a guide to navigate times of triumph and defeat, assist one in recognizing their true strength and an anchor to one’s inner self.