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From Winning Belts to Earning Buckles

When I first meet a person, I try to avoid asking what they do for a living. Our occupations have become our identities when our identities should be more aligned with our hobbies and passion. I try to ask people what they like to do for fun or what their interests are. If you are reading this there is a high chance that you are a runner! I am also a runner, but I used to be a fighter. For many years I would train for four hours a day. I had nine fights in the cage and two fights in the ring.

I would walk around weighing 185lbs and I would cut down to 155lbs for each fight. This lifestyle wasn’t the healthiest, but it was a fantastic outlet for someone struggling with depression and anxiety. Once I turned 30, the weight cuts became extreme, and I realized my goals of competing at the highest level were out of reach. I decided to stop fighting to try to preserve what health I had left from all the fights and hours spent training.

The Runner

Without having MMA training as an outlet for myself, depression and anxiety slowly crept back into my life. My coworker told me that our company was sponsoring runners for the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. He asked if I thought I could run the marathon and without hesitation, I answered “of course”. So, after training for two weeks, I toed the line for the OKC marathon just to prove to my coworker that I could do it.

After almost six hours of pain and misery, I crossed the finish line. I wasn’t excited or proud, but I was curious if there was anything out there harder than a marathon. When you suffer from depression you can often forget to celebrate your wins. Each goal becomes a standard you expect to achieve so you don’t celebrate the accomplishment. After watching some YouTube videos, I discovered that Ultra Marathons existed, and they were mostly trail races in beautiful locations.

My wife told me that my two-week training program was not going to work for these ultra-distances, so I started to run trails and I ran often. It didn’t take long for me to notice running has an incredible effect on my mental health. The clarity received from a long trail run is like the clarity of your ears popping after getting off a long flight.

I always thought that being an introverted person meant I can’t be normal around groups of people. I have realized that being introverted means I charge my batteries by being alone just like extroverted people get energy from being around others. This realization made running mandatory for me. For me to be a successful leader and overcome social anxiety I needed trail time. The more time I spent running, the more energy I had to give to those around me. This explains why runners are runners. Introverted people run alone to recharge their social batteries and find peace. Extroverted runners may join running groups and get energy from the amazing people that they share miles with. Races are special because these introverts and extroverts come together with a common goal of making it from start to finish. Once you understand how running gives people energy you can then understand the bumper stickers, run clubs, Facebook groups, and running culture.

The Ultra Runner

I think the big turning point in improving my mental health is when I started embracing challenges that had a possibility of failure. My anxiety used to serve as a warning system to where if something made me nervous, it would mean I could fail and I shouldn’t attempt it. Today, my anxiety acts as a gauge to see if a challenge is worth pursuing.

All races are hard, but I would rather run 100 miles than run a 5k. That's because for a 5k you must run as hard as you can for 3.1 miles and I don’t want to run as hard as I can unless I am being chased by a wild animal! Having said that, I do have a lot of respect for people who run shorter distances. I once ran a shorter race, and I was very disappointed in my time. My wife told me “Don’t let a clock determine your success. You covered the distance you signed up to cover. If you want a bigger challenge run a longer race”.

Somehow within a year, I ran a 50k, 50 miles, 100k, and finally a 100-mile road race. None of these races were easy, but I made it across the finish line. Finally, at Dinosaur Valley 100-mile race I met my first defeat. This was my first trail 100 miler and I only made it 64 miles. The lessons learned from that race were greater than all the other finishes combined. Since I started running in 2019, I have run 14 different 100-mile races and I have finished ten of them. That means I have had four life-changing experiences within the last four years. Each race that I did not finish forced me to develop healthy habits, change my training, and become a better runner. The 100-mile distance for me is the distance where success is not guaranteed.

We all have our own versions of the 100-mile distance. We have no problem doing things when we know there is no chance of failing, but how many times are we willing to sign up for things knowing that there is a chance of not reaching the finish line? I encourage everyone to find their version of a 100-mile race and if there is a distance that makes you anxious then it just might be a distance worth trying.


When I first got into ultras, I was annoyed that there was not a lot of content on YouTube for these races. My friend said, “Why don’t you just get a GoPro and make your own videos?” I quickly learned why there is not a lot of running content, making running videos is hard work! I have found that making highlight videos of these races help me relive the experience. I get to be creative as I trim the clips down to fit within the rhythm of the background music.

People enjoyed the content, but they were wanting more commentary. So now I am working on putting myself on camera more throughout these 100-mile races. I cannot explain to you how hard this is for me. It is difficult to hear my voice and listen to myself talk and then edit it into a highlight video. My videos have been somewhat successful and well-received. I will continue to put myself into these videos more and more and maybe one day I will have the confidence to tell the story that you are reading now to the YouTube audience. My YouTube channel is called Run Trails Eat Bacon. When I go to races now people call out BACON! Or it’s the guy from YouTube! I guess this means I am officially a YouTuber.

We Decide Who We Are

So, after reading this you may have a pretty good idea of who I am. You know a little about my struggles and my successes. You know I am a fighter, runner, ultra-runner, and YouTuber, yet you have no idea what I do for a living. We decide who we are not by our occupations but by our hobbies and passion.

Prioritizing mental health has helped me strengthen my identity. I challenge you to find your 100-mile race. It may be a marathon or it may be running a mile without stopping. It's your choice.

I also challenge you to share how you celebrate when you achieve your goals. This is something I still struggle with but would like to improve on. I wrote this after reading the other personal stories on Still I Run. At the very least I hope this inspires others to share their stories. We all have a story to tell, and they are more interesting than you think.


By Justin Smith

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