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New runner makes first-ever race a Colorado 50K trail run

How a Boston-based financial analyst laced up his running shoes, trained for one summer, and ended up competing in a high country 50k

Paul Omar comes to a finish at the West Line Winder 50K in Buena Visa.
Kristi Mayo/Mile 90 Photography

In spring 2021, Paul Omar was working as a financial analyst remotely from his Roxbury, Massachusetts, apartment, where the combination of the ongoing pandemic, Boston’s stay-at-home orders and tax season took an emotional toll on the 26-year old. “I was at a really low point in my life in April,” remembered Omar. “I was really stressed out. I had a lot of anxiety. It got to the point where I couldn’t step outside without feeling really flustered. It was really bad.”

One day, his thumb stopped mid-Instagram scroll. A paragraph written by a new-to-running friend, detailing the impact of the sport on his life, stared at him. Two days later, the same user uploaded a simple photo of his running shoes, and this time, Omar was triggered. Not ready for a leap of faith, he though, “I’m going to go outside and not necessarily run, but just go for a walk.” He decided to leave the house, go to the top of nearby Mission Hill, and come back.

The first week of his running career was made up of three such jaunts, which were more like walks. At the start of week two, a Sunday in early April, he decided to start jogging at the top of the hill. He ran the remaining 1.7-mile loop back down to his house. Then, a pivotal thought, one which would set a pattern of positive self-talk throughout many much-longer, harder challenges, came into his head: What if he did 5 miles?



“It really started with me thinking, ‘How cool would it be if I did this,’” he recalled.

Then, he did.



“Holy crap, I just did 5 miles,” Omar recalled telling himself afterward. For this man, someone who bridges the gap between Dean Karnazes and the everyday Joe-bag-of-donuts, the moment was perfectly transcendent.

“Who knew I could have done this? I could have been doing this for years,” Omar said, echoing what all of us ought to be saying, too, even if it has nothing to do with sports. Omar’s running career had been launched, empowered by a trait sports psychologists identify in high-level performers: being your own best friend.

After the first of many turning points, though, his curiosity remained unsatiated.

“Paul, you still have some gas in you,” he said as he crawled into bed that night.

His last words before closing his eyes presciently claimed the next day, too. “Let’s go back tomorrow and see what you really have in you.”

The next evening, he set out with a plan to complete two 5-mile loops. Unknowingly, his method would train his mental game as much as his physical. “Every time I make this lap and go by my house, I’m leaving my comfort zone,” he recalled regarding his strategy. “I’m leaving the option to go back in my house and call it a day. I’m leaving that to go back up the hill.”

It took five hours. “It hurt more than the ultra marathon, to be honest,” he recollected. He had doubled his distance record. If the sweatpants-wearing, whatever-shoes-are-in-my-closet-donning rookie to the running world was cutting against the grain of proverbial training wisdom, he continued to demonstrate his above-average psychological intelligence. Satisfied, the voice inside his head charmed, “Oh my God! I just did 10 miles!”

Omar fondly remembers saying to himself that day, “What have I been leaving on this table? I didn’t even know I could have done 10 miles.”

The message: There is something inside of us we’ll never discover if we don’t step out of our comfort zones.

“It was more like a therapy session than a running session,” he said about those early Mission Hill repetitions.

Of course, no quest comes without cost — or failure — and for Omar, his first taste came early. After the 10 mile day, his innocent approach bit him in the back. He set out to reenact the prior night’s exploits, saying to himself, “If it was nice, let me do it twice.” When he reached the house 7.5 miles in, he was done. He quit, showered, and immediately felt the yoke of guilt attached to his premature escape from pain. “It was the first time I understood how much the mental aspect plays into this.”

It bothered him not to have reached his goal. The next day, he did not run, instead focusing on resetting his mind. By the end of the week, he had decided, for good, that a key part of his identity, from here on out, would be that he was a runner. “I want to be a person who runs,” he said, noting that distance and time were irrelevant, and that to him, the decision was more about ingraining good habits. Also, running was the vehicle he used to clear his mind.

To prove it to himself, he made it a goal to run every day. A thirst to find his limit drove him. “It really was just me seeing how far I could go,” he said. “That’s what drove me.” He had been running for two weeks and already was researching the viability of completing a full marathon. “Oh … that’s long,” he said to himself after a quick Google search, discovering the distance for the first time. “I didn’t think it was impossible. I just thought I didn’t have the time to do it.”

The morning after a midnight conversation with a buddy, Omar sporadically decided to dedicate a random Saturday — literally 8 a.m to 5 p.m. — to complete the 26.2 miles … on a treadmill. Powered by podcasts and Pepperidge Farm cinnamon bread, he broke the distance into 5-mile sections, after which he would sip water, eat a slice of bread, and mentally hunker down for the next bout. When he arrived at 20 miles, he experienced what most marathoners do — hitting the wall. “I was done, I was dead, I was gone,” he said about that moment.

The gym closed in 90 minutes, he had set a new distance record, and he was ready to call it a day. His positive self-talk habits came through in the clutch, however, spurning him on yet again. He got back on the treadmill, and reached his goal.

During the long run, a certain Joe Rogan podcast guest gave a message Omar especially connected with. Her name was Courtney Dauwalter. The Leadville-based athlete is one of the premier ultra runners in history, but it was her apparent lack of strictness that lured in the new runner. “She just seemed so nonchalant,” he said, remembering the episode. “It didn’t seem like she was grinding to do this. It seemed like she was just having fun while doing it. Like she just enjoyed it.”

Omar credits Dauwalter as a source of inspiration as he endured a long summer of training for his first-ever race in September: the West Line Winder 50K in Buena Vista.

And months later, he met his inspiration. Part way through the West Line Winder 50K, Omar nearly lost his footing as a runner from the lead pack, looping back on the slower runners, came upon him. It was Dauwalter, the eventual overall — male and female — winner.

All Omar could say to his inspiration, who would defeat all comers in the next day’s Sawatch Ascent 50K in Nathrop as well, was, “Yo!”

Even though Omar was embarrassed for not having more to say, if you slice it a different way, perhaps Dauwalter is the one who should have been awestruck by Omar.

“At the end of the day, it’s runners like Paul that, for me, make the work all worthwhile,” race director Kelsey Banaszynski wrote in an email after the race. “We are so excited to create an event that makes folks from all walks of life and new to the trails feel welcome.”

As he crossed the finish line in Buena Vista, the boisterous vocal support from onlookers disregarding his having missed the cutoff by 11 minutes, Omar’s plain white T-shirt stood out. A single sentence written across the chest in a small, basic font read: “Anybody can do what I do.”

“I bought this shirt with the intention of finishing the ultra marathon with this shirt so I could show my parents, friends, and anyone in general that you don’t have to come from a running background,” he said.

“I just want to show people: You don’t have to be the fastest, the strongest, the smartest, to do these great things,” he exclaimed when talking about his message. “You can just get out there and just go for it!”

Whether it is competing in a new race next year or establishing a new habit for life, Omar has advice for those of us feeling too timid to shake things up.

“It’s never too late to just get out there and do these things,” he urges.

“Just get out there and try. That’s the most important thing.”

 


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