Waist Deep in a Defining Priorities Moment


Deep Creek at flood stage.

We all face moments in our careers and lives that hold just a bit more significance than the rest. Some moments may mean even more. They can challenge our values, detour our plans and define our future in a matter of seconds.

Let me give you an example.

It’s been about three months since I climbed the sand dunes of Jockey’s Ridge to complete my 24-day, 711-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail run through North Carolina. I will never forget Day One.

At noon on Saturday, May 11, I jogged down the ramp of Clingman’s Dome observation tower at the Tennessee/North Carolina border in steady rain. After months of planning and training, the time was finally here to head off into the woods and achieve my goal of setting the fastest-known-time on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

That dream didn’t last long.

With my dad crewing me for the first week, I met him about four miles down the trail at the first of countless makeshift “aid stations” along my journey. The trail, I mean stream, was water-logged with slick rocks and roots making every step treacherous. I took it slow and steady, trying to not think about how one wrong step could take me out of the run just hours in.

The next section featured a 22-mile section through the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park with major climbs and descents in remote wilderness. I packed my backpack with extra supplies and took off down a steep mountainside in the pouring rain. After five miles, I reached aptly-named Deep Creek at the bottom of a massive ravine. I knew there would be a number of creek crossings on this section, but after days of rain, the river swelled to four feet of deep rushing whitewater.

After some recon up and down the riverbank, I found no better crossing point. I put my phone in my backpack to stay dry and grabbed two sticks to help me dig into the creek bed for stability. Thanks, Bear Grylls.

I took a few steps into the water and felt the current knock me off-balance toward the rocky rapids downstream. About a third of the way across, I hit the deepest and fastest water. The next step with my right foot could either land steady or sweep me down the river with the slightest slip. Just nine miles into a proposed 711-mile run, I reached a defining moment. Do I risk attempting to cross this flooded creek or do I turn back and sacrifice my chances of setting the fastest-known-time?

As leaders in campus recreation, we often face decisions that make us feel like we are stuck in a raging river with no “good” option. Some examples include natural disasters hitting campus, major programming snags, unfortunate human resource situations or conflicts between different stakeholder groups (i.e. students vs. external users).

These are defining moments. They reveal our true values and priorities as an individual and organization.

As I stood up to my waist in whitewater contemplating moving my right foot toward the other shore, my priorities became crystal clear. Completing the trail was worth investing the money, time, and potential minor injuries. It was not worth the pain it would cause my fiance, family and friends if I took a fatal plunge down this river. No help was coming anytime soon, if at all.

Instead, I moved my left foot and headed back toward safety, breaking both of my “support” sticks in the process. Thanks for nothing, Bear Grylls.

It’s not the dilemma that matters; it’s our decisions that define us.

Ben Strunk
Ben Strunk currently serves as the assistant director of sports programs at NC State University Wellness and Recreation. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Ben earned bachelor's degrees in journalism and sports management at Ohio University ('12) and a master's degree in sport management at the University of Florida ('14) where he served as a competitive sports graduate assistant for the department of recreational sports. Ben is also the creator of Fat Guys Running Marathons, where he writes about his ultramarathon adventures and aims to inspire others to #achieveanything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *