Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bon Courage

If you've ever been running in France at some point someone will probably say 'Bon courage' to you. It doesn't have an exact English equivalent, but I would say it means something along the lines of be brave, stay strong, hang in there, good luck and you can do it - all rolled into one phrase.

Courage - the English word is easy to understand. Why keep running, why not stop?

Steve Prefontaine said

"A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts"
Steve Prefontaine - the good don't always dies young, but sometimes that do. Plus that moustache alone should make him a hero

Ultra running is just that. The fittest and the fastest don't always finish, the ones with the most guts do.

Stories Of 'Ordinary Madness'

Every race or event has there stories. Not so much the short runs, but when you go long, over hours and days ordinary people start to do epic things. The Trans Aq this year was no different. Here are few snap shots.

A young Japanese competitor injured his knee a day or two in, not just a niggle, but a swelling and haemarthrosis. Forced to slow down to a walking pace and hobble, he kept going all the way to the finish line. Bowing his head every time someone passed him out on the trail. The cheer that went up when he crossed the line and everyone patting him on the back, showed how much everyone respected him for what he had done.

A British guy, again injuring his knee on day 2, unable to bend it, but again just kept going all the way to the finish.

Another British guy, twisted his ankle, an old injury, strapped up he kept going. Maybe the demons of abandons in the MDS and a previous Trans Aq kept him going. But he finished this one, the demons vanquished for a while.

Another British guy, went the wrong way on day 3, the long day, added approximately another 3k to the total distance for that day (took him to about 62 or 63km for that day if I remember). The race leader also went the wrong way on that day, but he abandoned after that. The fittest don't always finish, the ones who want it and have the most guts do.

(Plus there is some luck, one person bitten by an insect and having an anaphylactic reaction had to abandon, not much you can do about that).

'Conquistadors Of The Useless'

Of course, carrying on in the face of major injury seems illogical and insane to the outsider looking in. And in everyday real life if someone had a haemarthrosis or oedema and swelling or ankle sprain I would tell them to stop immediately, rest, ice, elevate, as well as taken all the usual painkillers and anti-inflammatories. In ultra runs, you only end up doing the very last of these things.

But why risk permanent injury, it doesn't make sense in the real world. In the hyper-reality of the event though, it makes perfect sense.

Even in my own case, I injured myself, blood coming out of my right heel, eventually turning into an open wound. Even now, three weeks after the event it is still healing, I tried running this morning and had to curtail it and return home. But during the event it didn't even occur to me to stop, I didn't even get medical treatment on during the event as I didn't want to get a time penalty. Again, sitting here in the middle of everyday life this doesn't make sense, but out there on the trail it made perfect sense.

Why do ordinary people keep going and push themselves? Because the demons are chasing them, the demons of possible failure, the demon memories of previous abandons, the demons of unfinished business. And these are all self imposed demons. No one back at home cares whether you finish or not, you could go back and say you had to abandon, and they would say 'Oh well, are you going to do it again then, cup of tea?'. The demons are all constructs in your own mind. They will chase you down the trail, down the fire breaks, across the black top of the fire roads in the forest, over the sand dunes all the way to final stretch on the beach. And when you see the ocean, it looks bluer than it did a few days before. You left the demons behind, don't stop, don't look back, you've out run them; for a while at least. When the state of grace fades, they'll be back and the next challenge will form in your mind.

To the outsider it can seem like you are a conquistador of the useless. No prize money, no fame, no acclaim, you could of stayed at home and been a conquisatodor of the mundane. This only seems useless if you are the type of person who is content with the comfort, who never looks to the horizon and wonders 'what if' and 'could I do that'? Bon courage to all those who think this and attempt to reach their goal in whatever their chosen field is.

All is mythic. Everyone has their own story. The reason you hang in there, and you stay strong and have courage is because ordinary life bumbles along. In the words of Neil Young

'It's better to burn out than to fade away' and 'Rust never sleeps'

These are the moments you will look back, did I do that, yes I did that. 'When I get old hope I don't sit around thinking about it, but I probably will', Glory Days indeed. Even if it leaves you with 'nothing but boring stories mister', what's the alternative, no stories at all?


These events are exercises in transformation,  internal alchemy. You are defined by the things you do. I read something by strength coach Vern Gambetta recently

'Define yourself, do not let others define you'

So to all you Trans Aq finishers, bon courage, to all of you out there defining who you want to be, bon courage, and to all of you about to push your limits in some fashion, bon courage. Keep moving forward, because moving backwards ain't no move at all.

The Trans Aq was only 3 weeks ago, but already ordinary life is over taking. It becomes harder and harder to capture the essence of what it is.To try and take an experience and verbalise it.

Michael Herr in Dispatches (page 30 for those of you following along)

'This is already a long time ago, I can remember the feelings but I can't still have them. A common prayer for the over-attached: You'll let it go sooner or later, why not do it now?'

The final word goes to Steve Prefontaine again

'You have to wonder at times what you're doing out there. Over the years, I've given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement.'
Simple as that. Stay Frosty and if I see you on to road somewhere, bon courage! Yes, you are a runner, this is what you do. And as the years fly past, it will begin to seem like a series of dreams.

*Conquistadors of the Useless is the name of a book by Lionel Terray about mountaineering and stuff which I need to buy and read at some point.
And yes, this post does reference a Bruce Springsteen song as well.

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