Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hotel Ultra Run: Some Run To Remember, Some Run To Forget

Your hand hovers over the button. You pause for a second. Then. Click. Your in, you've paid for it, you've entered an ultra run.


The first time you did it, you could rationalise it, someone asked you to do the event with them (thanks Dad!), but the second time you entered, it was your decision, no one asked you to do anything. So why?

And people ask you why, and you fumble around for an answer. If you look quickly out the corner of your eye, you can almost glimpse the answer, but then its gone.

Of course, the question wouldn't even arise if your hobby was playing Sunday football, or golf or fishing or running a 10k. But you're not. Ultra running is like mountaineering, everyone wants to know why. It seems outside the realm of everyday activity.

I can tell you up front, there is no answer. The answer is the act itself. Being in it and doing it. Living it. But the reason people sign up in the first place. Having said there is no answer, I'm going to give it a go, try to explain why people sign up in the first place. The first few explanations are quite prosaic, feel free to skip to the hurt locker moment section.

The athlete - the easy answer

This is the easiest reason. Someone is a really good athlete, maybe they run a marathon in 2.30, may be they've  run trails their whole life. Genetically gifted, they are in it to win. Though again it doesn't make sense why they've entered an event that has no cash prize, little chance of sponsorship and you can't make a living from. So even for this group the answer is not so clear cut.

Tough Of The Track Types

These guys are the seasoned runner. They've tried everything, every weekend you'll see them doing 10k and half marathons and all the big city marathons, they are most likely to be a member of a running club. They aren't necessarily the fastest, but they are dedicated. They've had enough of the carnival that is the big city marathon with tens of thousands of people crowding onto the roads, it's a logical extension of trying to run them all. They can be the most logical and prosaic of runners, its just another event to be done and overcome, like an exercise in geometry, another puzzle to be solved by training.

Interestingly this group also seems to be the ones who try an ultra run once, hate it, and never come back. They can become the 'never again types'. It could be because the training is somewhat solitary, and most clubs don't cater for it. But mostly, it seems they can't cope with the broken rhythm. Unlike, a flat road marathon, you can't switch off and get into your 'zone' and run. And there is a group of runners who hate this idea, the fact the trail makes you concentrate, the fact that some hills have to be walked. Tick the box, and do another one.

Souvenir Hunters - skip over this section to avoid getting angry

There a small group of people who do these things because it is the done thing. Something to talk about in the bar after a hard day of banking. I've heard stories of people turning up to the Marathon De Sables with no intention of doing it or even getting passed day 1, they get their photo taken at the start line and then abandon. Then during meetings they can tell clients 'oh yes, I've been to the MDS'. If I meet them, I will palm strike them or hit them with the wet kipper of reality. I hope this is a small minority, and they don't ruin it for everyone else. As they are taken up a space that a true runner could have had. Anyway, putting this group to one side, most people do it because of the hurt locker moment.

The Hurt Locker Moment

You're in the supermarket. The isles are full of stuff you don't want, you look around, everyone is on autopilot, like shopping drones, they're already dead. A small child is crying, a parent is scolding them or ignoring them and a couple is trying to have an argument without anyone hearing. Fuck, is this it, is this all life is going to be? You just had the 'hurt locker moment'. Named after the supermarket scene from the film.

Most people who enter ultra runs are not super athletes or even seasoned runners. They are the ones who came face to face with the hurt locker moment and acted upon it.

The hurt locker moment can strike at anytime during routine everyday activities. Maybe, you're sitting on the commuter train watching everyday as the newly built housing estates rush passed the window, and past the advert that says 'Feel like your wasting your life commuting' ( yes a real advert, oh, the irony, the commuters have to go past this advert everyday into London, attached to the outside of a new apartment block complex) maybe you're sitting in traffic, gridlock in the city, windscreen wipers and rain, maybe your sitting in your cubicle at work with people you have nothing in common with all around you. You get up, go to work, come home, watch TV that you have no interest in, until one day something breaks. It's the hurt locker moment.

Turn on the computer and search. Maybe it was an article you remember half reading, there's a spark of something you have to pursue. With the internet, something that was once hard to find, and diffuse and esoteric is now easy to find. These things are gaining in popularity, a reaction against the humdrum. Next thing you know, you're in the desert.

Because in modern life, there are no more frontiers, you can't head west, there is no unknown territory, you can't be an explorer anymore or go the the new world. There are no more discoveries in the most literal sense. But all these things can be experienced internally. Every individual has there own internal map, there are personal discoveries to be had, there are mental frontiers to be explored.

You want to find your limits, modern life doesn't let you, it protects you and cocoons you and wears you down in the most nefarious way. You want to turn the Blackberry off, and answer to no one. You want to simplify.

Run, Eat, Sleep, Run, Eat, Sleep repeat. Routine.

And be careful what you wish for. The trail will be break you down. And deep down you want it to. You don't tell anyone, but you want to find the limit, at what point will you break? The attrition is one way. There will be parts of you left on the trail, in the forest, in the desert that you will never get back. And you wouldn't have it any other way.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms"
                          - Henry David Thoreau

Marathon Monks - missing the point - Siddhartha already tried this so you don't have to

If you don't know what the marathon monks of Mount Hiei do, then have a look at the video clip below. (The youtube link below this is much better and in depth, but that video can't be embedded here so you will have to click on the link to see it)

longer video on the marathon monks

You can take it too far. An exercise in flagellation. Some see it as some kind of atonement, they run because of something in there past to make amends, they want the pain to wash their sins away. It's an escape, like some French foreign legion moment, they want to forget. This is a flawed reason, in the words of Tony Soprano "There is no geographical solution to an emotional problem".

Or they think there will be some kind of spiritual awakening. If you watched the marathon monk videos above, you know the crazy things they do. 80km a day, every day for a 1000 days, wearing a pair of straw sandals, a crazy hat (only a matter of time before Raidlight make a version of this hat) and a lantern. In this Tendai sect of Buddhism, if the monk fails, he is meant to kill himself (it's a Japanese samurai culture thing). If he makes it through all this, he then gets to sit down for 9 days without food, water or sleep. I believe, it used to be longer, but too many of them died! Now with no disrespect to the monks they may have missed the point, this path does not guarantee any satori or break through. Siddhartha (Gautama Buddha, the Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha - all the same person) already tried all this ascetic stuff on his road to enlightenment so you don't have to. He hung out with all the crazy ascetics, who sat in the middle of fires, and then starved themselves to the edge of death to look for meaning; and he realised it was a waste of time. He then pursued the middle way, of meditation.

Don't go looking for answers on the trail. People sometimes ask if you had any type of break through or spiritual experience on these type of extreme events, and the answer is no. If you switch off, or zone out, you will step on a pine cone, or fall down a hole or go the wrong way. So, in the way people ask you the answer is no. But in the purest Zen sense the answer is yes. Because, when you run, you are in the present moment, you must concentrate when trail running or you will fall over, there is no switching off. When you eat, just eat, when you wash up, just wash up, when you run, just run. Like a moving koan. And then the pain will kick in, you drop you sachet of energy drink and you're wondering where the aid station is; as it should be, the everyday concerns of making it through.

Average Joe

"because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"
                                                  - Jack Kerouac

Most people who enter ultra runs are 'normal', not superhuman, but there not average, because who wants to be average. In the marathon monk clip, one of the monks says

"When I was a salary-man, my life was passive"
This makes sense to me. Everyday life can seem disempowering, who's in control? Some boss you have no respect for? Ultra running is a chance to be active, to take responsibility, to do it on your own terms. To take a lead role in your own journey, because ultimately only you can wake up and make that decision, and do the training, and pack the rucksack and run the distance.

And on the trail, in the camp, you will meet like minded people, and the camaraderie, and living outside, stripping life down to the basics will connect you. You will never see most of them again, but you will remember them. Unspoken.

Because, whats the alternative, take up Sunday football or fishing, or sit at home watching formula one and decay? But everyone else does that, and you don't want to be like everyone else. Maybe it is an ego thing, but you want to be different and live life on the edges.

There is a moment just after you finish the race and just before the crashing come down of 'what do i do now?'. In between these two moments, there is a space, and in this space you feel invincible. And it may only last a millisecond, but for that moment you are bullet proof, anything is possible. And you might be walking down the high street, or you might be sitting in your car, or you might be at work, and that feeling will flash over you; and you'll smile to yourself, for a second you're invincible again, alive again; and average people are walking by and they will never understand. And that's okay, it doesn't make them bad people. And over time that feeling will happen less and less, and it will fade, and you'll know, you have to go back...

"And did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage" - Pink Floyd.
 Yes, you need to go and listen to Pink Floyd 'Wish You Were Here' right now!

There is no other life 

Everyone has their own personal reasons for ultra running or taking part in any extreme event. Possibly, none of the above reasons apply to you. When someone asks you why do it, you might mutter something about the challenge and fitness. The real answer though is always more nebulous and hard to grasp, and you might not even be able to explain it to yourself. And there is no need to justify it to anyone else. All you need to know is this is what you do, this is how you define yourself. This is who you are.


In the high seat, before dawn dark,
Polished hubs gleam
And the shiny diesel stack
Warms and flutters
Up the Tyler Road grade
To the logging in Poorman creek.
Thirty miles of dust.

There is no other life.

-Gary Snyder 'Turtle Island'

Gary Snyder wrote this about loggers in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. I think you can apply it to the trail or running. Thirty miles of dust, there is no other life, what else are you going to do?

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