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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Suffering and Gratitude

Two days ago I ran 56 miles.

Over the 10+ hours i questioned my sanity and motives a dozen times, making countless bargains with myself about when i was going to stop.  I fell to pieces mentally as i was overtaken on laps 4 and 5 by runners who the day before had finished the first half of the undead hall of fame challenge, navigating over 100 miles of these same twisting and undulating trails on mountain bike.  I was hurting bad and these guys seemed to be blow by me effortlessly, despite the previous days monumental accomplishment. My laps got longer and longer, until the 6.2 miles was taking me approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes. My toes seemed to drag along the trail, and maybe they were - i took tumble after tumble during this low period.

It's interesting as i write this to think about these things - the way the whole event changes from the beginning to the end.  At the beginning ego is typically a driving factor.  There is something to prove.  But i've come to realize as i've done lots of long events that ego isn't enough.  It's ability to provide the necessary drive to pilot the human machine decreases exponentially once certain physical states are reached.  And when you're in these states and your pre-race expectations aren't being met (and they rarely are), ego becomes all but useless. Rationalization and justification take over - and these weapons of the central governor are indomitable adversaries.  To overcome them - at least for me - a shift has to take place - a shift from motivation by external things (what others think of me) to internal ones.

My mom
This particular race was a fascinating experience in many ways because of the lap style format - i wasn't able to use the sense of a 'journey' (one of the mental attitudes i often employ) to get myself through the darker moments.  i got to explore some new ground.  I didn't listen to music and so had nothing to do but think and check in with myself.  I realized that cardio-vascularly i felt pretty good and that my challenge would be just accepting the amount of discomfort that i was in (not necessarily an easy task) and would be in for another 5 or 6 hours.  I thought of my Mom and her struggles with neuromyelitis - the tightness and aching in her legs that endured unendingly for months, not hours.  I thought of my grandfather who suffered from shingles for years near the end of his life.  It made my discomfort seem insignificant and i realized that the only thing that made it non-trivial was that i had a choice.  I could simply stop running at the end of my next lap, find a place by the roaring fire, and lay on my back with my feet up the wall  (to drain the pressure from my legs). I didn't though, and my decision to keep going was somehow based on this odd sense of connectedness i felt with both my mom and grandfather through the act of willful suffering.  It was a connection, as trite as it might sound, to the human spirit and human resilience.

Things got better after that.  The suffering became purposeful - part of goal - rather than a hurdle to be overcome in pursuit of it.  The remainder of the day seemed much more manageable - a small offering of gratitude to loved ones.


  1. Great work - and a huge accomplishment! This was my first ultra, and while I didn't go all 12 hours, it was still an amazing experience!

    1. Laura - i didn't go all 12 hours either (: It is pretty neat to wonder what this sort of experience means for different people - everyone is facing their own challenges and rubbing up with that fascinating and raw place where they really get to meet themselves. Glad you had a good race.

  2. I've talked about this post with a number of people now, and we're generally confused. You race because of what other people think of you? This seems counter to most anything I've ever heard you say. Please elaborate.

  3. Beek, I just meant that when I think of external motivation I think of ways in which we measure ourselves based on things outside of ourselves, how we compare to other people, and sometimes what other people think of us. I do typically experience some external motivation at some early stage of most races, an future expectation of outcome related to these external things... A desire to shoot for the podium for example. My point is that if there isnt more to it than this for someone it is hard to keep going when things get tough and the external stuff becomes meaningless.