I just don’t understand why you do this to yourself…
My wife has generally been ok with my running over the years. But since I’ve taken up longer distances, let’s just say, she’s been more sceptical.
I have become fascinated by the ultra-distances and this question… Why would someone break their body and still want to carry on? The sceptics have a point and I’ve struggled with an answer. So, these thoughts are for you my love.
I’ve talked to many ultra-buddies about what motivates them. I really love these conversations, especially when having them on a distant trail somewhere (those times will return!). They are great ways to find out what makes a person tick. There’s definitely a thread amongst their thoughts in wanting to discover their potential. That’s often combined with an addiction to the high (a hangover from a misspent youth), love of the outdoors, a feeling of freedom or the pleasure of being with others, amongst other more nuanced things. If I look back at my own experience, I can honestly say it’s been about proving myself as capable. Childhood trauma, another common story.
Running, to a point, is rewarding. We know a lot about how it helps a person to develop physically and mentally. The simple step by step journey can lead to a person taking on other positive habits.
So why do ultrarunners seek out those really dark places that extend beyond those rewards. Why aren’t they content with the half or full marathon which is already a herculean feat? There is still the same elation at the end of a race whether it be 10k or 100miles. Why are they so selfish? Why do they want to run away from their loved ones for such long periods of time, hurt themselves and danger themselves so badly? This is where my wife, like other ‘sane’ people, wants and deserves an answer.
There is that point in an ultra when the lights go out. You are broken. You look at your watch and there is another 50 miles to go and the next stage is through the night. What is the point in carrying on, you’ve already proved yourself! But something is happening there. We sense it, we feel the connection to something deeper, something more profound.
Another journey I’ve been on of late has been a spiritual one. My wife and I have embarked on this together which has really changed what I value most and helped navigate the last 12 challenging months. It’s also brought us closer together.
At the core, we’ve discovered, the notion of spiritualty is to elevate ourselves and the world around us. To identify with our true nature. The good. And to appreciate what stands in our way. The opponent. Like in the cartoons where the devil and the angel sit on each of our shoulders whispering opposites in our ears.
Another way we’ve begun to think about it is like this. The opponent is our ego. Our ego’s nature is to be selfish (to receive). Our true self is our soul and its nature is to be selfless (to give). Obviously, this isn’t a lesson in spirituality and I appreciate and respect it’s certainly not subject matter for everyone but some runners do speak about the spiritual side, something they can’t quite put their finger on, so it got me thinking about what that might mean and what could be going on when we take ourselves to that place.
Running has improved my sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy by developing my sense of capability. These are desirable outcomes for the ego. The ego says, “I think I look better. I’ve got more energy. My mind is clearer. I get more done. I feel happier” etc.
I think a lot of what gets people interested in running is the ego at work. I’m not ego bashing here as its clear that it can be a very positive driver in making us better versions of ourselves and protecting us. But I think where it limits us is that all of the benefits of the ego are selfish ones that look inwardly, even if we tell ourselves otherwise. If we want to elevate ourselves, we have to wrestle with our opponent (ego), look outwardly and give.
There’s a point in an ultra when the ego is satisfied. “I’ve proved myself. I’m now stronger, fitter, better. I no longer feel great, I’ll hurt myself” etc. It’s at this point when the darkness sets in. The ego starts to say, “hey, there’s no point in carrying on here, it hurts too much, there’s nothing more to be gained for you here, just stop ffs!”.
I love the story that Paula Radcliff talks about breaking the marathon world record in London (with an astonishing improvement of time). She talks about how she focussed on her daughter. An act of love for another. This is actually also quite a common story. When the going gets tough, make it about someone else.
There are many incredible stories of super human strength. We’ve all heard about the car crash where a slight woman lifts a car to save their tapped loved one’s life. We realise that we are capable of so much more than we believe possible. Perhaps these superpowers can only be accessed when we come outside of ourselves?
So, in the context of that darkness that inevitably befalls the ultrarunner. During that time, we find ourselves face to face with our opponent at our most vulnerable. We undertake a battle with our ego. Like a gladiatorial arena we’ve created to test our ultimate resolve.
Could it be that in the ultrarunners moment of darkness, as we are pushing on through, we become filled with a universal energy of good, of our true nature, our soul. Could it be that’s what we are seeking and feeling?
Maybe this is the spiritual side of ultrarunning. The beating heart of the sport. To deliberately create space to confront our opponent in the most vacuous of places. The chance to expand ourselves by revealing light in darkness. For that challenge to bring us closer to who we really are meant to be. A workout for the soul. I hope it is.
Perhaps that workout brings us closer to an elevated state where we give more than we receive and that makes us better, happier people in every aspect of our lives. I hope it does. It has for me and I wanted to share that with you.
Have you ever met an ultrarunner who didn’t care about others?