Why an Ultra?
The idea of running an ultra marathon, particularly a hundred miler, settled in my mind last fall. I was looking for something to watch on Netflix and everything seemed like a twenty year old B movie. I switched to YouTube and somehow, a video about Akos Konya appeared in the menu. The video documented his first attempt running the Badwater 135, a race that starts at the bottom of Death Valley and ends 135 miles later a few thousand feet from the top of Mount Whitney. I watched the video a little stunned by his effort, by the challenge, and by the secret longing it created in me. I wanted to push myself like that. I wanted to run right past oblivion.
Not to spoil the end, but it was the 2005 running of Badwater, and Akos did not win. His story is dumbfounding, but the winner’s story is dumbfoundinger. Scott Jurek won, setting a new course record, and this only two weeks after his win at another 100 mile race—Western States—the Super Bowl of ultra running. I reviewed Jurek’s book Eat and Run here. That led me to another book, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougal, which I have not reviewed but heartily recommend. I quickly found UltraRunnerPodcast, a website created by a couple of Ultra fanatics, and began listening to dozens and dozens of interviews of the sport’s greatest legends, both past, present, and emerging.
What I discovered in all of this is that a tribe exists around the sport, and it is just about exactly what one would expect from a peripheral study of what ultra running entails. Meaning, as a group, who do you think would be attracted to a healthy kind of self immolation? In short, super competitive (often competitive against self), radical freedom lovers. (Not freedom in a political sense, but in an existential sense.) To me, that’s the common thread. All humans are bound by their bodies to a certain continuum of human experience. Walking and running are part of that continuum. Flying unassisted, as a bird might fly, is not. Swimming a thousand feet below the surface of the ocean is not. Well, people in the ultra tribe generally want to see how far they can warp their limits outside the normal range. Ultra running presses outward the boundaries of experience, and at the same time, the freedom to experience. Ultra runners are willing to endure because they know that when they stand on the ground that was formerly outside their limit, they will know something new about themselves. They take as obvious that what they learn will be worth the price they pay to acquire it.
Naturally, all of the above makes a perfect setting for a murder mystery. A hundred mile footrace is a perfect host for the protagonist’s external struggle. He must win the race at all costs, which is made exceedingly difficult by losing his crew chief to a murder, and being questioned as the prime suspect of the murder, while running a hundred miles with multiple injuries. The race imposes a natural deadline to the story, which increases latent tension. The race allows for an extraordinary setting—someplace we don’t ordinarily get to experience in everyday life. Finally, the unfolding of the story during the day-long period of the race allows me to employ a nonlinear storytelling format, infusing flashback into the present. It’s too deep to get into here except to say that I love the nonlinear format’s advantages, which I wrote about for the blog WriteItSideways, here.
The internal struggle has great potential as well. Why? Because a person who can always run a hundred miles faster than the competition gives up something about his or her humanity to do so, and life has a way of reverting to the mean. A person cannot forever live at the fringe of possibility and not face the clamor of mundane consequences. My protagonist has stored up hurts to give him the mental fuel to run well. He conditions the body like any champion runner, but he conditions his mind by clinging to emotional pain. Thus, to keep himself fueled, he farms pain by neglecting the people he loves. He’s learned that when other people suffer, he suffers, and that is good for keeping him winning. Meanwhile his life devolves into chaos.
The real question is, Am I fulla shit?
How can I know about the training, the highs and lows, the importance of diet, fuel, miles, mind, everything, unless I do it? How can I make an authentic champion without participating? I can learn from reading what ultra runners write, but what if they miss something important? What if by training for and running a hundred mile race I could discover some detail that makes the story more authentic? Wouldn’t it be preferable, given the choice, to run a hundred miles, instead of sitting on my ass, thinking about it? Of course.
What I’ve learned so far:
I’m hitting about 70 miles per week running. I’ve cut fifteen pounds of gut in three weeks. With a diet change, I’m rapidly becoming a fat burner instead of a sugar burner. But that’s not the real lesson.
Running distance does something for the soul that nothing else does. It’s time away. It’s survival. It’s strength found in weakness. It’s elation and pain and the feeling of achievement that fulfills even if no one knows about it. A long run is existentially gratifying, both in the simple and philosophic meanings of the word. It affirms and applauds existence, and provides a stunning post-post-modern meaning to life. In the moment of the run, life is undeniable. It’s meaning is undeniable. You feel your heart, your lungs, the breath through your nostrils and the pain in your foot. Your back. The answer is not: The meaning of life is ____________.
When running, the meaning of life is.