When I had come to know sprinting as the Tiger of the Track, I quickly concluded that marathons were probably the Monsters. And ultra-marathons, well, they’re Mightier Monsters. If anything, they’ve always made the distances we sprint feel like Mice.
The question that consumes us all, when we watch endurance runners persevere, stride after stride, just as strong, just as steady and most often, just as serene (on the face of it), is simply,
Just why would anyone want to go that far for that long?
What measure do you push up to? Where do you draw the line? Do you draw the line?
I’ve never understood it. For that reason, I’ve never attempted it. Or vice versa.
It’s also scary as hell. Like a death wish. And it isn’t just a physical challenge. It’s a mental conquest.
Our marathon squad often trains with us. Storming through speed drills at the track. Decimating them. Sprinting, literally sprinting ridiculous distances in endless circular motion. Mikhail’s one such stallion. Almost habitually, we’d harrow him with our volley of ‘Why’s.
(Until one evening after training, when he broke the habit, as we all cooled down.)
To them and to us, Mikey said what sounded very cryptic, “Make friends with pain and you’ll never be alone.” More than cryptic, it was totally off the wall. “How could anyone possibly make friends with pain?”, I asked disbelievingly. “We all feel pain. We hate it. We can’t be friends with anything we hate.”
“But what if you don’t hate it anymore?”, he calmly countered. “What if you embrace it?”
(We didn’t really say anything then. Partly because it was beginning to make sense. Partly because we couldn’t make sense of the sense it was making. Wonderful. You’re as confused as we are. Welcome to the track then. For we’re all a bunch of lunatics going round in circles. Literally. Figuratively. Keenly. All sports and spirits.)
“Because there’s something to be learned from it”, he went on. “your limits, your possibilities, your misgivings, your strengths, your deepest desires, your humbling weaknesses, your edge, the brink and how sometimes, you can push through it, may be, leap across, and conquer.”
Apparently, pain was Mikey’s pal. He’s taken miles and miles and miles to build this friendship. I don’t know anyone more relentless; more unyielding; may be ruthless even. Towards himself. Very often, he runs into the hundreds. At different degrees, at different points, by and large, subtly, piercingly – halfway to both or neither – pain becomes an inescapable, constant companion. As ridiculous as it may sound, we do end up liking ‘him’ (it’s a ‘her’ for Mikhail of course). You sort of have to. You have to like something joined to you at the hip. And then, it’s not so ‘pain’ful anymore.
Vincent Van Gogh may not have been an athlete but the artist spoke for us all when he said, “The Fishermen know that the sea is perilous and the storm fearful, but have never thought the perils reason enough for deciding to take a stroll along the beach instead. They leave that sort of prudence to those who relish it. The storm may come and the night may fall, but which is worse, the danger or the fear of danger? I would sooner have the reality, the danger itself.”
The Mikhail we know would rather have the perils of the pain. It’s an incongruous concept that prompted us to scoop more out of him.
“So, why a 100 miles? Why would any human want to run a 100 miles?” – the standard, simplest start to Mikey’s trial at the track. And we love “hearing” (pun intended) what he has to say, over and over again. Someday, it might even rub off on us. Who knows, we’ll be the fisherwomen, staring out at a perilous sea, taking that stroll anyway.
“See, there was a time when we didn’t know where our next meal would come from. Water couldn’t just be purchased in bottles when we pleased. So many parts of the world, to this day, suffer the inadequacies of food and water. And it is a gruelling existence, battling hunger and thirst, day in and day out and surviving, despite it all.
I wonder sometimes, just how far we’ve moved, what we’ve become from who we once were – The Nomads. Hunter-gatherers. Bodies and will hardened by constant movement. Driven by the simple need to survive. How far we’ve softened. May be I’m seeking something through the discomfort…”
“This is your way back to an Age when life was just rough and hard; threatening even? But what exactly are you seeking?”
“The unknown, perhaps. Just what it would be like to live that nomad kind of normal – what to us seems rugged and jagged and cragged, today. The idea of traveling that far, on foot can feel overwhelming. It’s a crazy, wild journey.”
“Yeah, so why would you sign up for something so extreme; so unforgiving; so unnerving?”
“Because it’s a real test of the human will and the human spirit. It takes you to places that a lot of other things won’t take you. The human body. I think it was designed to move. To hunt. To flee. To really be pushed and tested. But somewhere along the way, comfort became the key to happiness, right? Big, fancy homes, luxury cars with heated seats, and yet these things, these material things never really seemed to make us happy and in the process we’ve softened both mentally and physically. When did we lose our way? I’ve often wondered, is there something in our DNA that strangely finds comfort through discomfort?”
It was oddly convincing. Discomfort might just be a different kind of high. If you think of it, it is.
He goes on:
“When you know you’re going to go through pretty low lows. It’s in our nature to be curious creatures. And certainly, the determined amongst the bunch will constantly seek the next thing. We seek the lows. Because we want the challenge. We want to overcome it.
In some strange way, we want the uncertainty of the unknown.
Anything and everything can and will happen. Anxiety, nerves, excitement. It’s one of those things in life where the outcome is far from given. There’s a long list of things that can potentially go wrong. How will my body respond to running at altitude? Will my stomach wriggle? Will I cramp? Wil I fail?”
“All these questions, how is anyone ever going to be ready?!”, we all erupt together.
Mikey says you never are completely ready. There’s no such thing. You’re never going to feel like you’ve got everything sorted and all figured out. You grow as you go.
“During the course of a 100miles, you go through so many swings and emotions, so many highs and lows. One minute you’re contemplating quitting, next thing you know, you’re climbing up the mountain and running down the other side with renewed vigour and enthusiasm, with the singular focus of getting to that finish line.
“It’s not just one race, it’s just a journey that you take. It’s a commitment that takes a village; it’s not just you but people in your life and you’re just a small piece in this big puzzle and it really comes together why we put ourselves up to a challenge. You’re not really sure if you’re going to achieve it that day but when you do, it’s just terrifically worth it.
Let me ask you this, when it’s your time, is the goal to leave a well-preserved body? Or do you really want to use it, a body with stories that says you’ve pushed it, and at times suffered, when you sought its potential.”
Silence from the crowd again. More like assent. A question posed. A question answered. And Mikey wasn’t about to end his run. Not just yet.
“The question of why consumes your entire being in that very moment. Why? Why’re you doing this? Just stop here and the suffering ends right now.
When you’re stripped raw and think you’re done, that’s when the race really begins. That’s when you find out what you’re really made of. When you surmount the low moments, that’s when you gain the most satisfaction out of it.
The reason you signed up for this event is to be challenged. You have to keep reminding yourself. You reach a point where it’s not easy anymore, where I don’t feel like I’m going to be able to finish, may be. But then I find something inside to rise above the challenge – a reminder that if I do, it’s going to be a whole lot more rewarding than if I just quit.”
With that familiar calm we see on his face when he’s running, he explains,
“Gratitude is a really powerful emotion. I don’t take for granted that we have the ability to do this. And while I still can, I’m going to think of all the people who can’t. What they would do to have this simple gift to run at will and at times, not so much at will. Just going to do my best to stay present, feel good for as long as I can and then, really push through when things get tough. The unknown’s always scary but if things were handed to us, if we knew the outcome of everything, life wouldn’t be nearly as interesting now would it?”
“Yeah, but does it have to be a 100 miles? That far. That long. Can’t we have our own challenge?” one of us asked.
“Sure you can! And you do! You run your lungs out in a 100m sprint. And it can burn your calves and hams and quads and glutes and everything else out in a matter of seconds. That’s your game. It’s your challenge. It’s your 100 miles’ worth of effort in a 100 metres. It’s what wears you out. But it’s also what brings you back. Your purpose. Your burning desire to be faster. Even if you burn to the ground in the process. Even if you don’t know how long your wick will hold out; when your flame will be at its peak; if you’ll make the targets that make you a champion. Exhaustion and pain and uncertainty, you love them too. They’re your friends too. You’ve just been too busy to notice.”
Mikey had us dummied up.
“We’re all motivated and inspired by different things but what makes it special is that whatever the reason, on this day, and on this night, we’re all linked together and unified by this one thing; our journeys; our sense of purpose – that’s the special bond. In the end, we all have our different reasons for doing what we do.
Running a 100 miles doesn’t have to be your journey. Although we can all agree, that we can all benefit by stepping outside our comfort zones of what’s familiar and comfortable just a bit, for a bit. For me the finish line, one of my favourite places in the world, gives you a little peak into the satisfaction of finishing. I’m sure you feel the same about it and when you cross one too, when you’ve stuck with the plan or made your mark or surpassed any and all expectations. When you’re done, you purge and weep tears of relief, of joy untold. I certainly do.
Now perhaps the finish line connects you a little to who you once were in the past. You realize what you’ve just done. It determines what you will do – a future entirely up to you – each metre, each mile, each step – a new page written. What do you want the remaining chapters of your life to be about?”
Now, we were thinking. And feeling. And taking it all in, on our way out. And may be Mikey would never have to answer to the ‘Why’s ever again.
As I walked home with him for company for some of the distance, he said,
“You know Suki, we all reach a point where we must decide whether to give up or continue. Choose to continue. Always.”
And then Mikey said to me, “Greatness is a scary thing…until it isn’t.” You will be scared, it will hurt, it will burn, it will tear you apart, it will compel you to quit and in that moment, what you decide will determine what you get out of taking the long road – your road, whichever one it is for you.”
As our Mice come together, one after the other, it’s our job to just run along; to run a-long; to let the burn take our breaths away.
Our monsters make our moments momentous, I guess.
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