Lost or Found?

AJWs TaproomRecently, I had the luxuriously rare opportunity of spending a few days reading a book. I had other things going on, of course, but, for the most part, I was able to absorb myself in the written word and simply let words, ideas, and a story settle into my mind. The book I chose for this fleeting and precious opportunity was Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

In this book, the author describes, in wonderful and poignant detail, her journey, on foot, over 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. As a young woman in her mid-twenties, Strayed felt the call of the wilderness and sought solace and answers in the mountains of the great American West. As she was coming to grips with the premature death of her mother, a divorce, and a heroin addiction she knew that she needed to find herself. For a variety of fascinating and all-too-familiar reasons she chose to seek those answers on the trail.

One of the fascinating and, at times, disconcerting aspects of ultramarathon running is that the community is filled with stories. The narratives that our woven through the lives of the practitioners of this special sport are often compelling, occasionally moving, and almost always entertaining. In addition, like the story of Cheryl Strayed, on occasion, these stories have dark sides.

I can confidently and comfortably say, without hesitation, that my best friends in life are those I have made in this sport. I have enjoyed countless hours of laughter and smack talk with many folks who I consider my closest and dearest friends. Just the idea of getting together for a weekend of running with some of my running buddies gets me giddy with excitement. Heck, some of us get so childish about the whole thing that we have come to refer to the period around the Western States 100 as “Statesmas.”

But I also know, and openly acknowledge, that there is a more somber, and occasionally tragic, side to this sport. As much as we run to live there are some of us live to run. And, as such, this inevitable push/pull dynamic begs the inevitable question, are we running to something or from something? In my optimistic, glass-half-full moments I like to think it’s both and for most of us, at most times, it is. But there is also something about running long distances that provides a refuge, a respite from the mundane or the painful or even the imminently depressing, that can be a bit more dangerous and destructive.

Certainly, anyone who chooses to undertake a 100-mile mountainous trail ultramarathon understands and acknowledges that there are risks accompanying such an endeavor. In fact, for many, there is a certain romance in that risk. But there are also motives behind that risk and the behaviors, temperaments, and emotions that are part of the package beneath that risk can give rise to certain fundamental characteristics that can be at once exhilarating and exhausting, disappointing and deflating. While much of what we do is good and right and wholesome in the moment, we mustn’t ignore the fact that it’s also not necessarily healthy all the time.

Which brings me back to Cheryl Strayed’s remarkable memoir, Wild. Facing down death, loss, and addiction, an unprepared, inexperienced everywoman chose to take control of her life through an autonomous and deeply meaningful experience in the wild. She chose to simplify her life, leave behind her past, and to seek answers to the questions she really didn’t know how to ask. I like to think that for many of who have made ultramarathon running such an important part of our lives we are also, in our own unique ways, doing the same thing. The truth is, you don’t need to face down demons to find a place in this amazing, cooky, fun-loving, slightly off-kilter sport. But, and this is a big but, if you have those demons, this is not a bad place to come if you’re looking to exorcise them.

Bottoms up!

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Lawsons Finest Crooked Cabin AleThis Week’s Beer of the Week comes from Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Vermont. A friend of mine recently brought me a couple bottles of their Crooked Cabin Ale and after a few sips I was ready to hop in the car and drive 14 hours to taste the stuff fresh out of the tap. I didn’t, of course, but I must say, this is some truly great stuff and it would certainly be a great beer to bring along on any long trail journey.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • In what ways do you or have you found yourself through running?
  • Have you ever found yourself running to lose yourself?

There are 22 comments

  1. Alex

    Allow me to be obvious for a second: Running extreme distances is an extreme endeavor, and probably sought by people prone to struggles with moderation. I've had my problems; so, I'm sure, have many others. Running is necessary solace for me; and again, I'm not alone in that. However, I think I'll make a distinction of semantics here. I've never run to find myself or lose myself, but to make something of myself. I view the journey as one of self-creation, rather than discovery. Life, as they say, is what you make of it.

  2. Michael Owen

    Ultra-running, for me, has been somewhat been a preventive technique. At some early age I discovered that I have an addictive personality, often going all-out in whatever I do. So, in college, while my friends were out binge drinking on the weekends, I was out doing a night run, or sleeping from a brutal 30 mile trail run that morning… Of course, that is no where near the biggest reason I run, but its fun to justify reasons to do it – because as you said, it is not entirely healthy.

  3. James @reddirtrunner

    Interesting and insightful. At 43 years of age my past is checkered with an on again off again relationship with running. Ever since I was a kid I enjoyed the rhythm, dedication and sense of accomplishment for myself that came from running. Yet, for some reason I was never able to be consistent with it. That is until a couple of years ago after I moved to Northwest Arkansas. Home of some inviting trails in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains and a tremendously generous community of runners. I have been consistent for two years now, my longest stretch, and it feels right. Perhaps because the "escape" aspect of running away from something was supplanted by a feeling of being somewhere I belonged. I owe that to my running buddies. The less I made it about me the more I wanted to be a part of it. Funny.

    I will no doubt ask my brother in law to pick up some of that Lawson's Finest for me. Cheers.

  4. Andy

    Ultrarunning is inherently addictive, and those who are prone to compulsion and excess are certainly most "at risk." Heck, it has the two key clinical hallmarks: (1) dependence (i.e., withdrawal without it), and (2) tolerance (needing more and more of it for the same effect – at least up to 100 miles!).

    As an ultrarunning psychologist who has directed addiction programs and spends my professional life helping people "find" and redefine themselves in the wake of trauma and grief, the salutary attributes of running long distances through nature far outweigh the negatives. It can and does provide a means for positive adaptation and change, and certainly beats most if not all the "addictive" alternatives. The key is to be mindful of what, if anything, you are "running from," and make sure running isn't just malignant avoidance on the trail. But hey, a little escape/avoidance is OK, isn't it?

    Great, insightful, and thought provoking post, AJW.

    1. Brett

      By "As an ultrarunning psychologist" I am assuming you mean you are a psychologist who also happens to be an ultrarunner. Although now that I think about it, a psychologist who specializes on ultrarunners would probably have plenty of work!

      There are plenty of much worse addictions to have – drugs, alcohol, etc. – being addicted to something that is healthy at least has that plus going for it.

      1. Andy

        Brett – yeah, a psychologist who happens to be an ultrarunner. Not sure I'd have any work the other way, unless maybe I left the northeast and moved to Boulder!

  5. Trail Clown

    Get addicted to drugs, get divorced, run 1,000 miles, write a book, find redemption. Sounds good, but my plan is to do the opposite. Here's my plan: Redeem myself totally, then Run 1,000 miles, then get addicted to NSAIDs, re-marry the same person, and set fire to all my personal journals.

  6. olga

    The question "running to or from" comes to my mind a lot. I, too, would like to think it's both depending on a time frame/period of life. Sometimes I am scared of being the latter and wonder if I justify with the former. I certainly see the addiction in it. The solace. Personality traits (you can see difference in people even all of us participate in ultrarunning as a sport). Good post, Andy.

  7. Jacques

    Whether I'm transfering addictions by running away from something or whether or not there's such a thing as a healthy addiction matters little to me. Running has been an important part of my life and my sanity for over 25 years. I also realize it's a gift that I have to treat with respect or it could be lost. Andy, I think that's what you were getting at. Great article.

  8. Andy

    BTW – a huge difference between running and other addictions: It's taking action in (and on) your environment, not just passively self-medicating. Similar difference between "Into the Wild" and "Wild": passive escape vs. active journey.

    1. Zen Trail Clown

      Yeah, but as "Into Thin Air" showed, taking action in (and on) the environment can be deadly, too. Those climbers on Everest were extremely meticulous in their planning and pursued an "active journey". But they perished from their "addiction". Chris McCandless was definitely running "from", but if he had survived and found peace living in the Alaskan wilderness, then it wouldn't be as easy to label him "passively self-medicating". If he had survived, in hindsight we might have labelled his journey as an "active journey"

  9. Jason

    Great questions! I agree with the idea that we are, at varying times, running to and from ____, often in the midst of the same endeavor. We've all begun an "active journey" with the intent of reaching ____, only to have it go awry and just want to finish, thus slog to ____. I like to think I'm always moving forward and running toward something, but in reality, I am often running away from some of my darkened past. But that's fine. It works for me.

    Another question raised here is that of addiction. I'm amazed by how many people I've met (or read about) who find "recovery" in ultra-running. Is it the "extreme" nature of the distances, being in the wilderness, physiologically replacing drugs with the "runner's high"? I've often wondered what % of ultrarunners (as opposed to "regular" runners) have struggled with addiction (be it drugs, food, gambling, etc.).

    I have a (non-running) friend who often asks, in a jokingly condescending way, "what are you running from?" I think I'll send him a link to this piece!

    Great stuff as usual.

  10. Tarzan

    I'm going to have to check this out…..as a former (?) addict and raving drunk, this sort of stuff reminds me to stay centered and reminds me of what life USED to be like and what it can easily go back to with just a few bad choices…..running has redeemed parts of my life and has given me some new, awesome and just as crazy life long friends……

  11. ultrarunnergirl

    Insightful and fascinating subject. I've never been the addictive type, nor did I grow up with any addicts, but I truly believe most people end up with an addiction of sorts to SOMETHING — and I think ultrarunning is one of the more positive addictions.

    Mostly, I think I need to strip away all the noise, distraction, stress, doubt and fear that have accumulated from living in our plugged-in, over-stimulated, always-rushed-yet-stuck-in-traffic society. It's the only way to remember who I am.

  12. j.xander

    Interesting that you used the term "Demons" because I often tell people, sort of jokingly, that running is the only way I can silence the demons.

    I didn't start running anything until 4 years ago at the age of 34. I built slowly, running three minutes and walking one, repeat, and after two years of 5k's I ran a 50miler. It changed me forever. I find it hard to remember who I was or what I was doing before, even the pictures look like a stranger.

    Running has broken down every barrier of self doubt I ever had. Running has defined me. I am stronger physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually than I ever was. I have confidence and joy that I did not know was possible.

    I am not running to or away, I am just running. A simple act of definition that has brought with it all the meaning of my days. With my running I have become a better human.

  13. Steve

    I have spent my whole life living in moderation, afraid of "having a problem" with one thing or another. Running for me has become something that I've let myself get a little crazy with, and it's been a lot of fun so far.

  14. Leslie Gerein

    Thanks for the reading recommendation AJW! Can't wait to read this one. I'm hitting the PCT myself starting on August 1st from the Canadian Border. The fantasy of going for a long "walk-about" is something that has a lot of appeal to all different types of people. It's something that's simplistic by nature: just put one foot in front of the other and eventually, you will get there. As an Ultra runner, I Get It. I must say I'm looking forward to meeting all of my fellow thru-hikers. It's an interesting crowd to say the least. Surprisingly, there are many folks heading out on the trail who have little experience and come from all walks of life. Whatever it is that has motivated them to hit the trail, we all share the same dream: that by putting one foot in front of the other, we will embark on a Great Adventure into the Unknown. Eventually, some of us will travel 2,650 Miles by foot and reach the finish line. But of course, it's not about the finish line – it's all about the journey and the promise of a great adventure!

  15. fryt

    If y'all really want to party down, you should try mixing your addictions! I recently completed a 100 stoned to the gills on cocaine. It was awesome, and at mile 50 I ingested some psilloscybin and was totally whacked to the gills by the time I finished. Hallucinations might be a normal part of running 100's, but you ain't seen nothing yet til you are totally peaking on a hallucinogen while running a 100.

  16. Scott S

    In a way, my ultra-running journey began much the same as going to graduate school and practicing martial arts… as a challenge, pure and simple. It seems that I need the external validation from challenging activities.

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