When Records Fall
I am confident in the direction to which I have put my energies this spring, and this trip to Alaska confirmed that I am doing exactly what I want to be doing. And what I want to be doing is alpine climbing… some of the time. I loved climbing in Alaska, and I hope to do it much more in the future, but it’s a taxing sport, with many hardships. At its core, it is hard work in a cold place, and my mind can only take so much of that. So I’m excited to return to the world of mountain running and start logging big miles in small shorts. When we flew out of the mountains last week I eagerly caught myself up on the latest happenings in the ultrarunning world, and to my surprise I found that many terrible things had happened. The world of mountain running was in a dark place indeed.
I knew before leaving that my Lake Sonoma course record had been broken. Sage Canaday had tattooed my splits onto his arm and run several minutes faster than my time from last year. I called him to congratulate him on the effort, but inside a deep bitterness was brewing that I knew would have to be satisfied someday, most likely violently. So you can imagine my surprise upon learning that both my Grand Canyon double crossing record AND my Transvulcania record had been broken in the span of a week (Rob Krar – 6:21:47 at the GC; K-dog – 6:54:09 at TV). With those records went my few claims to success in the ultrarunning world, and with those claims went my credibility as an athlete. I felt lost. After much thought I realized that my only recourse would be to do what any self-respecting loser would do: deny the point of the records at all and deride the people who put stock in them.
So here goes. Records are arbitrary human machinations that have little bearing on the lives of anybody. They are pointless benchmarks used to categorize people of little distinction into rankings. They are modes to facilitate social statuses and at heart they provide empty value for shallow people. People like Sage, Rob Krar and K-dog pump out their chests because they can run faster than others in places that under realistic survival conditions would be detrimental to their health and the health of their families. At best they are putting themselves into dangerous physical conditions of their own volition; at worst they are using too many resources to do something with little to no tangible benefits to the world.
Ouch. That hurts. I can just see everyone reeling back in shock and surprise right now, unsure of where to go next. That was my plan – by taking the offensive I have effectively diverted attention from the fact that I simply have been surpassed this year. Those guys ran better than I did, and for the same reasons, and clocked faster times. I may know deep down that if I say those things above I am speaking as much of myself as of anyone else, but I’m going to ignore that fact for at least the rest of this paragraph and do my best to lay into everyone else. Basically, if I can’t be the best, the sport is stupid.
Now that I really think about it, though, now that I actually consider the negative version of racing and records, I can’t help but think of a rebuttal for every point I made. Records may be arbitrary human machinations with little bearing on the rest of the world, but that doesn’t mean they are pointless. By setting standards we challenge others to improve, and the quest to better oneself always has positive effects on people and those around them. Every endeavour marks its progress somehow and constantly strives to extend its limits, the act of which proves its health. Politics are human machinations too, but that doesn’t mean they are pointless. They were put in place with a specific purpose – to govern – and they harbor many benchmarks themselves in order to reward accomplishment and record advancement. Running is little different. The act of running is healthy, and the sport of running brings people together to challenge each other in a positive way. In that sense, records actually do have bearing on the lives of others. Positive bearing.
Human beings are competitive in all fields. Running is a particularly black-and-white sport that easily lends itself to rankings. Perhaps other cultures have less competitive ways, but the Western culture in which we are all indoctrinated prizes competition as a way to inspire achievement. We rank ourselves in our everyday lives based on a series of values we develop over time. Similarly, we rank ourselves in running based on time and constantly work to outdo each other with faster times. Some people see negativity in this and choose to avoid it. But I view this competition as a positive way to bring about personal improvement and general advancement. Competition is what pushes the limits of what is possible.
And to say that records facilitate social statuses and stoke the egos of the superficial is just not true. Not in mountain running, at least. Not in the people that I know. Perhaps that could be true in fields of little skill and high distinction, but to be good at mountain running requires lots of work and incredible dedication. Those qualities are not to be found in superficial, egotistical people. From what I have seen, long-distance runners are generally humble people with a willingness to learn about and accept others. The great debate is whether the influx of money to the sport will change these qualities in the competitors, but I hope not. I hope that as long as I am a mountain runner I get to spend time with the positive, healthy and motivated people who have made this sport so special.
As for Sage, Rob Krar and Kilian – they’re awesome. They are the people who are pushing the boundaries of the sport, the people who have the abilities and the drive to see what is truly possible. Sage and Krar both come from road running backgrounds, and to see the speed and ability they have brought to the trails is to see the focus their earlier training has inspired in them. They know how to train, and they know what they want to do. The results have been stupendous. Kilian is, of course, the best. Nobody can deny that. The times that I have run with him have been some of the highlights of my time in the sport, and I have only the highest respect for him. He is an inspiration and a challenge, a carrot dangling far in the distance that I want desperately to catch. He, more than anyone else, is changing mountains sports for the better.
These people demonstrate a powerful confidence that belies the arbitrary nature of records. I would expect that all three of the above mentioned – and most of their competitors, too – would readily agree that records have little tangible effects. But we all work to achieve them because they are the standards by which we judge our success. They are the epicenter of what inspires us to be better and faster and stronger every single day. When you think in terms of tangible productivity, mountain running is a pretty useless sport. But if that is the case, why is it one of the fastest-growing sectors of the outdoor industry? Why do thousands of people return year after year to some of the hardest footraces on the planet? The reason is simple: because people like to challenge themselves. We have chosen to do so through the venue of mountain running, and that venue has provided incredible rewards to its practitioners for as long as people have been doing it. Long-distance running makes us happy, so we want to do it as much as possible. Simple as that. We can be confident that we’re doing the right thing because we love what we’re doing. I don’t believe any other reason to be so powerful.
To be honest, I am excited that my records were broken. I was proud to set them because I knew they would offer a challenge to the next people to come. Now those people have come. I hope very much to return to all three of those places in the future and reclaim my records, but in the meantime I’m going to go after others. The breaking of records is a positive affirmation that we are growing and improving in our sport, and the ability to be part of that legacy – to set my benchmark above the rest, even temporarily – is a privilege and an honor. Many people will never set a record, of course, and in the end those are the people who are most to be admired. They can truly say that they love the sport for itself, with no ego-based lust for notoriety. I can’t deny my ego, and I won’t stop seeking to break records, but as long as I can keep that love for the sport within me too, then I think I’m doing okay. The point of all this is to be as good as you can be. But the real accomplishment is doing it as long as possible. I hope to be a mountain runner long after I can no longer compete. But I will always value the records and those who set them.