Personal Collective

Somewhere around six hours into this year’s UTMB, I began to feel a dull ache in my legs. Small, lingering twinges in my feet, ankles, and knees from the Colorado Trail Race a month before were turning into more acute pains slowing my forward progress.

I ran conservatively, expectantly waiting for some pep to animate my legs, but time only led to a further decrease of my pace and an intensifying of the discomfort. Surprisingly though, despite my lackluster performance, I was mentally lucid and content, staving off negative thoughts that are all too often debilitating in these types of situations.

By the halfway point, I was physically crushed, struggling to make sense of what exactly was driving me to keep pushing myself around this mountain. I had finished the race once before and was very familiar with the Chamonix Valley as this was my sixth visit to the area.

My primary goal for the race was to try to run fast, despite not having put myself in the best position to perform with the recent bike race and an excessive amount of running the rest of the summer.

With that objective evaporating in the early hours of the race, I began to seek motivation outside of myself. Running can be an exceedingly selfish pursuit where only our own well-being, goals, and aspirations matter. I have found though, particularly in these long events, that I get to a point where my mind comes into focus and I can not only intellectualize the reason I am out there, but also feel it in my emotional core.

Climbing up to Refuge Bertone, in the wee hours of the morning, tangibly uncomfortable, my headlamp on full beam to repress sleepiness, the realization of why I kept on going hit me.

This is bigger than you. This is bigger than you, I repeated to myself.

I had just passed through Courmayeur, where I got enthusiastic encouragements from my family, friends, and the Buff crew. I sat in the gymnasium to eat and change shoes, while Pau tended to all my needs. I apologized to him for not doing better, but he immediately interrupted and with cutting sincerity told me how great I was doing.

It is truly wonderful to experience such an unwavering level of support. My desire to continue the race and perhaps more fundamentally what drives me to run stems from this feeling of togetherness, this exchange among runners, family, friends, and other supporters where the personal meets the collective.

This past weekend, I experienced a similar feeling of fellowship, as I helped organize the Fourmile Firefighter Challenge, a local 10-mile uphill race from the Boulder Adventure Lodge up Fourmile Canyon to Gold Hill, Colorado.

I rode my bike ahead of runners in the first few miles of the race, snapping photos and watching the strain on their faces as they fought gravity. Uphill running is a strange mix of pleasure and pain, a battle between the feeling of tangible progress toward an objective and the difficulty in getting there.

As each runner passed by me at their own pace, they all shared a commonality in their effort, reaching for the pinnacle of their ability. To me this is where running departs from its individual nature and merges into the collective experience.

As runners, we connect on an essential level, a mutual understanding of the headspace required to drive a hard physical effort. As a spectator, I find myself being drawn into that headspace, living vicariously through the participants. I am therefore thankful for what running brings me individually, but also how it broadens and enriches the greater human experience.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When in your running has the very personal experience of running externalized into a group effort?
  • When was the last time you were a part of someone else’s running experience, focusing on their effort and goals, as opposed to your own?

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Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.

There are 4 comments

  1. northacrosseurope

    “I am therefore thankful for what running brings me individually, but also how it broadens and enriches the greater human experience.” Hear hear! If only everyone ran… world and corporate leader’s all. What a different planet we’d inhabit!

    The last time I was part of someone else’s running experience was on Friday just past, during my kid’s school’s first cross country meet of the season. It’s a small school, with a tiny pool of runners to draw from, but what the happy band of brothers and sisters lack in numbers they make up for in enthusiasm. All the kids ran well on Friday, but one girl in particular won my heart. She doesn’t have a classic athlete’s physique, and when we began coaching her a year ago the completion of a single minute’s running was an achievement in itself. But over the past year she’s put in more time than anyone else on the team, and relative to where she started from she has improved the most. On Friday she ran the entire race; no walk breaks for the first time. Running 5K without stopping may be no big deal to most of the ultra marathoners who post comments on here, but to this girl it meant everything. Her smile and jubilation post race was something I’ll never forget; to be honest it was one of the running highlights of my life. “I ran it all!” She laughed, jumping up and down, arms raised, fists in the air, “I ran the whole race!” I’ll admit it: I actually cried at her joy. Real tears.

    The weekend before I’d run a hugely disappointing race, finishing so far outside my personal goal I found little pleasure in my performance; nine years without an off season had finally caught up with me. For the following days it was as if I’d forgotten everything I’d learned about running and what it means… but then came the school cross country race, and one particular girl’s performance. It took a 17-year old’s joy to bring it all back.

  2. @joshtilford

    "My desire to continue the race and perhaps more fundamentally what drives me to run stems from this feeling of togetherness, this exchange among runners, family, friends, and other supporters where the personal meets the collective." Great stuff, Joe.

  3. @streetshark

    A few weeks ago I crewed and paced for some friends at the Labor Pains Endurance Run. It felt great to help and support my friends as well as meet new people. Being there really bolstered that feeling of being a part of a community, selfish worries of my own performance squashed for the day.

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