Before I set off on the Arizona Trail Race, a 750-mile bikepacking adventure across Arizona, my wife asked me why I was compelled to challenge myself with such an arduous undertaking.
We have been together for 13 years and this question has understandably come up many times before. For some reason, there was something about her tone that suggested she wanted a deeper, more insightful answer to her query than the one conveyed in my typical “explore my limits in wild places” rhetoric.
My wife does not pursue endurance activities in an obsessive or excessive manner as I do, so it can be difficult to relate to this desire to electively put oneself through such physical and mental strain with no apparent meaning attached to it.
The challenge in relaying any kind of meaningful insight is that the flashes of wisdom or clarity, I should say, that most often emerge under intense duress are fleeting and hard to verbalize or recapture once at rest.
It has always fascinated me how sharp the world comes into focus when out pushing myself on a run. I often wish I could bottle up that feeling so I could share it at will. It would be the best way to answer the question “why do you do this?” because my words will always fall short of how clear and profound those moments are.
I believe that the heart of my wife’s question did not lie in seeking an exact answer, but rather a suggestion for me to remain observant, curious, and attentive as to why I pursue these activities–essentially to not be complacent and not stop growing as a person.
Earlier this year, my mom told me that she had signed up for the South Downs Way 100 Mile in Southern England that takes place in early June. Now in her fifties, she has been gradually moving up in distance, running longer and longer races, from 50ks to 50 milers, but the 100 miler would be quite the jump.
My first reaction when she announced she was going to attempt a 100 miler was to ask her “why?” to which she simply replied “I’m just curious to see what it feels like to be out there for 30 hours.”
I did not think much of her answer, because to me that seemed like a perfectly normal thing to be curious about, something I had wondered myself in the past.
My mom is a driven, positive, and determined woman. Her training had gone well and I figured that barring any major issues, she had the right mindset and physical conditioning to accomplish her goal of completing the race in the 30-hour time limit.
Then, all of a sudden it was June and she was on the ferry from France heading over to the U.K. for the weekend to run a 100 miles. It did not really sink in for me that my mom was running 100 miles until I was obsessively refreshing the live feed, desperately trying to read into the infrequent split updates and calculating ahead to assess how much leeway she had to finish within the cutoff.
The online splits only tell part of the story, and while she looked steady at mile 70, little did I know she had been struggling with an IT band injury since mile 22, but pressed on despite the pain.
She hiked hard, shuffled when she could, and even walked the downhills backwards for the last 10 miles crossing the finish line under 30 hours and completing the distance through sheer willpower and determination.
As she recounted the race to me afterward, one of her observations really stood out and it went something like this: “I experienced a sort of clarity, when I got really tired and had been dealing with this injury for hours, nothing overly spiritual or anything, just a sense of deep gratitude for my support crew, to everyone one around me, and more broadly just a deep appreciation for life and what really matters.” And, that to me is ultimately why I choose to keep on pursuing this edge, because whether or not I am a better person at the end of it, I feel that at some point or another if we push ourselves far enough–however far enough is for each of us–we gain a sense of perspective, of appreciation and gratitude, the acuity of which is hard to recreate in our normal, everyday life.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Why do you run? And, if you do, why do you run long distances or ultramarathons? What compels you forward?
- Do find the sense of clarity about which Joe and has mom have written when you run?