The Great Contradiction

AJW's TaproomRunning long distances, particularly over years and years, tends to expose and reveal things that other human activities do not. Chief among those are some of the contradictions inherent in the running endeavor. In my experience, it is the grappling with these contradictions that gives us the tools and experience to address other life issues while also challenging our assumptions about what is possible.

My favorite running contradiction goes something like this: “How is it that something which repeatedly breaks me down can be so restorative?”

On my run last weekend up and down a local mountain, I reflected on this great contradiction and thought back to my earliest days as a runner. In those first few years, I recall a certain senseless joy in the simple act of running. I remember good and bad days as well as times of pain and great pleasure. Yet, all along the way, in my first decade as a runner, I felt I was on a steady path of improvement.

As I reached my running ‘middle age’ about a decade in, specific experiences running, particularly during 100 miles, provided poignant reminders of this great contradiction.

During my first Western States 100 in 2001, I made all the rookie mistakes. As it was only my second 100 miler, that is understandable. However, several of the mistakes were the kind of mistakes that break you down. I ran the downhills too hard too early, I drank too much water and bloated up to 10 pounds overweight, and my flashlight batteries–yes, I said flashlight, no headlamps back then–died with 18 miles left. That last mistake really broke me down mentally as I was forced to stumble around in the dark, mooching off other light sources, until I finally reached a place where I could get some new batteries.

In the years following, the memory of that first experience served to bring me sustenance, push me forward, and give me valuable context for future endeavors.

Then, a few years later at the 2004 Angeles Crest 100 Mile, I found myself in the heat of a fiercely competitive battle. Arriving at the 89-mile aid station in second place, a mere three minutes behind the leader, I ran down the long, winding singletrack trail with a fearlessness and a recklessness that I still marvel at today. In the end, I was never able to catch the leader but my effort yielded a horrific consequence as I ended up in the hospital a few days later with acute renal failure brought on by rhabdomyolysis. During my week-long hospital stay, I had plenty of time to reflect on my mistakes and attempt to find ways to grow from them.

Finally, more recently, at the 2016 Hardrock 100, a race that I wrote about in detail, I experienced physical and emotional breakdown of extraordinary proportions. In fact, to this day I am not sure how I summoned the will to run the last 10 miles of that race. But, in the aftermath of that experience, I have found myself repeatedly renewed and reenergized by the sheer magnitude of the memory.

It is incredible to me, after almost 30 of running, that I continue to experience the cycle of breakdown and restoration so acutely. It is not something that I strive for or even something I enjoy, but the inherent value in those profound experiences, the depth and breadth of something that has such a cost but also such a reward, is enough to keep me searching for the next time I can live through the great contradiction.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Sufferfest Beer Company in San Francisco, California. A wonderful new brewery focusing on beers for athletes, Sufferfest’s FKT Pale Ale is wonderfully creative and tasty. Enhanced with black currants and salt, FKT is one of the most uniquely flavored beers I’ve tried and it’s certainly a fantastic post-run thirst quencher.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you think about the contradiction of running, that it is hard but that it’s ultimately good for you?
  • How does one keep things sustainable, of doing things that are hard because they are worthy, but not so much that they are actually harmful?

There are 5 comments

  1. Andy M

    Great piece, AJW! If we understand human behavior and neurobiology (read “dopamine”), we see there are few things more rewarding than relief from suffering! As behaviorists would call it, “negative reinforcement” is one of the prime drivers of human behavior. Add on to that the profound satisfaction of achieving something grand (i.e., finishing a grueling hundo), mix in a little individual zeal for endurance pursuits, love of landscape, and a social milieu nonpareil, and you have the perfect recipe for ultrarunning addiction. And the greater the suffering, the greater the relief and reward! Hardly a contradiction — more like a perfect pairing!

    I trust the Sufferfest ale is lighter on the suffer, heavier on the fest :)

  2. John Vanderpot

    As I become more and more interested in and intrigued by AC, it continually amazes me that somehow the down from Merrill does more damage to more people than the climb up Wilson — it must be the smell of the barn?

    And a new brewery for athletes? Now we’re finally getting somewhere!

    It must be Friday,

    JV

  3. Stephen Robbins

    AJW, your description of your events is always entertaining! I completely resonate with your words in this piece. My hundred this year was on the same course as the year prior with the worst weather possible and I did so much better and finished stronger than the year prior. Reflecting on the two events I realized that I had deep personal struggles during both but the more difficult conditions the second time around galvanized my resolve from the beginning. The conclusion: Ultra runners are in it for the suffering, the more the suffering, the more we rise to the challenge! Keep up the good work and the writing. Respect.

  4. Chris

    Splendid article! I am a young runner who only has a couple years of experience. I also find incredible how such a sport have those contradictions. Right now I only run for two reasons, because it brings me real joy to run and because I run competitively. I have a program which I found myself that for those of you who are disciplined and competitive will find find it real helpful: https://bit.ly/2oU9gZk .

  5. Steve Pero

    I’ve been running for 43 years, ultrarunning for 30 years, running my first 100 at Vermont in ’98…am about to run my 20th something 100 at Grindstone and have no idea why!
    Life is interesting…

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