Hardcore… Or Soft?

A creative essay about the value of pliability and adaptability in achieving success in trail running.

By on December 8, 2016 | Comments

Permit me a mild question: Am I alone in thinking that endurance events and their athletes being promoted as ‘hardcore’ have it backwards? For a soft animal, we sure expend a lot of effort trying to see ourselves otherwise. But isn’t ‘hardcore’ a sort of imagined exceptionalism, a carapace that separates us… from others, from nature, finally, from self?

That some day we will vanish, diffuse into the general wash of being, seems the primary threat… and insult. Here we are, fully aware, our minds reaching, grasping, searching far corners of what’s known, and yet, not a whisper of immortality, at least for the body; instead, insistent chorused reminder of end-times.

And so it seems we grow adamant about our rockiness; we want to be so hardcore it will take a tsunami to wear or wash us away. Or maybe the drip of a leaky faucet.

Don’t get me wrong, I love going long; I love the feeling that finds voice when I step beyond my usual limits. I love even–a little at least–the sometimes audible complaint of a muscle hard used. But I hope that when I go out long, I am not running away but rather to some joining of self with world, that I am fitting in. And to do that, I must be able to mold myself, adjust to what I find and where I am; I must be flexible, I must be, finally, softcore.

All of this came clear to me one day on a mountain a few years ago. Early that day, I’d set out with nearly 40 others on my first organized, long trail run. Our route traced the ridgeline of the Wapack Range in southern New Hampshire, and, if all went well, we’d end up at the base of Mount Watatic in northern Massachusetts. As trail races go, this wasn’t an especially notable one, but its 21.5 miles and 6,000 vertical feet gave it enough heft and duration to take me beyond what I knew then.

I was late into what had become a bifurcated day: the first three hours and 14 miles had been pleasurable work, and then, suddenly, I’d stepped through some invisible curtain into a gray world where the work of stepping on and up was no fun at all. Both time and footwork had become gluey; going on at all had become a question.

Near mile 20, when I knew at last that I would roll down Watatic into some semblance of completion, I was walking a final, mild up before that down, when my day intersected briefly with that of another runner. Visible from a distance and headed my way was a tallish man, and he was moving lightly and easily along the trail rocks ahead. That he was coming on and not shifting away told me that he was part of the day’s other race–the Wapack and Back (plus 7), which had sent runners out at 5:00 a.m. to run north and then return south along the range for 43 miles before tacking on an out-and-back of seven to make it 50. So the oncoming runner was around mile 45 in his day. And yet, he had rhythm in his stride, life in his legs, and a small smile on his face.

A little later I learned I’d been looking at the Wapack and Back’s winner, Daniel Larson, and at the end of his 10-plus hours, he simply geared down to a halt and shook hands all around while smiling his diffident smile. “That guy’s hardcore,” I heard someone say, and few spectators nodded. In my slightly altered state, I mulled the word: hardcore–it just didn’t fit the guy I’d seen light-footing along, at ease in a strained world.

Hardcore was the glacial erratic perched beside the trail after eons of rains and snows. It was dumped rock. This runner had instead been of the land and as impermanent as his footsteps–here then gone in a whisper of motion and contact. He was most at ease in motion, and motion’s the opposite of hardcore; it is, when we are moving well, a soft adaptability that touches lightly along the varied trail, again and again.

I headed out to loosen my legs early the next morning, and in the half-light of the sun sliding down the trees, I thought back to my little window into Daniel Larson’s long traverse. It is, I thought, in the embrace of my soft-self that I can finally reach the place where the fiber of resolve can be found.

To be softcore, then, is to be alive fully to what is; we all are softness willed forward.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you think it is ‘more hardness’ or ‘more softness’ that gets you to the finish line of your biggest challenges in running and in life? Or do you think it varies by the challenge?
  • Do you think that doing difficult things with running makes you a more pliable and adaptable human being? What other life challenges have a similar effect on you?
Sandy Stott
Sandy Stott lives and runs in Brunswick, Maine, where he chairs the town’s Conservation Commission. He writes for a variety of publications and has a book, 'Critical Hours—Search and Rescue in the White Mountains', which published in April of 2018, is now in its second printing, and was selected by Outside Online as one of its best books for Spring of 2018. He may be reached at [email protected].