Lost or Found?

AJW ponders whether we head to the trails or out for the long run to find ourselves or lose ourselves.

By on April 20, 2012 | Comments

AJWs TaproomRecently, I had the luxuriously rare opportunity of spending a few days reading a book. I had other things going on, of course, but, for the most part, I was able to absorb myself in the written word and simply let words, ideas, and a story settle into my mind. The book I chose for this fleeting and precious opportunity was Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

In this book, the author describes, in wonderful and poignant detail, her journey, on foot, over 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. As a young woman in her mid-twenties, Strayed felt the call of the wilderness and sought solace and answers in the mountains of the great American West. As she was coming to grips with the premature death of her mother, a divorce, and a heroin addiction she knew that she needed to find herself. For a variety of fascinating and all-too-familiar reasons she chose to seek those answers on the trail.

One of the fascinating and, at times, disconcerting aspects of ultramarathon running is that the community is filled with stories. The narratives that our woven through the lives of the practitioners of this special sport are often compelling, occasionally moving, and almost always entertaining. In addition, like the story of Cheryl Strayed, on occasion, these stories have dark sides.

I can confidently and comfortably say, without hesitation, that my best friends in life are those I have made in this sport. I have enjoyed countless hours of laughter and smack talk with many folks who I consider my closest and dearest friends. Just the idea of getting together for a weekend of running with some of my running buddies gets me giddy with excitement. Heck, some of us get so childish about the whole thing that we have come to refer to the period around the Western States 100 as “Statesmas.”

But I also know, and openly acknowledge, that there is a more somber, and occasionally tragic, side to this sport. As much as we run to live there are some of us live to run. And, as such, this inevitable push/pull dynamic begs the inevitable question, are we running to something or from something? In my optimistic, glass-half-full moments I like to think it’s both and for most of us, at most times, it is. But there is also something about running long distances that provides a refuge, a respite from the mundane or the painful or even the imminently depressing, that can be a bit more dangerous and destructive.

Certainly, anyone who chooses to undertake a 100-mile mountainous trail ultramarathon understands and acknowledges that there are risks accompanying such an endeavor. In fact, for many, there is a certain romance in that risk. But there are also motives behind that risk and the behaviors, temperaments, and emotions that are part of the package beneath that risk can give rise to certain fundamental characteristics that can be at once exhilarating and exhausting, disappointing and deflating. While much of what we do is good and right and wholesome in the moment, we mustn’t ignore the fact that it’s also not necessarily healthy all the time.

Which brings me back to Cheryl Strayed’s remarkable memoir, Wild. Facing down death, loss, and addiction, an unprepared, inexperienced everywoman chose to take control of her life through an autonomous and deeply meaningful experience in the wild. She chose to simplify her life, leave behind her past, and to seek answers to the questions she really didn’t know how to ask. I like to think that for many of who have made ultramarathon running such an important part of our lives we are also, in our own unique ways, doing the same thing. The truth is, you don’t need to face down demons to find a place in this amazing, cooky, fun-loving, slightly off-kilter sport. But, and this is a big but, if you have those demons, this is not a bad place to come if you’re looking to exorcise them.

Bottoms up!

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Lawsons Finest Crooked Cabin AleThis Week’s Beer of the Week comes from Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Vermont. A friend of mine recently brought me a couple bottles of their Crooked Cabin Ale and after a few sips I was ready to hop in the car and drive 14 hours to taste the stuff fresh out of the tap. I didn’t, of course, but I must say, this is some truly great stuff and it would certainly be a great beer to bring along on any long trail journey.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • In what ways do you or have you found yourself through running?
  • Have you ever found yourself running to lose yourself?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.