The Great Contradiction

An essay about how the difficulty of running is part of what makes it a valuable endeavor.

By on September 7, 2018 | Comments

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?
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.