Last Saturday, I ran a 100-kilometer trail race in Malibu, CA called Sean O'Brian. For those of you who are metrically-challenged, 100 kilometers is about 62 miles. This was the farthest ultra I've attempted to-date, and I was nervous as I stood at the starting line, surrounded by about 200 equally insane trail runners.
Somewhere around halfway (31 miles), I had a small epiphany, a realization that may have been buried in my subconscious but that I'd never been able to put to words, because words are often lacking. Sanskrit speakers have the luxury of choosing from 96 different words for "love," while us English speakers have...one. The desire to diminish our human experience and boil it down to something as simple as language is innate. We want to be able to express ourselves, but language is often not enough. This is why body language is important, why salespeople prefer in-person meetings to chatting over the phone or emailing. The human experience is nuanced, diverse, and constantly evolving.
Individuals too, are nuanced, diverse, and constantly evolving. The epiphany I had in the middle of the race was that running ultra marathons; being pretty much alone on trails for the better part of 12 hours, brings me a bit closer to myself, simply because I cannot hide. There are no distractions, there's just me, my breath, and the natural world, humming away as if I don't exist. It takes me both out of myself and closer to myself at once. I keep returning to this experience because running, quite simply, reminds me who I am.
When the pain gets really bad (and trust me, it can get bad), I see both sides of myself: the side of me that wants to quit, that wants to end the physical pain, the "weak" part of myself that feels overwhelmed by not just the physicality of the task at hand, but the audacity of me for attempting such a feat. Then, there's the other side of me, the side I want to win 99% of the time. The side that feels the physical pain, but recognizes its temporal nature. The side that can rely on mental fortitude because it knows, through experience, that "mind over matter" is more than just a kitschy catchphrase. The "strong" side of myself that feels in control of the physicality of the task at hand, and confident in my ability to achieve something audacious.
I've been interested in ultra marathons since reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall way back in high school. At the time, 10 miles felt interminable and the very notion of running any farther was preposterous. Until it wasn't. I have always liked the notion of doing a thing very few people have done, and while ultras are a growing sport, they're still relatively uncommon. But the motivation to do something as arduous as an ultra marathon has to be deeper than simply doing something few have done.
In his book Mastery, Robert Greene writes about the path to finding a vocation-how we're all drawn to certain subjects or activities and how the exploration of our interests will lead us to the THING we're meant to do. When I tell people I run ultra marathons, many reply with something like, "Oh, I hate running. I don't know how you do that." These people aren't unilaterally lazy (though, they might be), but it's more likely that their interests lie elsewhere. I really think anyone, barring physical disability, could run an ultra marathon. The motivation to do so, however, must live somewhere deep: must be an inkling, then a kindling, then a burning desire to see another side of the self. And if that inkling/kindling/burning desire isn't explored, dispassionate angst is the inevitable byproduct.
Unhappiness is often an easier choice than happiness, if only because it can be uncomfortable to pursue the things that produce real joy.
Greene writes, “Think of it this way: There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done.”
I have a few more races coming up this year (including a 100 miler), and I've briefly wondered why I keep doing this. Why continue to challenge myself in this particular way, push myself to run farther and harder than I have before. The root of my motivation is a deep desire to see myself fully and clearly. To overcome bigger and bigger challenges and prove to myself that I can. It's not a race against anyone else, and that realization is undeniably freeing. Returning to the trails brings me back to myself, and reminds me how strong and capable I truly am.
Last weekend, I made a pact with myself to hold off listening to music or a podcast until I really needed the distraction. Instead, I chatted with other runners around me. When I found myself alone, I let my thoughts drift and released my mind to truly wander. How often do any of us really do that? When things got tough, I came back to my mantra:
I am strong.
I am capable.
Nothing can bring me down.
The same is true for you, wherever you are and whatever you're facing:
You are strong.
You are capable.
Nothing can bring you down.
Thinking these words, or even saying them, isn't the same as believing them. It has taken deep, physical pain for me to believe that my mantra is true. It may not take deep, physical pain for you to believe the same thing (good for you!). But something out there is calling your name, and you have a responsibility to yourself to listen. This will require acknowledging, accepting, and embodying your strong self. Pushing away the things that scare you is easy, but it's weak. We all have both within us, but one of the coolest things about being human is that we get to decide which self to embrace.