Thursday, May 21, 2009

The 100-mile experience

With the Cleveland Marathon now behind me, the Mohican Trail 100-Mile Run looms. It is hard to believe that Mohican is just four weeks away (June 20). This will be my second consecutive Mohican and third 100-miler. For me, no race commands more dedication, focus and energy than a 100-miler.

Describing what it’s like running 100 miles is really difficult for me, maybe because I’ve only run in two 100s and I’m still trying to figure them out (as if that’ll ever happen!). During the event, you experience a range of positive and negative feelings—the lowest of lows (“I’m not gonna make it”) to the highest of highs (the feeling of being unstoppable). Gabriel Flores, former winner of the Badwater Ultramarathon, once said that during Badwater he could be dying one second and flying the next. His observation certainly applies to 100s, and it speaks to the need to take the good with the bad and kind of roll with the punches. That’s not only the way of 100s; it’s the way of life.

A lot of people are inspired to try ultras because there’s something about them that captures the imagination and stokes primal instincts deep within the soul. One must know that an ultra will bring physical and mental suffering, and many recognize that out of suffering comes wisdom and strength, which we all seek. I say suffering with some hesitation because, to me, true suffering is inescapable and something you have no choice but to endure. Whereas you can escape a 100 by dropping. But to the extent that you can immerse yourself in the ultra experience and develop the mindset that you are here and there is no way out except through the finish line, yes, you suffer, and the suffering does bring a certain degree of enlightenment. It is truly a transformative experience that takes time to understand and appreciate. This is seen in the 100-mile finisher who says "never again" and yet returns the next year.

But are greater wisdom and strength worth the suffering a 100 brings? Ask that of any 100-mile runner and they’ll say yes. And they’ll probably also say that a 100 is who they are. You’re out there, often alone, trudging through nature and managing pain and discomfort with essentially one goal – moving forward. The foods and liquids you consume at the aid stations aren’t for enjoyment; they’re to keep you moving forward. The volunteers you meet at the aid stations are inspiration to keep you moving forward. Every step is one step closer to the ultimate goal. Your whole mindset is geared toward forward progress and, for the many hours you’re immersed in the ultra experience, you’re freed from the every day concerns of life – paying bills, performing at work, worrying about your kids, cleaning up messes.

At some point, the physical discomfort and pure, unadulterated tiredness so sap you of your physical strength that really all you have left is your very will – the will to keep moving forward. You have been stripped down to nothing more than your soul, making you something of a primitive creature in the midst of--I hesitate to say this--an out-of-body experience. I think perhaps this is what Yiannis Kouros, the greatest of ultra runners, is getting at when he speaks of the separation of the mind and body during ultras. This from a story in Running Times about Kouros:
During his races, Kouros says that there is a separation of mind from body, even though the mind still gives commands to the body. "The pain is the reality but your mind can inspire you past it. I look to the countryside, music, and art, to help inspire me." He says that his body speaks to him, "stop," "give me something to eat," or, even, "take me to the hospital!"

Adds Kouros, "we have ups and downs in life and the same is true in ultramarathons. I need those ups and downs to go back to my childhood, memories, and past experiences." It is from those, especially the painful times, that Kouros draws some of his inspiration and, because we gain more and more life impressions as we age, "the older you are, the better for ultrarunning because mental experience is much more important than physical speed." The difficulties are what help Kouros find his "strength, passion, and inspiration." He draws from Greek literary references in explaining that it is the contrast of the mental, artistic, and spiritual qualities of Apollo to the corporeal elements of Dionysus that he tries to balance.
As a guy who wears a suit and tie to work every day and lives in the suburbs, the mental and physical violence of a 100 has great appeal to me, because it reminds me of the fact that my identity isn’t tied to what I own, where I live, or what I do for a living; it’s tied to what’s within my heart and soul. There I find my family and my faith, my two greatest sources of strength in 100s, and most certainly in life.

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