Why am I Doing This?

I had a bit of an epiphany this past weekend: I think I know what’s driving me to attempt another ultra.

Last Saturday, I volunteered at the Orcas Island 50K. I’ve wanted to volunteer for that race for the past few years, but it’s an expensive trip to get there. It’s about an 8-hour drive to get there, including time spent on the ferry. The ferry is $42 for my truck (a shorter vehicle can drive on for $33.50), and trip would require a couple of tanks of gas. I’d be paying over a hundred bucks for travel, not counting food. 

Because of all this, I was delighted to learn a friend was planning to volunteer, as well. He’s hoping to run in next year’s 100-miler, and volunteering not only decrease what you pay to enter the race, it bumps you to the top of the list on the lottery. (This race is so popular that entries are doled out by lottery.) A third runner joined us.

The friend that did the driving has been running ultras for years, and he’s the race director for the Badger Mountain Challenge 50K/50-miler/100-miler. I blame him for my foolish decision to attempt the 50K a few years ago. Ultrarunners are a contagious bunch: hang out with them, and they’ll have you convinced you can run one, too.

 Jason was described a really lousy overnight he had during a race. His mantra is “just keep eating, just keep moving”; that’s what he did. In time, the eastern sky began to lighten with the morning’s twilight, and the sun rose. His spirit rose along with the morning sun, and he completed the race.

That’s when I realized, this is what I’m chasing. People pursue endurance sports to test themselves. We know there are lessons to be learned in conquering one’s fear & willing ones’ self to go on. We know that our brains will push our bodies far beyond what the body thought was reasonable, or possible. We compete against ourselves more than the other athletes.

What we do isn’t always rational. It’s probably not very wise. We burn up and freeze and blister and bleed. We ignore nausea and eat in the hope the food will stay down long enough to get some glucose into our brain & our muscles. We keep moving when everything in our body is telling us to stop. Our brains push us past all this, keep us moving, even when our brains aren’t fully functioning. (I’ve heard plenty of stories of ultrarunners arguing with rocks or trees, or of having long conversations with another runner who isn’t there.)

But I want that moment. I want that moment of ecstasy that comes when I’m at my lowest, when I’m surrounded by darkness inside & out, when I’m moving forward propelled only by sheer will power, and the sun begins to rise.

It’s not logical. It’s probably not very smart. But it’s an antidote to our lives of relative comfort & ease, in our climate-controlled cocoons, where we risk nothing & nothing ever challenges us. It’s the warrior spirit, seeking insight & enlightenment through suffering & self-denial. It’s staring into the abyss and not fearing its emptiness.

Through these challenges, we learn that there’s nothing we cannot do. We learn that our greatest limitations are the ones we place on ourselves and that those limitations are lies. We gain strength where it matters most: our character, our soul, our compassion.  

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