Discovering why we are ultra runners
Sometimes the answer comes while staring into a hole in the ground
It's a common question of ultra runners: Why do we run those crazy distances?
I've struggled with this question over the years, coming up with answers that seem to fit: maintaining good health, being part of a community or being part of something bigger than myself. There is truth in each of these answers, but even when taken collectively I find them lacking something. There was another reason why that I was failing to pinpoint. That was until now.
I was recently standing over a freshly dug ditch in my backyard watching the two men who did the digging head-deep in it clearing water-soaked clay away from a section of exposed underground plastic pipe. The sun was coming down on them hard and the humidity was well into the oppressive range as they scraped with shovels the remaining foot of dirt from around the pipe, exposing the offending crack in the line they were looking for.
As I stood there feeling helpless, I proceeded to do something that my 20-something self would have found obnoxious. I started telling these guys about how I used to work digging ditches just like this when I was younger. I felt the betrayal to my younger self as the words left my mouth, but it was like I had no control over what was being said. I could feel the words fall from my mouth on deaf ears just like years ago when I was the one in the ditch tuning out some interloper waxing nostalgically.
Noticing my obnoxious banter, I quickly shut up my "when I was a boy" tales of ditch-digging. But being there watching these two guys work, sweat and struggle under the hot sun in this muddy hole had me reminiscing on those glory days of hard labor. I kept thinking about what it felt like to work with your mind and body to fix or produce something for someone. I would come home at day's end satisfied by the fatigue, dried sweat, grime and stink running in and over my body, feeling content I had done something worthwhile and meaningful.
Plenty has happened since those days. I graduated from college with a journalism degree and have worked in various jobs related to that degree. Going from a physically demanding life of a construction worker to more sedentary work of writer-editor made me feel like I had really made it in life. A white-collar job in my mind at the time was definitely a step up from digging a ditch in air thick enough to swim in and hot enough to fry an egg.
Two years ago, I was sitting on the end of a picnic table at the Rice Lake aid station feeling exhausted and defeated. It was 6 a.m. on a Sunday in early June and I had just dropped at the Kettle 100. The wristband was cut. It was over. There were only 18 miles between me and the finish, but the severe chaffing I had inflicted over the last 24 hours caused me to move from running to walking and then a mincing shuffle that led to my drop. It was the hardest race I had ever run, but it was one of the best in that I suffered in the elements pushing my body to exhaustion and my mind to its breaking point. I remembered crying on the phone to my wife at 4 a.m. that morning as I continued climbing, descending and frustratingly wondering how much fucking longer to Rice Lake.
This is what endurance running is about: there is suffering, there is pain, there is crying, joy, vomiting, blood and sweat. So for those who ask why ultra running, I don't blame them for the question. And now I can say that I have a legitimate answer.
When I stopped working for my dad in my 20s and started college, I was happy to be moving on and making my own life on my terms. As I entered my new career, I kept noticing that my jobs were significantly easier in terms of physical demand and stress compared to work I had done through my teens and early 20s.
What I didn't know during those first years of my journalism career was that I was losing something that was at the core of who I was. We crave being in the elements working with our bodies and doing basic things that help to maintain, preserve and grow life. It's evidence of how closely we are still tied to early humans. For me, the closest I came to those roots was being outdoors doing physical labor and building things. Shelter is a subset of Maslow's hierarchy, falling under the safety tier. Look back at any group of humans during any time in history and you will find shelter high on the survival priority list.
Building gave me purpose. I could see it, which made it real to me. This brought me satisfaction. Writing certainly brings satisfaction but not in the same way. Writing feeds our minds, but words on paper can't protect us from the elements. Building something that brings people shelter and protection is real. I lost that satisfaction when I moved to a desk job, so when I started endurance running in my mid-30s I felt that purpose and accomplishment again.
I know it's not the same thing. I'm not constructing a physical structure when I run, but I am building something in myself. And the same tools of body and mind I used in construction are being used as I navigate technical trails for miles on end, bringing me similar satisfactions I felt as a young man.
That's not to say I don't feel accomplished in my current career work, but it's a different kind of satisfaction. I may not be helping to build a physical structure, but the feeling of pushing my physical and mental limits in the elements takes me back to that time. It's hard, it's honest and it gets to the heart of what it is to be.