- Published: Saturday, 14 April 2018 12:00
Trail running like life is an individual journey
Humans are inherently insular creatures.
Even though we are social animals we live separately, each of us isolated as we step through life. We share time with one another, but that time shared together is shared alone. You may stand next to a longtime partner watching the same sunset on the same beach holding hands, but what each takes from that experience will differ.
In recalling the experience we make it sound like we shared the same thing, but that’s a false perception. Since none of us share the same eyes to see, nose and ears to smell and hear or mind taking it in to make sense of it all there is no way we can share the same experiences.
No two people share anything the same. Once that experience passes into our consciousness we alone own it. Seeing the same shooting star race across the sky, pickup truck kick up dust as it tears down a dirt road or sun rise from behind the mountains may be shared by many, but what happens to it after it passes through our being is unique, something that never was or will be again. Every person welcomes and interprets what they witness based on passed experience. Perspectives are built from experiences derived from living a life that is entirely unique from anyone else who has ever lived. So when someone says, “you don’t know me,” they are speaking the truth.
No matter how connected we want to believe we are to those around us, our family members, friends, people we work with, they are all just people passing in and out of our lives. Some may share every day together for years and others may exchange pleasantries in an elevator for a few seconds and then never see each other again. Encounters we have can be brief and fleeting and barely memorable and others place a deep imprint on who we are and how we live our lives, but ultimately each of us is alone in the end.
Our solo travels through life become especially noticeable at the end of each day when we put on our PJs, crawl into bed and fall asleep – we go there alone. Maybe not physically alone. You might sleep with someone, a spouse or significant other, but once you drift off you are alone. When we sleep we go there with our dreams, an experience we cannot share, even if we wanted to.
The same thing happens when we die. Not a pleasant thought, I know. It’s scary to think that everything we know in this world will someday end. And when each of us does go we go there on our own. There will be no one around to tell us what will be there when we pass, seeing as anyone we know who has done passed is gone from this place and beyond our ability to communicate with. It’s an uncertain darkness we must face on our own, but uncertainty and change are part of life from the time we are born.
Everything is new to a child. Remember the first time mom or dad dropped you off at kindergarten by yourself? Unsettling, especially for a child. You’re in this new place with all these people you’ve never met before. This is an experience that continues to play out throughout life as we are introduced to new things. Changes, some of our making and others that are thrust upon us, challenge our psyche and sometimes our will to move ahead.
So what, you say, does this have to do with ultra running? I’d say plenty. The trail and ultra running communities have incredibly tight social networks reaching throughout the United States and the world. Do a quick Google search for running groups in most developed regions worldwide and you will likely find trail running groups in these places ready to welcome you into their communities. It’s a great way to meet other people interested in the sport. But with all its tight social networks and inclusive characteristics, running remains one of the most individualistic sports there is. This is why running and especially distance running is the sport best suited to imitate life. Now add in the ultra element and you have that life -in-a-day characteristic that makes ultra running arguably the purest form of sport in the world.
The best place to begin to test this theory is at the start line of an ultra in the minutes before the race. Runners gather in a tight group behind the start line as the race director shares last-minute details about the course conditions and what to expect while they are out there. Nervous chatter and excitement emanate from this cluster leading to the moment when the gun fires as the cluster funnels forward and racers eagerly trot over the starting line, stepping toward their goals. Some run together in the beginning, talking strategy and making predictions about weather and whether they have properly prepared with the right nutrition and drop-bag reserves. As the miles pile up, chatter dissipates as runners spread out and aid stations pop up along the course. One runner may go to grab pretzels and water while another runs through without stopping. They may not notice it until they are a few miles down the trail and wonder what happened to that person who was sharing with them a way too graphic description of their chaffeage experience from a prior race. Or they may not remember the encounter at all. Much like the brief encounter in the elevator, the people we meet on the trail have varying impacts on us as we continue our journey-of-one experience through our race day.
Just like with life we will encounter people through the day. Amazing aid station volunteers giving their time to help us have a great race. Crews out there helping us from point to point – tending to our wounds, making sure we are getting the right fuel and hydration and picking up our spirits to make sure we have the mental fortitude to make it to that next aid station. Let’s not forget about the Debbie and Donald Downers either – those people we meet on the trail who have nothing positive to say about the course, volunteers, race director, weather or anything. They are having a bad day and they are going to let you know about it. As with life there are runners on the trail who choose to share negative vibes. Fortunately, these folks are few in this sport as it takes a strong mind to sustain a career as an ultra runner. And as many do in life when we experience negative energy, we tend to steer clear of it and take a different tack with others sharing more positive outlooks. In life this may mean breaking up with someone who is toxic or abusive mentally or physically. This translates onto the trail by runners slowing down, speeding up or making an excuse by stopping to create a gap between themselves and the negative person.
Trail ultras mirror life in this way. People come in and out of our presence throughout our lives just like they do along the trail. The ups and downs we experience on the trail have much to do with those we meet along the way. Even someone passing us late in a race can quickly change our attitudes. We may see that person passing us with and incredible energy as we are struggling to place one foot ahead of the other. It’s 2 a.m., you’ve been on your feet for 17 hours, it’s pitch dark and cold, and you feel your heart sink as you think, there goes yet another person passing me. Everyone else is doing so well and I am falling apart. I have no business being out here. I’ll never finish.
Or maybe that person passes you and as they do they turn and say, “Hey, I’m having a really tough time. Would you mind if I run with you for a while?” Having that extra nudge of someone beside you sharing a similar experience while it still being your race is the essence of life itself. We may be on our own in our individual journeys, but so is everyone else and that is empowering.
The trails we take through life are empty spaces. They may be marked – some better than others - and we will get lost along the way. We will be down in the dumps at times wondering why we are there and cursing whatever or whoever brought us there, but it’s within those moments when we are lost that we find the strength to survive and move back on the right path. And it’s those times when we are lost and feeling helpless and alone, whether we know it at the time, where we build our mental dexterity.
Building that inner strength not only helps us move along, it also touches others. Positive energy is contagious and can build environments where others will seek to find peace and energy. This is why the trail and ultra communities are so attractive to so many. What we do as distance runners is tough. The miles we put in and the challenges we put ourselves up against test our will beyond what most people will ever experience. But the rewards are amazing, beyond description to anyone who has never tested themselves in that way. We are on our own out there but we share the same trails. We look at the person in front of us in a race and say, “they are fast.” We then look back at those behind us and say, “they are strong.” And when we arrive at the finish line having run our race, we congratulate one another and share in this moment and place while also appreciating and respecting that each of us is there via a unique path.
Life takes each of us where it wills. The sooner we accept and come to peace with that the better the journey. Be courageous, passionate and compassionate in your experiment of one.