I had another Long Run Revelation this weekend (see previous LLR's, Part I - There Is No Such Thing As Work/Life Balance, Only Life Balance, and Part II - Want A Fulfilled Life? Embrace Death), one of those blissful moments of clarity around life's big questions that occurs after a couple of hours of exercise. This revelation was prompted by a question from a parent of one of Sophie's friends, which is one I'm sure we all get regularly:
Why do you do it? Why beat yourself up with all that ultra and Ironman training, only to beat yourself up even more on race day? Even worse, why do you keep doing it?
It's a hard question to answer, especially to people unfamiliar with our world. How do you give a short response without sounding crazy? If you say "I like to challenge myself", you are clearly a masochist. If you say "it's a spiritual journey that I share with like-minded people", they think you are one step away from joining the Hare Krishnas. And God forbid you reply "I like the belt buckles"...they will call the funny farm and have you in a straight jacket immediatement.
So how best to answer this question without oversimplifying, and still root the response enough in practicality to give them a takeaway? Here's what came to me:
The Wall, The Pit, and The Abyss - What Defines You Lies Just Beyond Each Of These Challenges.
Most people have heard about "The Wall". It's that physical challenge most of us hit around mile 20 in a marathon (often exclaimed as "oh, sh*t, I just hit the wall") when your glycogen gets dangerously close to "E" and your body starts messing with you to get you to stop. Cramps, fatigue, twitchiness, fluctuating body temp, and an ego ready to throw in the towel. It's not fun. But in truth, it's a defining part of the marathon experience. When you push yourself through this barrier, moving forward despite everything your body is signaling, you learn to trust your will. You find, on the other side of that wall, that you are far more courageous than you thought. You engage, and build, your character. You finish a stronger person.
In a nutshell, that's really it. What lies beyond the challenge is what defines you. By overcoming your own perceived limits, you face the undeniable truth that you are stronger than you thought, and thus must redefine your self image as a more confident and capable person. It's not always a conscious thought, but it's always there. It's what gets you sign up for the next one.
So why not just do marathons? Isn't The Wall enough? For some, yes. But what happens if you go farther?
Beyond The Wall lies "The Pit". This is when your head is so full of reasons to stop, so many excuses piling up that you can barely acknowledge them (let alone answer them), that it feels like quicksand pulling you into a deep pit. I usually find this around mile 38-42 of an ultra, or at mile 3 of the run in a Half Ironman. You try and claw your way out of the pit, but the mounting excuses are relentless. It's all the reasons you aren't good enough, all of your self-doubts, and every parental/ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend/bully-at-recess lashing that you have unwillingly stored in your memory banks. It's self-imposed mental torture. And it seriously sucks ass.
Then suddenly, you get tired of hearing all that bullsh%t and just push on through. What awaits you on the other side is a calm serenity; a flow where you hear nothing but the rhythm of your steps. Hours feel like minutes, and in this peaceful state your world is awash in possibilities. Then you realize the source of all of those excuses - it was you! Ha, ha! It was you all along! Little did you know you could just turn it off like a spigot. Most of us need to push ourselves to this limit to understand that the ability to create a strong, positive outlook lies within. When you feel it, it's almost embarrassing how simple it is access. My God, what a revelation.
It may not be clear to you in that moment, but your self-image just sprouted like a spring flower sipping the first rays of sun. This experience builds confidence unlike anything I have ever witnessed. I see it in the smiles of all ultrarunners, and is one of the reasons I love to be a part of any event, racing, volunteering, or just cheering. It's why I keep coming back - give those flowers more sunshine!
Beyond The Pit, lies the ultimate spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical challenge called "The Abyss". It's when you've taken yourself frightfully close to your limitations, stripped away all of your judgment and ego, and find yourself staring into a black void so incomprehensively large that it forces you to redefine everything. And I mean everything. Time won't just stop, it will become irrelevant, as will most of reality. What is your place in this universe? Who is your God? What defines me? It's why buddhists meditate. It's why shamans fast or take peyote. To go beyond The Abyss is to find enlightenment and truth. It's to understand and embrace your role in the cosmos. Endurance sports can absolutely help you find it.
Mark Twain summed it up well when he said "Man looks in the abyss, there's nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss." (some will know this from the movie, Wall Street) Friedrich Nietzche also pointed out "When you stare into the abyss, it also stares into you." My own experience with The Abyss combines the two - "the abyss is the great mirror, the reflection of your soul, and my God, it's full of stars." No matter how you slice it, it's a worthy quest when you're ready for it.
When do you encounter The Abyss? Mile 80 of a 100-miler? The last 10k or an Ironman? Maybe never? Yes to all. But to have a chance at finding it, you have to make it to the starting line of a great challenge and be open to the possibility that it's out there. If you do, I guarantee you will finish the day a very different person than when you started, no matter how your day goes.
So there it is - The Wall, The Pit, and The Abyss. I'm finding it's a good way of explaining the passion for endurance sports, while giving people a taste of the rewards at different levels. I would love to hear if any of you also have good ways to explain our drive to do endurance sports. Perhaps something a bit more succinct. ;-)