Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why Do Endurance Sports? Answer - The Wall, The Pit, and The Abyss

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.

The Wall
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?

The Pit
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!

The Abyss
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. ;-)

- SD


  1. Scott,

    I'm really glad you're sharing all this in your blog. The spirituality of pushing your limits is not often shared with non-runners or even with fellow teammates. A question for you though; what's your mental trick with overcoming these fears that happen on long runs? I know I may run into them, but I can't rationalize my way out knowing I've felt that way before.


  2. The wall - mile 20, not only in a marathon, but in an ultra as well. May be 25 in an ultra.
    The pit - always mile 70-75 in a 100. Funny how I now recognize it, expect it, and still fall for it:) just don't quit, but do hate myself and the world around.
    The abyss - last 10 miles. I don't think I meet God, or anything, I just know I had done it, I will get trough, and I am so proud of myself. And I also know once I reach and cross that finish line - I will do it again. Because, as you said, the abyss, the understanding what you can make your mind (and ultimately your body) do, that knowledge, that search for information on how far, is what really drives, I think, majority of us.
    Can we do it again? Can it be repeated? Was it a fluke, or a real me?
    How would you know if you don't do it again?

  3. Mike - I look forward to the wall/pit since i know what awaits on the other side. So i guess i get through by thinking about the outcome. It doesn't get easier, but knowing it is temporary makes it much more tolerable. Im sure others will ring in with their tips. It wouldn't be nearly as rewarding if it was easy. :)

    Olga! You are the master. So true about that feeling at the end. Did it really happen? Better do another just to check!

  4. To anyone who asks us "Why?" I will fire right back with "Why not? There may be a Wall, there may be a Pit, there may even be an ABYSS but there is NO DOWNSIDE!"

    To me there simply is no downside to ANY level of achievement where endurance sports are concerned. Then I will quiz THEM about the hour they devoted latest episode of "Lost" (which I know NOTHING about) and ask them "Why?" I have not heard a good answer yet...because there definitely IS a downside to THAT nonsense.

    Your post was beautifully written and I will be sharing it with many people.

  5. I love these revelations! Before being injured (Grrrrr....) When I had just hit the tarmac to return home after two hours on the trail, I had the oddly overwhelming and beautiful realisation that my life is perfect, and that life is beautiful. This has been my favourite one so far. Another Good one came 52km into a run, with 4km to go. I think I fell into the pit, because I felt completely fed up. I walked up the last big climb of the day, and looked at my watch - I had 15 minutes to complete the last 4km and have my run finish under eight hours. My body became completely irrelevant. I flew down the trail and I was at peace. I finished just over my target time, but that didn't matter. I run for moments like those, of pure serenity. Correction, I live for them.

  6. Yes, yes, Scott, beautiful post. I agree 100% with everything you said. It's all about blasting through and living to tell the tale (just to yourself most of the time, over and over).

    The other thing I love about ultras is the kindred-spiritedness of the other runners. These events are not usually competitive in a head-to-head sense. We are all brothers and sisters on the trail. I know these people "get" me (despite tremendous differences in age, background, etc) way better than some of my close, non-running friends. No explanations are needed. And that is always a relief. I have had some of the best, most soul-bonding conversations of my life with total strangers running beside me during ultras. The prospect of these connections keeps bringing me back.

  7. Great post! The steps we go through to take running to a high level, sometimes hard to put in words. All in great fun "crazy" some would say!

  8. Thanks for posting Scott, it's always nice to have others confirm that you are normal :)

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  10. This is awesome! You are a true motivation to the ultra runner. I am planning on running my first ultra toward the end of the year or in the beginning of the next. I hope to experience these moments of zen.

  11. It also mirrors the life journey...in my 20's I hit the wall of society after college fun, in my late 30's I fell into the pit (mid-life crises, aging, etc.), and now in my 40's I anticipate the abyss somewhere in my future (illness, disease, loss of loved ones, etc.). But hopefully I'll make it through the abyss and prove that love of life is stronger than death. Much like in a 100 miler, where overcoming the abyss doesn't mean you feel good, it just means you realize the struggle to finish (the journey itself) is more important than preserving one's full health/sanity...since all is subject to decay, why not prepare for the ultimate decay by practicing in the mountains for a day or two?

  12. Pam - I am definitely with you on the kindred spirits. Nearly everyone in the sport is so humble, it's easy to have some great conversations. I bet you "get me" better than anyone at work...and we haven't even met!

    J.edge - Sorry to see you removed the post! It was great stuff.

    Tyler - Good luck on that first ultra!


  13. One of the reasons why I like this post so much is that I am often asked those same questions (why do you??), and you answered it so well. I struggle to answer people because...well, if you don't do it, it is so hard to explain. And when you do explain, you get the hundred mile stare of incomprehension...I do this stuff because I love it. I love tearing myself down to nothing and building myself back up, pushing through a wall and coming through the other side stronger than when I faced it. Anyway, thanks for the awesome post.

  14. Well said! Though I haven't really experienced the Abyss I'm sure it's something I want to experience at some point...hopefully soon! I get the question quite a bit as here in India running a 10k is a big deal and if you've run 70+ people do look at you like you're mad...I usually let it be... unless you've experienced it, it's hard to understand. :)

  15. Scott, as a 100 mile runner I've experienced all three. the pit is for me the one I remember the most of all the hard ultraruns; because it is at that point where I always think about my family. I always question the reasons why I am out there in the middle of the dark forest running for nothing other than selfish reasons. In the pit I get to the point where my mind plays tricks on me, it keeps on chattering nonsense telling me to quit then I start missing my family and it is at that point where the mind chatter goes away and I find the strength to keep going. then for the rest of the journey my mind is calm and I know I will cross the finish line. That's why I keep going back, because nothing else provide the opportunity to experience such states of being.

  16. In a nutshell you nailed it. I am gearing up to run 24hrs in Oct and people think I am a certified lunatic, but I cannot wait to take my mind to that place that so few people can understand. Some people do drugs to alter their states of awareness, but I have been to the abyss and I want more I tells ya. Cracking blog as always Scott.

  17. Ive never gone farther than a marathon, and Ive never experienced the pitt or the abyss. Your post made me VERY curious! As Tina Fey would say "I want to go there..." What is the next step after road marathons? A 50k? Or shoot for more? Baby steps, or not? Or trail practice? You kind of have to move off the road to the trails for the ultras, right?

  18. Love the blog and love the great experiences that you share... keep up the amazing work. You are an inspiration.


  19. Thank you for the great comments all. It's very inspiring to hear your own experiences with each of these.

    Lindy - if you have done a road marathon and enjoyed it, I would highly recommend a trail 50k as your next step. It will give you a good taste of the fitness, calorie/fluid requirements, and tenacity required for the longer stuff. If you enjoy the unique challenge of the ultra, then target and train for a 50-miler. That's really where you get a chance to tackle (and conquer) the pit. Road ultras are also fun and challenging in their own way, but there's nothing quite like the trail adventure.


  20. I volunteered to help at an Ultra on Trails that a friend was running in South Carolina. I am not a runner, have no urge to be one, and I called her crazy. I understood better after the run, and now I get it –at least to the extent that anyone who doesn’t do [enter activity] can comprehend. Relating it to the things that I do that I am often told by others “I could never do that”, I understand the motivation and devotion –nay, the necessity—of extreme sports to the individual’s mind, body and soul. Godspeed and God bless...

  21. I think your delineation of the wall, the pit, and the abyss is spot-on, and not just for describing endurance sports, but for any grueling, challenging event, which some people are naturally disposed to seek out. Those who don't, well, they probably won't understand, no matter how beautifully you explain it ;-)


  22. I am just starting on my ultra journey (first trail 50k in october, after which I'm hoping for a 50 miler next year) and you have articulated clearly what is pulling me into the ultra world . . . I will keep this post bookmarked and will return to it when, as I'm sure I will, I question what the hell am I doing this for? Thanks!

  23. Best yet - keep it up

    why do it? For the LLR itself.

    Interesting to me is how your revelation applieas to anything taken to your personal limits. The Wall, The Pit, and The Abyss come up anytime we push beyond our self doubts and limits.


  24. Great post Scott. Always enjoy reading your stuff.
    What camera do you use while out there at races? I'm in the market for one.

  25. I am very happy to read your articles, more useful for me especially
    I have the same thing with you. I am so very petrified of this in my lectures.

  26. Awesome post. I recently began training for my first 50 miler and I can't wait to see what race day has in store for me.

  27. Another great post and just in time. I have a 12 hour event on Saturday and I have been feeling a bit beat up both physically and mentally from some recent road marathons and I was sitting hear thinking why am I doing this to myself?

    Your posts help explain the why even to and for me. I love the challenge of working myself through the events with not knowing how things will turn out, thanks for helping me to remember that

  28. Scott, Awesome post. When are you going to weave your LRRs into a book?

  29. Chris - good luck in that 50! It's a true taste of the ultra distances. I bet you are going to love it. Once it's done that is.

    Mike - there's nothing quite like a 12-hour, my hat is off to you! Find that rhythm and let it pull you around. Let us know how it went!

    Dan - thanks! I think I will need a few more before it's book ready. As long as it doesn't get too Stuart Smally. If I only had a mug and physique like DeanK, I'd have a new career! :)

    The traffic to this post continues to be huge...i guess folks are passing it around. Keep sharing your perspective, for the comments are as good as the post at this point!


  30. Great post. Not everyone can understand such things, but what you wrote is true and brilliantly exposed. I'm very glad I've found this blog!

  31. You only need Stuart Smalley's hair and you would be good to go.

  32. I got chills when I read this, not because I have felt or reached each point, more because I want to. I just ran my second relay run of 200 miles and finished "Born to Run". This was great and I am glad to have found your blog and look forwared to reading more and running more. Thanks.

  33. This is why I run. Thank you for giving it words.

  34. On the subject of The Abyss, someone asked me why I raced Ultras.
    Without thinking I laughed and blurted out, "After each race, I am far less afraid of dying!".
    Some races are SO hard, death may be easier by comparison. We can find some peace in that, right? Thanks SD.

  35. Another great revelation-post in your series, Scott.

    Though to me the wall is not so much psychological as physical-- for instance, I need to get something in me or I will pass out, the glycogen completely ran out.

    Those who work in my profession sometimes self-deprecatingly refer to the ED as "the pit." I guess I can say I have spiritually gotten out of the pit to find myself physically in the pit, as a patient and not as a provider.

  36. Hi,

    Loved the post, really did. Was wondering if I can get in touch with you in regards to translating it.. please let me know if that's possible and how we can chat..

  37. Lior - you are welcome to translate, just be sure to link back to the original post. Any questions, i can be found at Scottdunlap (at) yahoo (dot) com.

  38. jennifer kasper8/14/2010 05:18:00 PM

    Scott i needed to be reminded of exactly why i run. Having it put into words is what i needed to stand at tomorrows starting line! -jen

  39. i'm not one of you at this point in my life. maybe never who knows. i found this post from a friend. but when i read it i felt like you had put into words what it's like to carry and birth a child. that's amazing cause in my entire experience of having children -- and i have a lot -- i've never been able to put it into words like you just did. and you are a man. that just proves you were totally inspired. it's a similar piercing of the soul. your writing makes me think that when i'm done having babies i might just look into trail running. no need to stop challenging myself -- perhaps just in different ways at different times in my life. thanks for sharing.

  40. If you've given birth, you are an honorary member of any endurance clan. Welcome! As a man I can only witness your journey, and it's enough for me to know you are AMAZING.

    My first reaction after watching the birth of my daughter Sophie was (first) my wife just accomplished the most incredible endurance feat I have ever seen, and (second) this little being just opened a door in my heart that I didn't know was there and showed me it's 1000x bigger than I ever imagined. So much awe, humility, love, respect, and spiritual awakening...I honestly thought I was going to pass out.

    And I can't wait for it to happen again!

  41. Loved the post..You are too motivated..I liked your inspiration..I read your thoroughly and find it too good..Good work man ! Keep it up !

  42. Russell Edwards4/23/2011 04:17:00 PM

    I knew there had to be something like this behind ultrarunning. Very well put. It now clicks as to why the Tarahumara, who I previously only knew of through my interest in psychoactive and medicinal cacti, are also fanatical ultrarunners.

  43. Howdy!
    I'm a newer subscriber to your blog, and I am thoroughly enjoying reading your posts. This one is well-written and explained.

    After an abdominal surgery, I fell into race-walking. I'd been struggling with my work schedule and getting back into running, and after surgery I was only able to walk at the park---VERY slowly in the beginning. I then met a couple of people who walked races. I thought that it was odd, crazy and for the older lot (I'm in my 30's). Well, after completing my first half in 2011, I continued and did 6 more, before doing my first full at the beautiful and hilly Tyler Rose Marathon in 2012. I have had the joy of doing a couple of trail races (AWESOMENESS) and a midnight 25K, prior to completing 2 more full marathons in 2013. Yes, I race-walk marathons, and people look at me in bewilderment as to "why?" or "why not run?". I also get the "it's not that much of a challenge if you're walking" remarks. In any event, I tell them 26.2 is still 26.2, I have to put in the miles and training, and I still have to meet the time-limit restrictions/cutoffs as well. I also experience the mental/emotional journey you mentioned in your post. I have grown in ways that I could never have imagined, and being that I'm race-walking the miles, I'm out there longer. It takes a lot of patience and determination. I have a lot of time to reflect, dig and think deeply and to question. I also get to appreciate the environment around me more, and I feel very connected in with having a small glimpse into the world of ultramarathoners, where patience and endurance reign supreme.

    We have had a wintry "storm" here in Texas this past week, leaving the Dallas Marathon to be canceled for the first time ever. I've been planning my race schedule for 2014, and look forward to the day of tackling an 50K. I know that at that distance and beyond, I will have to transition to a walk-jog combo in order to meet the time restrictions, even if there is a longer distance event like a 50 miler going on in conjunction with it. Either way, I am just happy to be able to put one foot in front of the other, and to be able to share in the camaraderie of the experiences of road/trail sports with you all.

    Best regards.


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