outside the comfort zone: trials of marathoners

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“I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead. I repeat this like a mantra.” –What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

When I was young – somewhere in the febrile netherworld between adolescent and teenager, I dreamt that I married a marathon runner, which seemed ludicrous at the time. Bookish and living in libraries, it seemed highly unlikely that I would ever meet a marathon runner, let alone have anything in common with one. (It may or may not be worth noting that this dream-world marriage took place when I was quite young, and the dream ended with the young marathoner husband’s premature death at 30, which led to my grieving by riding around in a car with a group of gay male friends.)

In the many, many years since I had this dream, I have never married. I am well beyond 30 myself now. I have, however, been involved with so many triathletes and long-distance runners, and lately I wonder, being as obsessed as I am with how things intersect and connect, why this thread has woven its way through my life. I have had my other phases, unconscious and unintentional, such as the French phase, the Microsoft employee phase, and so on (most likely these ‘trends’ happened because the people you end up meeting are all part of the ‘web’ in which you are woven and the circles in which you travel. Being with a French Microsoftie would probably lead you both to more French people and more Microsoft employees). But through all of the various phases, it seemed these people who chose to push and exploit their own bodies to extremes reappeared everywhere. I had always imagined I would have nothing in common with these human-endurance outliers, but I suppose there are aspects of personality I relate to: grit, solitude, being drawn to extremes, obsession with transformation.

Lately I have been trying to understand the desire and resolve to run in this way, to these distances and at such extremes of human capability or need. It was not a burning question, but things kept popping up to return the question to the forefront of my mind. First I read about a sedentary academic who eventually began to run 100-mile marathons. His article led me to read Scott Jurek’s book Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. Not a great book nor high literature by any stretch of the imagination (one of my “filler” books really) but nevertheless peppered with cliché tidbits and the odd literary quotes that add some texture as well as a how-and-why journey to the motivation behind this kind of lifestyle:

  • “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” —ERNEST HEMINGWAY
  • “Not all pain is significant.” (from painscience.com: “It’s the difference between engine trouble and trouble with that light on your dashboard that says there’s engine trouble.”)
  • As Thoreau, an American practitioner (though he probably didn’t realize it) of bushido and a pretty good distance walker himself, wrote, “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers . . . simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”
  • Stotan sessions “beautiful and painful . . . underneath it all there was a sort of sound philosophy based on ‘Let’s improve ourselves as human beings, let’s become more compassionate, let’s become bigger, let’s become stronger, let’s become nicer people.’”
  • “You only ever grow as a human being if you’re outside your comfort zone.”

Then I thought, well, Haruki Murakami has written about his own running in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. His insights weren’t much different from any other long-distance runner’s except that he often creates parallels with his writing:

  • “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.”
  • “In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”
  • “So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent.”
  • “Each person has his own likes. Once when I had a chance to talk with a sales rep from Mizuno, he admitted, “Our shoes are kind of plain and don’t stand out. We stand by our quality, but they aren’t that attractive.” I know what he’s trying to say. They have no gimmicks, no sense of style, no catchy slogan. So to the average consumer, they have little appeal. (The Subaru of the shoe world, in other words.)” (I liked this one just because it highlights functionality and personal preference – what works versus what looks flashy. I have always, after all, driven Subarus.)

But eventually I get some clarity from these readings and others – everything from personal reflections and essays to the more scientific and clinical approaches, such as an article on whether or not ultra-marathoners feel less pain, thanks to the Twitter feed of Al Jazeera English news anchor Peter Dobbie (yes, this kind of stuff comes from everywhere, doesn’t it?). Of course they don’t feel less pain – it’s psychological really – so it comes down to brain over pain (as the article states: “theory of pain catastrophizing and how that might be translated into pain management when you are 40 miles in and everything feels bad”). It all ties together so that these symptoms, if not catastrophic or apt to do lasting damage, can be assessed as non-critical discomfort rather than critical pain, can be overcome with some of the psychology, the tying the effort into a greater good, a philosophical drive toward being greater.

Someone asked me the other day about why I think our mutual acquaintance runs in insane ultra-marathon-type events. (Sure, in this case, she just wanted to find excuses to talk to me about the acquaintance, but I treated it academically, as I do with most things.)

She asked: “Why do you think he does it?”

Impersonally, I replied, “I don’t think it’s something anyone who doesn’t do it can understand.”

I have recently read several books to try to gain insight into marathon and ultra-marathon “thinking”. I told this ‘interrogator’: “I cannot claim to understand the pathology.”

She exclaimed: “So you think it is a pathology!”

Me: (haltingly) “Not in the strictest sense, no. But as a deviation from what most people do, yes, it is a pathology in that sense.”

Some exchange/banter followed about the insanity of it, but I started outlining (at least for myself) what I think defines the reasons why (if we must understand or seek understanding):

  • The people who do this kind of running often also tend to think it is as crazy as non-runners do … in the sense that they push their bodies beyond the limits of what a body should be able to do. Pushing beyond physical limits. Feeling more alive than ever while also being almost dead. This drives the process, the motivation and desire to continue.
  • An ‘extreme’ runner is not doing it because s/he thinks it’s “normal” or “middle of the road” even if it becomes normal for her/him.
  • The opposing forces of isolation/solitude, as long-distance running is a solitary activity, and community/camaraderie built with a group of others who find this ‘insanity’ to be a worthwhile pursuit.
  • The opposing forces of feeling control while also feeling out of control (i.e. “I can undertake this unfathomable feat; I can’t feel my feet/hands/can’t stop vomiting – can I go on? Can I do this?”)
  • A unique/unusual sense of accomplishment from doing something that most other people cannot do, even if they did not find it insane to consider.
  • Added bonus if the running endeavor can be connected to some concept of “doing good in the world” (a charity component, etc.)

“…and I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world.” -from The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner: Stories, Alan Sillitoe

I engage in my own form of marathon, which has nothing to do with running, and it tests resolve and endurance, too. It is my test for whether someone, in coming up against me, is built to last. The drive to run, but not running from something, cannot be entirely dissimilar – it is a constant test of tiring but continuing, reaching an outcome, elated and exhausted, but facing the demand to get up and do it again, insane or not.

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

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