"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Thursday, April 16, 2009


At Zumbro, it was interesting to see so many of the Arrowhead 135 competitors. It's as if they were a club and this was their spring meeting. While I hate the idea of a cold weather race, I'm starting to see why people do it; recently, I've been reading stories of Antarctic explorers and these accounts got me thinking rather philosophically about why I've decided to do races for which I'm so obviously poorly equipped.

At these extreme events, the women always gather together and cheer each other in a "we girls have got to stick together" kind of camaraderie which you don't see in the men. Guys are expected to push themselves in extremis in an act of self-reliance; the competition is just a catalyst. It's when someone (almost always a guy) pushes himself as far as humanly possible that other people come to the rescue; it's a reluctant admission that one needs aid and it is at this point that deep friendships begin, friendships that can't begin with the easy companionship of easy events. It's why army buddies reunite, when they'd rather not recall the horrors they had to survive.

The British explorers at the South Pole were the most segregated of men. The military men didn't get along with the civilians. The gentlemen didn't fraternize with the commoners. [My favorite account is The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Guess which class he was.] The Scots didn't mix with the English and those of the British dependencies were looked on as "the help." Then, when they were freezing, starving and exhausted, they were finally able to overcome those barriers... and swear at the cheating Norwegians who used world-class skiers and sled dogs.

This is the sort of world in which I live all the time and it's in the long races in the woods that I'm meeting people on my turf. At Zumbro, Scott Meyers and I recalled when I ran Voyageur without water - the reason being that I felt disgust at seeing people with space-age hydration systems; I wanted to be as far from that as possible. There is a purity I was seeking in doing without.

I've been associated with three monestaries over the years (benedictine, franciscan and rinzai zen) and literally followed the Rule of St. Benedict for three years - seven prayers a day, with my horrible off-key singing. The monks have this sort of friendship without the struggle, as it is understood that they share the same struggle all of each day. I sometimes wish I knew Greek Orthodox monks, as I'm a huge fan of the first volume of the Philokalia (they get progressively worse from two to five). The Tendai "marathon monks" of Mt. Hiei would seem to be a good match for me - the seventh year of their program they have to run 54 miles a day, every day, for 100 days - but the things they believe I cannot share.

I'm thinking I have to get back to Yoga (I am SO inflexible now!). It's difficult, because it's become a form of exercise in America, rather than a way of life and thus loses its appeal. There should be a requirement that all Yoga classes start with the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and the Yoga Vasistha; learn the why before the how.

I have some of the works of the Stoics by heart, which might help explain some of the stories of me in races. Friends have now seen me fall and say, "I'm all right... I think I broke something." It must've had something to do with my finishing Afton (if you've been reading this blog for a year, you know the story).

I own several ancient texts on bushido, the art of being a samurai. These, too, have entered into my way of doing things. My favorite is the Hagakure (though it quickly devolves into a discussion of the joys of sex with young boys - a fact which speaks volumes about why things fell apart for the warriors). Paraphrasing: For a million years, you did not exist. After you die, for eternity, you will not exist. It is as if you never were. So throw yourself into doing whatever is worth doing to the fullest, to the risking of death, so that your death and your life will have had meaning.

I look at my shelf of books and see the Pirke Aboth (Hebrew), the Dhammapada (Sanskrit), the Lun Yu of Confucius, the Principles of Sufism (Arabic) and see that I have had brothers around the world, for thousands of years.

And there are others, just waiting for me at the next aid station. See you there.


brothergrub said...

You have learned nothing through teachings, and so I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teaching. To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment.

(Sidhartha to the Ascetic Gotama Buddha in Sidhartha by Herman Hesse... My favorite book...)

SteveQ said...

I prefer Hesse's "Narziss und Goldmann" - about an apprentice monk.

Actually, I was just thinking about friendship in adversity when I went all highbrow.

Mitch R. said...

Yes, the AHU is a social club!

There is a unique bond between those willing to risk their fingers and toes to frostbite.

Mitch R. said...

Check out Danny Chew's website regarding doing endurance events without water.

Danny was a several-time Race Across America winner. I think that one time, he did a 12 hour bike ride without water just to see the effect it would have on him.

Anonymous said...

thanks...I think of the ultra as a quasi-sacramental event, like a pilgrimage or an act of discipleship. Especially the pilgrimage, because it shares so many things that pilgrimages did: movement, fellowship, ritual, devotion, the sense that therre is something greater going on (especially on a trail ultra).