To this day, I’m not sure I can articulate what drove me to start running, but somewhere around the 10th-15th lap, I committed not to stop. I was about 9 years old, and it was a hot summer day. I had started running laps around our yard because running feels good to a child. I would periodically stop and grab a drink of water from the garden hose. At a certain point the pursuit of ‘100’ came into focus, and I committed to run until I reached the goal. I don’t remember how long it took me, but I’m certain I ran at least a dozen miles that muggy summer day to complete those laps. Although it wasn’t effortless, it was blissful – free and unencumbered by worries. I simply let my mind turn off and my body carry me. There was, in fact, more than a little anxiety and worry under the surface of that little boy’s awareness, as my parent’s marriage failed in front of my eyes. My adult eyes can see the psychological/spiritual value I gained from running at that very early age.
I didn’t run competitively in high school. In fact, running was generally the punishment for failure in the sports I played. Showing up late for practice, missing a goal, or coming in a pound or two heavy at weigh-in resulted in “laps.” Ironic, because I enjoyed it! My dad often tells stories about times he remembers me heading out into a steamy summer evening for a long run in the dark to work through whatever issue, concern or challenge I was facing during those years. It wasn’t a habit or a discipline. It’s just what I did to support myself in the process of making sense of my world.
After getting married and starting an incredibly demanding job at 21 years of age, my metabolism, lifestyle and eating habits devolved. In my early 20’s, I mindlessly began to develop into a physical form I didn’t even recognize. Today, looking at pictures of that young man who weighed nearly 250 pounds, I still wonder what he was trying to escape from. At a certain point in my mid-20’s, the reality of my lack of “health” began to set in. In both my body and other arenas, I became serious about attending to my own well-being. Running – in a variety of forms – became a central part of my adult identity. It may have been sub-conscious preparation for parenthood, as my first daughter was born a few years after this wake-up.
Adventure and endurance sports quickly became my chosen outlets. I was able to focus my energy on a goal, and tangibly meet my desire to measure improvement. I competed for a while in adventure races, and after learning to swim, in triathlon. At a certain point, in the midst of a busy travel schedule and family life, I realized that maintaining fitness in three sports was beyond my reach, and settled into running as my “outlet.”
Sometime after my first Boston Marathon and doing reasonably well at a handful of competitive trail races, my wife handed me a brochure for an UltraMarathon (defined as any race longer than 26.2 mi – typically 50k, 50m, 100k, or 100m). It was like a bolt of lightning shot through me! Ultra running is defined by a very different set of rules and limits, and the community of ultra runners by a very different set of norms. There was a whole new world out there, built on races designed to test the very limits of human capability. While speed determines the winner of an ultra, the process of reaching the finish line requires self-denial, and a fair measure of willfully-embraced suffering that is quite foreign to most of us. My synapses connected all the way back to the little boy running around his house just because 100 sounded like a big number. Somehow, even then I intuitively knew that I would achieve the gift of balance by quieting my mind by through flirting with the limits of my physical capability.
My first ultra was a gorgeous 50K loop in central Pennsylvania, connecting the Appalachian trail to numerous other steep, technical trails connecting vista after vista. I placed well, but I won’t say I felt great at the finish line! I had a lot to learn about strategy, nutrition and training. Nevertheless, I was hooked! In the years since that race, ultra running has become far more than my fitness routine, my hobby or even my community (although the people on any given ultra course at any given time are some of the kindest, humblest human beings you will ever meet!). Ultra running is a source of grounding in my chaotic life.
I didn’t always have the language to think of it in this way, but a chance encounter on a 100k trail run helped to put it in focus. I look forward to the Pine Creek Challenge each fall. The race showcases the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania”, with its spectacular views, abundant bald eagles, and lush evergreen forests. The race is run entirely on a dirt railroad grade, with little elevation change, so the times are faster and the physical impact somewhat less grueling. At the starting line that October, it was 40 degrees and raining hard. The forecast for the remainder of the day: rain! I took off with the front of the pack and eventually settled into my rhythm at around 18 miles into the race. Having spent the last hour alone, I caught a glimpse of a runner ahead of me, and began to try to reel him in – not so much to pass him but to have some companionship for a while.
As I came up alongside him, he seemed willing to chat and as grateful as I for the opportunity to share a few moments of dialogue. Re-creating the conversation will be difficult, as the brain-scrubbing of an ultra-race tends to leave one with a somewhat filtered view of reality! But, through the course about 12 miles together, my companion and I shared the following thoughts. After chatting about training routines, families, and our demanding jobs, we got into the personal details. I asked what he did for work. After a few qualifications, he said, “I’m a preacher.” Having spent several of my own formative years in ministry, a whole new layer of dialogue emerged between us.
We agreed that there is a fundamentally spiritual dimension to ultra-running, although many people can’t relate to it. It is perhaps a form of asceticism, or a discipline like meditation. At the core of it, running that hard, to that degree of fatigue and self-denying exhaustion, is an act of voluntarily seeking out the outer reaches our own limits. Somewhere deep into an ultra race, well-beyond the point where I’m still feeling proud of myself for how fast I’m running, the reality of what drives the whole universe begins to emerge. I am finite, small and limited. This is an important lesson for me to be grounded in, as I am prone to live my life under the illusion that I am infinitely powerful, and in complete control of my destiny! Running an organization, raising a family and pontificating about “meaning” leaves one somewhat vulnerable to the illusion of omnipotence. My running partner and I agreed, we both need – and were blessed to discover –the discipline of ultra running as a way of voluntarily placing ourselves in a position where we have no choice but to be reminded of our limits, our needs, and our utter dependence on a Creator to guide us.
Most ultras lead me through a few hours of despair to a place of immense gratitude. On those occasions where I’m lucky enough to have family nearby to meet me at an aid station, the encounters I have with them are deeply emotional experiences. I recall a moment where I saw my wife driving down a dirt road on the other side of a canyon to meet me at an aid station. She was perhaps three miles away, but distinguishable because of the garish rack I have mounted on my truck! The mere sight of her, knowing that she loves me enough to put up with this insane pursuit, left me crying for the next half hour. Without the mindfulness brought on by a voluntary pursuit of suffering, it is easy for me to simply take her and my children for granted. Solitary trail moments always awaken in me a powerful sense of gratitude for my family, my friends, my co-workers and the opportunities I’ve been given in this life.
In spite of all it has come to mean to me, I’m not an ultra running evangelist. This sport/pursuit is definitely not for everyone. And, I’m happy when anyone is able to run – regardless of the speed or distance – because I believe it’s a powerful expression of connection between mind and body. But, there are a select few for whom the discovery of distance running will emerge as a form of salvation, redemption and completion. I’m always casually on the lookout for those people.
I have come to realize that, through genetics or some other set of forces, my oldest daughter may be one of those people. My 15 year old is strikingly beautiful, gifted with a superior intellect, and graceful in her social interactions.
In her high school years, she has gravitated toward running. She’s not the fastest kid on the team, but she’s naturally able to run hard and long. As she develops the maturity to speak about the integration of her feelings, her awareness is striking! A long run “resets” her focus, much the way it does for me. I’ve enjoyed coaching her as she explores new distances, nutrition and race strategy, and guiding her around the singletrack trails that surround our farm. She has the intellectual ability to accomplish pretty much anything she desires in life – perhaps running will be her ground zero, her salvation, and her “tether to reality” as it has been for me.