runners of all walks of life are often asked this one question by non-runners, which, while simple and only constructed of a few words, begs a thinking process tantamount to answering an Epistemology course exam question. it's worse for ultrarunners as, to most pedestrian spectators, we're appearing to be half-assedly attempting suicide, or at least slightly deranged.
"why do you run?"
simple, reasonable answers exist for this question.
"i want to stay healthy."
"i have to take a break from answering emails."
"i have to justify buying those adorable yoga pants that showcases my fantastic......intellect."
however, few realize that the wide range of responses applicable to this question actually forms a bigger, more fundamental reason for why you run. the problem is that this reason does not manifest itself through words but only appears as a mild sensation while you're running. henceforth--the more tangible an answer becomes, the harder it is to put it into sentences.
in this eleventy-bajillion part feature, I will attempt to put my spin into the runner's search for meaning. as noted, the resulting draft of a runner's rambling manifesto will be guaranteed to DNF. each post will connect to a previous post in some manner, forming a giant puzzle of indeterminate size and product. however--i hope this sisyphean endeavor will help you find a more purposeful consciousness to your running regime. enjoy.
"faen i helvete."
I looked over the narrow ridge to the left. there's a lovely ice floe taking its sweet time melting away. it blanketed a 1-foot high crevasse sitting between the ice and the mountain, of indeterminate height.
I looked over to the right. huge 150+ foot bumslides onto the British Columbian side of the border. the crevasse back into Alberta probably is of a similar height.
dammit Leo. you're afraid of heights. how the fk did you end up here? oh right. you organized this run.
the breeze quickly picks up into a gale.
Northover Ridge is an unofficial but well defined route over the Continental Divide, originating in Alberta at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and ending there as well. the unofficial trail sits partly in BC, providing for unique bathroom-break opportunities. normal people usually spend 3-4 days hiking this 34-38k loop because of the views, but as a born and raised Alberta boy--these views are a dime a dozen so 7h is good enough for me.
I had a brutal 120mi race coming up so I wanted to get some alpine exposure on the ridge. the day I picked couldn't have been better for character building--thunderstorm potential, rain guaranteed, gale force winds for sure.
back to the cold open (no pun intended). I'm up on the Divide, running along the narrow ridge with a precarious balance. swearing is done in Norwegian because I last encountered these bullshit technical conditions while running Lysefjorden Inn in Rogaland. reminding myself I survived that silly race, and the fact that there's a thunderstorm barreling through in roughly 90mins, I pick up the pace to make sure I can get back to the treeline prior to the storm coming down. eyes forward. and go.
fast forward to Aster Lake, the first lake below the first (!!!) treeline. we arranged with the rest of the pain train before we ascended the ridge, at the last lake below the treeline, that we would regroup here, following a gauntlet run along the ridge for safety reasons (i.e. exposure and sweat turning into ice). a few faster folk are nowhere to be seen, likely to have hightailed it out of there so they would not have to contend with stupid mud. I tell Brayden--the other runner with me--that I'm going to wait until the next runner shows up or the thunderclouds chase the sun away, whichever comes first. forty minutes ends up elapsing before the latter happens and we hightail it out of there without the rest of our group.
in those forty minutes, I took my pack off, pulled a buff over my face and closed my eyes. I hadn't gotten a lot of sleep during the work week and this run was an 8am start from a place roughly 2h away from my apartment so I thought this was a good idea. I couldn't actually get any shuteye as the wind was starting to howl but my thoughts entered into deep deliberation.
was I really unable to nap because of the songs of the wind? or was it really because I just spent the last hour concentrating on not dying, and I just feel so alive?
the rational mind would refer back to the fact that runners sometimes say they run to get a natural high from running because they don't have enough money for real drugs or therapists or whatever. Boecker ran a famous study in 2008 where he used PET scans to evaluate pre-run and post-run brains for endorphin levels. endorphins--an abbrevation of endogenous morphine--were found to have been produced during exercise and bunched up around the limbic and prefrontal areas, areas commonly associated with emotion. mix that with adrenaline, a natural byproduct of the fight or flight response, and you get a pretty awesome cocktail of naturally-occurring uppers and downers. this would be a reasonable explanation for my current predicament of being unable to nap; a constant threat of thunderstorms mixed with the fact that I have to break the treeline one more time would provoke further adrenaline production and keep me awake.
but that would be too easy. one begs the absurdity of existentialism to keep the joys of running from being diminished.
I asked myself--what does it truly mean to live?
is it the same as not dying? no--we're all dying all the time. no one is ever not dying.
is it the same as surviving? you can work the same dead end job, eating the same meal every day at exactly the same minute, holding good health and abundant possessions, Orwellian style--but I doubt any of us would call that living. that's just existing.
and then something something plants and fetuses. (just kidding; I'm not jumping down that hole.)
IMHO life is meaningless, but the point of life is to give it its own meaning. you get some fringe answers like nihilism, and on the other hand hermitism--but for me, I think living is to put some color on that blank canvas handed to you by your mother.
While in university I took a 20th Century European Philosophy course for giggles and shits. It was pretty lame--course marks were evaluated based on three essays. That's right. Three. It was the only course I scored lower than a B- on. But I digress.
I have to admit I didn't learn much, but the one thing that has stuck out was Kierkegaard's notion that wars are just a symptom of someone overreacting to uncertainty. A human condition exists in which they deter uncertainty in every possible way--insurance, arms stockpiling, first aid supplies, etc. Henceforth, we spend most of our short lives trying to exercise a degree of control on it--trying to apply a degree of authenticity to the way we want others to see you. We are inclined to throw some paint around on that canvas each day because we don't know when that blank canvas may be taken away from us.
to run that narrow ridge while surrounded by death on both sides--to tell death, "NOT TODAY"--to grab uncertainty by the horns and tell them the only way I was getting off the ridge was on the beaten path; that was living for me. to not let a fear of heights propagated by a bad childhood memory define me. to stand against nature's winds and let her do her worst, because that won't do shit-all to your character, to who you really are. and then when it's all over, you find you can't pretend to die via taking a nap because you just told the world you want to live.
our identity and character is defined by how you stand up to uncertainty and adversity. we run because that constant resistance to the risk of muscles tearing, gales blowing, bones creaking--that kind of control over those pains gives us control of our lives, allowing us to find ourselves over and over again and then giving us what we need to make sure that we are not remembered by a blank canvas, but rather who we truly are.
we run because we want to put some safe distance between us and the uncertain spectre of death--the collector of all kinds of art, good and bad. we run because if you stay sedentary, mother nature will blow you off that precarious ridge sooner or later, and make sure that canvas stays incomplete and unfulfilled. and that would be terrible.