I spoke with Robin on the phone on Saturday. She had traveled to Bedford, VA, for a half-marathon trail race. She has run recreationally for the last couple years, with periodic trail races including one full marathon. She was down. The run hadn’t gone well. It was hot and the course was muddy. During the run she repeatedly asked herself: “why am I doing this?” The age group award was little consolation. Robin thinks she was the only woman in her age group. She didn’t feel good at the beginning, middle, or end of the run. She didn’t enjoy any special recognition for having run. Is there any reason left to explain her participation?
My friend Dave is breaking his promise to me. He’s traveling to California to pace me for the last 32 miles of Western States. The last time he paced me I made him promise never to let me run another 100 mile race. I went out at the Vermont 100 in 2006 with all guns blazing. I had decided the downhills of this runnable course were the key to a speedy race. So I blistered all of them, for the first 70 miles. It took about 7 ½ hours for me to run the first 50 miles. About the time Dave joined me, I was reduced to a walk. My quads were shot – every step I took sent a jolting pain from my knee to my hip. And we had 30 miles to go. During the death march Dave struggled with his role. Should he try to talk to me, fill the space, he asked. Should he leave me to my quiet despair? Doesn’t matter, I said. Just don’t let me do this again.
We say lots of things, and think a few more. These things are like the bugs around my house. The ants show up when even a trace of food is left on the counter. The rafters hum with carpenter bees every spring. The first year, when I saw the little piles of sawdust on the deck, I got to work. I fetched the ladder and went to plugging the holes. The ants were menacing to Robin, so we equipped a spray bottle with bleach and kept all the pheromone trails clear. We can’t win, of course. Bugs, like thoughts and words, can be distracting. The best we can do is manage them. They don’t constitute our real motivations.
We think and speak as if we have intentions, but for the most part we fool ourselves. All the real work is done under the surface. We imagine ourselves at the helm of a stalwart ship, charting a course, assessing the wind and waves, and making the necessary adjustments. The ship is actually a toy row boat, and the rudder and oars are dangling uselessly above the water. The bottom of the boat is buoyed not on the water, but on the back of a truly mighty whale. The whale starts to turn, and we move the rudder. The whale picks up speed, and we struggle with the oars, maybe splashing a little water. Depending upon the relationship of the man to the whale, he is pitiful, funny, or tragic. He cannot free himself from the whale. In the face of any real test, there is but one way: the whale’s way. In the quest for freedom there is only one condition: be the whale.
The whale is running Western States. What I think or say about it makes little difference. I will articulate reasons anyway, because that’s what we toy boat captains do. I appreciate most the messages that can’t be completely made up. Everything is made up except when we speak for the whale. We speak for the whale only when we know the whale. The whale reveals itself indirectly. Our intuition may be a conduit for understanding, or for deception. The best way to know the whale is by experiment. Test it. Feel it bump against things. Race it.
Knowing the whale is not the only reason to run long. It is not a static object whose properties exist to be discovered by something else. The introspection – for that is what it is – exerts its own effects. We know ourselves, and in so doing, become something different. More able-bodied. The test reveals our own efficacy. Our thinking can, if not distracted, serve a purpose. We have to work methodically, over time, but we can make a difference. The difference made is a reflection of our human autonomy.
Our friend Jim Harrison was at the finish line when Robin finished. When she expressed her angst, he said simply that he didn’t do things he didn’t WANT to do. Like most ultrarunners, I have a more complex relationship with my motivations. Running 100 miles is not a simple pleasure. Neither is it a perverse pursuit of pain. The challenges faced that day – only a pale reflection of the lifetime of challenges that preceded it – represent what is possible relative to human ambition. Because of the real and unavoidable difficulties, we reveal, by our performances, the human capacity to do better.