Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Whether or not you know it by this name, you are familiar with the hedonistic paradox. If you try to be happy, you won't make it. Virtue ethicists from Aristotle to the present have noted that you are most likely to attain happiness indirectly, as a result of your worthy pursuits. You should aim to better yourself, therefore, and you will find yourself happy in the process.

'Fine', you say. What you really wanted was to run faster. Who was so concerned about happiness? Happiness is not on my mind when I'm on a mile-long climb on a sun-baked gravel road in the middle of a national forest 21 miles into a 24 mile run. I'm squinting because every drop of sweat burns my eyes. I'm holding my butt cheeks together because of painful chafing. I'm keeping my stride short and light because my left achilles is marginal. Any utilitarian ethicist is going to have to take a step back and scratch his head while ultrarunners pass by. Happiness is not our standard of measure.

The problem for hedonists, however, is no less a problem for those of us who readily dismiss the false allure of happiness. That's because the parodox arises not from trying for happiness; it arises from trying -- for anything.

Many of us are outcome oriented. We talk about goals. We write them down. We sign up for events. We set a training schedule. We shoot for a target pace. We try to PR on a known course. Most running events are contained enough that the flaws in our thinking go unnoticed. If something doesn't go as expected, we "had a bad day." If we get injured, it's because we didn't stick to the plan, or we didn't have the right plan to begin with.

Running ultras is not so contained. The premise is that runners are going beyond. We like to think of ourselves as defiant. People think the marathon is the pinnacle of endurance? Well check this out! We don't just want to defy other peoples' expectations though. We want to run further and faster than we ourselves thought possible. Is it possible to try to defy our own expectations? Wouldn't that mean we really expected we might be able to do it? It doesn't take much introspection to run (so to speak) into some conceptual difficulties with the meaning of 'effort.' It will be more sensible to illustrate.

I spent the summers of '97 and '98 thru-hiking the AT. As I've written here, the original plan called for me to run the length of the trail (self-supported) just that first summer. I started in Georgia. No sooner had I gotten past Springer Mountain (the southern terminus of the trail) than I was confronted with the physics of the situation. That is, the time required to traverse the distance. This is the appeal of sports. I live for the moment of revelation that all sports ultimately provide. Our ideas, our plans, our ambitions, our thoughts -- they can stray away from us like feral cats. Performance is the domesticator. When I strapped 35 pounds to my back and climbed a couple thousand feet on a rocky winding trail my thoughts were rightfully tethered. My initial thought was something akin to "Oh shit." Over the course of a few days, though, I adjusted my goal and "decided" to shoot for Harper's Ferry, and put off the second half for the next summer. A better way to look at the phenomenon, though, is through my relationship to my wild ideas. They settled down around my house. They took the food put out for them. They were tamed. I had claimed them, said they were "my plans" when they were wild, but they weren't really mine until they settled for something more fitting.

Ultrarunners know well the moment of revelation that almost inevitably comes during an ultramarathon. We don't celebrate that moment -- though if handled well -- we do celebrate the protracted recovery that becomes the raison d'etre for our participation. I'm talking about the moment during the event when our plans collapse. My first Mountain Masochist subdued me during the infamous "loop" at about mile 34. Both my calves seized up and I was reduced to hobbling. I raced the Minnesota Voyegeur on an especially hot day and had to drop at mile 45 of the 50 mile race. My ears were ringing and my vision had darkened to a narrow tunnel. These occasions had the immediate effect of deflating my ambitions. They were also both part of my edification as an ultrarunner. They were part of the humbling of my ideas.

Good performances require submission to factors outside our control. Long events will eventually grind down and quiet overbearing parts of our mind. My first Hellgate took me as low as I have been. One knee felt locked up from the incessant overnight toil of breaking through a thin layer of ice on top of several inches of snow, step after step. I was reduced to a crippled plodding as other runners passed me. I had to give up concerns about pace and place, and just submit to the situation, before my pace could quicken and I could make up the places. Many of my runs have been like that -- though less dramatically. We have to get out of our own way. We have to stop forcing it -- stop trying -- in order to, paradoxically, do our best.

But where would we be if we stopped trying? Why get out of bed? Sometimes getting started on a run feels hard. Our muscles are sore, it's raining out, and we feel tired. It certainly seems that we have to rally to exert ourselves. We need goals, target paces, and the possibility of PRs to stay motivated, right? Those seem like good things. And yes, I think they are -- to the extent they are within the fold. Our minds are a lot like our intestines. Digestion depends upon a variety of bacteria that live symbiotically in our guts. Thinking depends upon a variety of ideas that live symbiotically in our minds. Indigestion occurs when wild bacteria infect us and displace our bacteria. Bad thinking occurs when wild ideas infect us and displace ideas that have been calibrated to work for us. Fortunately for ultrarunners -- in either case -- continue to run and it will work itself out.


  1. Nice couple of posts lately. What are your plans as far as racing goes for this year?

  2. Eric,

    I am a huge fan of yours!

    I was wondering if it is possible to get a couple autographs of you for my sons?

    If it is possible - please email me back at


  3. Really enjoyed reading that, Eric.
    I think the reasons for running ie ultrarunning are as individualized as the people who run them. Yet, somehow, we have all found ourselves in a similar collective with the same compulsion to do the same thing ( many times simultaneously (RACING))
    it's all pretty amazing when you sit and think about it.
    great post!
    take care!!!


  4. Interesting post. We ultra runners are always trying to see just how far we can push our bodies. There really is no limit, but in our minds.

  5. Thanks for following, guys. Wow. A fan? Sure I can sign my name... just send a SASE to PO Box 222, Emory, VA, 24327!

    I'm racing the 100 at Mohican in June and Burning River at the end of July, Michael. I just posted to your blog -- shoot me an e-mail when you get a chance...