Monday, June 8, 2015

"Why am I doing this?!"

Weird how I realize only now how I have asked myself this question at almost every race since 2004 – and how important finding an answer to that question is for me to finishing a race.

On most runs (training runs and races alike) there are always moments – the sun glinting off the mountain tops, the landscape opening up to an incredible vista, a period of running bliss, a story shared with a fellow runner – when I say to myself, “ah, yes, this is why I’m doing it”. And of course at the finish line, having overcome doubts and difficulties, and the sense of self-discovery and achievement is driven home. But I need more than that, since in my case the question is always related to time away from family and the associated guilt I feel.

I thought I had resolved it. First I realized that if I don’t constantly talk about my running, my wife is fine with the time I dedicate to running. Secondly, since I do arrange to only race a few weekends in the year and train in a way that does not take too much time away from the family – some, yes, of course, I need time to myself and to keep fit and to hope to achieve those goals I’ve set myself – the problem is how I feel about it, it’s not outside criticism that I have to justify.

So why, when the going gets tough in a race, do I always tell myself that I’m being selfish and I should be at home – I’m the one who’s missing home. But it’s the pain and fatigue talking, it’s not objective. When I was just over half-way through the UT4M, and the option was pushing on for another day and night, or driving home with a friend and spending the weekend with my family, who were fine with not seeing me till Sunday afternoon, I know that the prospect of seeing my family contributed to my DNF. But it was just an excuse among others.

The question is, why set such goals in the first place? Isn’t there a limit after which having a hobby which provides fitness and time to oneself – important for balance in life – just drops into a search for the extreme that cannot be justified by “fitness, balance, time alone”? This is the question I needed to answer that question if I want to have a chance of finishing future ultras, otherwise I will just be plagued by the same misplaced sense of guilt which could lead to a DNF that I will later regret.
To resolve it, I had to figure out why I have never really addressed or even recognized this issue in the past 16 years of running. I was unable to rely on experience at the UT4M, since I had never really answered the question of “what am I doing here” effectively. And even reading quite a few blogs where runners all mention this very issue didn’t help. I thought I had it figured out.
At my first four race – Long Beach Marathon, MDS2000, Jordan Desert Cup 2000 and MDS2001, the possibility that I might have to DNF was there as a reality, but I never actually questioned what I was doing there and I knew that would only stop if I dropped dead, even when it got really tough. It’s not only the fact that I didn’t have a family back then, it’s just that my self-esteem was so shot that this was the only way to rebuild it. It wasn’t a conscious thing, I just know that, looking back, I’d rather have died in the desert than DNF. 

Then I stopped running for 2 years, my father died, I got married and a friend talked me back into running by convincing me to sign up for the MDS again. And when I look back, thoughts of not being able to finish – and wondering what I was doing there – occurred to me at almost every race – I just didn’t realize it until recently. At the Venice marathon in 2004, my legs hurt at km 15 and I wondered if I would be able to finish, whereas when I pinched my sciatic nerve in Long Beach all I thought was “it’s going to be a long second half.” At the 100km race in Bienne in 2005, I remember considering quitting at 55km – but I was with Cyril and when dawn arrived (the departure was at 10am) we found a second wind that saw us through the finish. At the MDS, I remember thinking “I don’t have to prove anything anymore, I’m in a better place than in 2000-2001, I don’t this shit, why am I here?” and on Day 3 I was ready to pack it in. Cyril told me that it was unthinkable, and he wasn’t going to finish this alone, and I’d better pull myself together. And I did, and by the end of Day 4 I was loving it again. Turns out, dehydration had got me dispirited, but as soon as I turned that around – and since Cyril hadn’t give me a choice to quit – then I felt great.

So the question only occurs when the body starts to give out. But the mind can drive the body so much further. I just needed to get beyond the question of “why?”, either by ignoring it (which Cyril helped me do) or by answering it (which I’m attempting to do here). Because Cyril wasn’t with me at the TDS in 2013, nor at the UT4M in 2014 – or at least not as a fellow competitor. 

Again at the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges in 2009, after calling my wife early in the race, then wondering and whining out-loud to Cyril about why the hell I was spending a weekend away from my family putting myself through this shit, and dragging my feet for about five hours (I just didn’t want to be there), I turned it around when we hit the last checkpoint and the volunteer said that we wouldn’t make the cut-off. I’d never DNF’d till then, and I hadn’t really planned on doing this time – and, faced with that prospect, of course I discovered that I still had enough energy to run the final miles and finish just before the cut-off.

What changed between 2000-2001 and then 2004 till now? It’s not just that I had a family. The sense of being selfish and spending time away from them was the expression of something else: I still didn’t have my life together and was still exorcising a deep sense of guilt linked to poor self-esteem that had little to do with my presence or absence. One of my best races was in October 2013, when I did feel that I had finally pulled myself together in the year since my debacle at the TDS – and so I felt less guilt, and the question of “why am I here?” didn’t cross my mind. But it came back to haunt me at the UT4M.

So now I have an answer for the next time this question hits me when I feel like I can’t take another step forward. It’s not a question of time away from my kids – by setting challenges and goals that force me to face certain fears, which includes discovering more about myself in the process, I can be an inspiration for them… That’s the key. I’m around them enough for them not to miss me on the few weekends that I compete in events – and actions speak much louder than words. I couldn’t do this while I was leading my life in such a way that I had little respect for myself. Feeling like a fraud, I could hardly see my running as something that could inspire them.

Now I definitely feel like it can. I remember reading a line that I now understand better: “My father didn’t tell me how to live – he lived and showed me how.” That's what my father did. And he was quite an absent father, traveling for business 2/3ds of the year - yet I never resented him for being away at the marathon des sables or other races. That, I thought, is great.
 That’s what I have to tell myself the next time I ask myself “what am I doing here?” I am showing my kids that this is a fulfilling and meaningful way to live life. When I am suffering seemingly beyond my limits and ask myself "Why am I doing this?!" the answer is: "you are here to accept - and overcome - that suffering." The body suffers, but the mind is free, as my father once said.

James Adams sums it in a few lines on his blog, talking about that voice in your head urging you to quit when it gets too tough:
Q - If you quit now you can get a good night's rest and spend tomorrow relaxing with your family.
A - Yeah, I'm really going to enjoy sitting on the sofa and hearing my little girl ask "Daddy, where's your buckle?"

I, on the other hand, can be rather verbose and tend to preach to my children and bore them with my life views, so I shall now enjoy the silence and get that damn buckle.

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