Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Is (ultra) running selfish and pointless?

Of course I am going to answer a resounding "yes", hang up my running shoes, and take up golf... Still, though running has arguably (and I am arguing this point) saved my life from ending up in an East L.A. gutter, I will try to be as objective as possible when answering this stupid statement that I read in a book recently.

Stupid, because saying "running is selfish" is like saying that cell phones (smart phones? i dunno, names change so quickly) prevent people from communicating. No: people are selfish and self-centered - running is just an activity and phones are things. Some runners sacrifice family, friends, work to their running; most that I know try to do what they can with the time they have available - and in that regard, each one is different. I can't compare my situation to anyone else's. For instance, if my dad had been around for us as much as I am for my kids, my parents' mariage would never have lasted. Too much of a free spirit. But the time he spent with me was entirely dedicated to me and he opened my eyes to the world (apart from being directly responsible in getting me involved in running, which I suppose means that if the act of engaging in running saved my life, then my dad saved my life); and divorce would not have done me much good.

The author also ranted about how some runners try to make their running mean something by running for charity. Sure, if you claim that's the only reason you run, then yes it's disingenuous. However, I think that even though some might wish to deny that by promoting their running via running they are also promoting themselves and their accomplishments, for the most part anyone running for charity knows that they are deriving a personal benefit from it but they just also wish to share the joy and put that to good use. Perhaps there's a bit of guilt, since yes, of course, running is a solitary activity that means when you do it you are necessarily taken time away from something else for your own benefit, but I think for the most part people's hearts are in the right place. And for fuck's sake why does it even matter why? I don't do many of my races for charity, but I did raise nearly CHF 4'000 for cancer research competing in the UT4M (and discovering that running an ultra for charity doesn't prevent a DNF) so the benefits are genuine and concrete whatever the reasons. And without the running, people are just not going to give.
Which doesn't mean it has to be running - many personal engagements are worthy vectors to ask people to donate to a cause. It just seems that people are more inclined to give money to charity for a running event than if you say: "Hey, I'm watching all seven episodes of Star Wars" or "I'll be doing back-to-back trilogies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - including the bonuses". But why? If someone actually does spend 20 hours watching TV - and I know they are out there - that's quite an achievement. Why shouldn't that be used to raise charity? In that regard, I don't particularly place a  running event above a telethon as a reason to raise money for charity - I'm just trying to point out that running (or TV) is just the excuse to ask for money, but while it might reflect positively or negatively on the person asking for the money (depending on how they do it), it doesn't say anything about the value of running.

And so is running pointless? Well, I suppose that depends on what is meant by something "having a point". Personally I think most employment out there is ultimately pointless from a cosmic perspective - which doesn't mean that work is unnecessary and beneficial (beyond need to put a roof over our heads and food on the table, it answers many personal, social and psychological needs that don't necessarily relate to poor self-esteem or greed), or that I won't feel happy in a job, give it my best, and feel that I am doing something good apart from lining shareholders' pockets - and since most of my fellow human beings take more or less the same approach, I don't judge anyone's work (though perhaps sometimes I'll question their relationship to it) and, of course, I don't consider work truly pointless (but don't make me think that the world will stop turning...); I'm just trying to give a different perspective and figure out what someone means when they call running "pointless".

Because "pointless" is like holding up a mirror to "successful": what does that mean?! Currently I am unemployed. I have not forged a career as such, since for most of my twenties and thirties I attempted first to be a writer then a filmmaker. Those pursuits taught me alot, providing me with a wealth of life experience that I wouldn't exchange for any "career" in the world. And at 44, I have a happy mariage, two kids who want to spend time with me, I feel more and more comfortable in my own skin, and have an acceptance of life and who I am that I never thought possible: that, to me, is "success" if I was forced to define it that way. How much I earn, how much professional responsibility I have, what my social status might be, mean nothing if I am drinking myself to oblivion each evening, riddled with anxiety, if my wife and kids hated me, and my job was less than compelling. I know I'm not the only one to feel this way.

What do we take away with us when we die? Yep - so acquiring external things is really absolutely useless, or at least limited to those that can allow us to develop ourselves internally: knowing oneself, the most interesting and essential and gratifying of all human studies (not to mention the off-chance that there is a cosmic force and eternal soul).

No, it's not that cut and dry

That's where running comes in - ah, yes, here we are! That's why running isn't "pointless", unless you think that living, in the sense of self-discovery and self-improvement, is pointless. While we are on this planet, we might as well live, live in such a way that we are transformed as people for the better. And running, especially ultra running (although any distance is an ultra depending on what level you're starting at), is certainly one great way of doing that - not the only one, for sure, but less expensive than sailing or space travel, and (arguably) less risky than sky-diving, for instance.

I won't go into exact reasons why, because I could only give examples (like running through candle-lit Petra alone at 2am) but those examples are just moments that cannot capture the essence of what ultra running does to a person, in the self-discovery that occurs when you overcome the moment when you want it all to stop - and you have the power to make it stop, but choose not to, and then the magic occurs... There are great, inspiring books out there that will provide other perspectives and a myriad of glimpses on this: Out There: A Story of Ultra Recovery; Fat Man to Green Man; Running and Stuff; The Summit Seeker.

Still, it's almost impossible to explain adquately how running can transform you into a more stable, more tolerant, more generous and just a better person ("can" as long as - back to the first part of this long blog - you don't let it take over, obsesses, loose the joy, become enamored with your own accomplishments), by changing your view of yourself and the world.

But it can.

And I can't think of anything that has greater value for one's family, friends, co-workers and the world at large than becoming a better person. It's the simplest, yet hardest, yet most rewarding thing that one can hope to achieve in this life.

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