Monday, December 26, 2016

What I feel I've lost

Ah, well, I'd completely forgotten I'd written the previous post shortly after finding out that I have a place in the GUCR. Well, I didn't follow that plan... I have been training, but I've come to realize that so much is a shot in the dark - someone else's Spartathlon training plan?... So I've decided to have someone draw up a personalized training plan for me starting in January. I avoid the word 'coach', but that's what it is in essence. How did I get here? I'm excited to start on the training, I'm looking forward to "progressing", I'll be glad come race day that I can have confidence in my training... But I've feel like I've lost the spontaneity - it's all become so serious.

My dad competed in over 100 marathons (after starting at the age of 44) and at least 20 races that would qualify as ultras. He certainly never had a coach. I don't know how deeply he cared about DNFing but I do know that the main interest was sharing a unique experience with like-minded people, and the whole adventure. The only races he didn't finish were the 100km Bienne (twice) and the MdS (four out of seven entries), and he was over 60 and probably over 200 pounds. From what I can remember, it dropped because he really couldn't go on - it any case, it certainly wasn't accompanied by the type of angst that I've found myself possessed with. I've feel like I've been infected with something, like I've lost so much else in pursuit of bigger challenges and also with the growth of the sport.

Trail races in France today sometimes feel like groupings of forty-somethings in the collective throes of a midlife crisis. There's an intensity there that before I'd only feel at marathons (or at the two triathlons I've competed in). At least at marathons and triathlons, it goes with the territory, but on these trail runs it's like disco types trying to be groovy hippies, and thinking they are by the simple fact of being there and dressing the part. And I've gone from feeling comfortably out of my element as I was at the MdS in 2000, to getting wrapped up in this John Travolta-like, belly-button gazing search for performance. I look in from the outside feeling insulated from the phenomenon having been competing in trail runs before the word even existed, yet knowing that part of me is exactly like all the other MANILs. It's all too familiar - and way too overcrowded.

The UTMB/TDS/CCC is the epitome of this phenomenon. It's like people are competing more in an idea, in a concept - not the race itself. It's like only accepting only to run the New York or London or Paris marathon and not any marathon even if it's in your backdoor (and there usually is one within an hour's driving distance wherever you are). The distance and challenge of a race aren't enough. It has to be a particular kind of race. Sure, the course of the UTMB is beautiful, but people now do it for more than that - it's inescapable.

Last year I managed to escape it. Competing in the low-key Swiss Irontrail (which is actually much more wild and beautiful than the UTMB) and then in the race around Lake Geneva, made me feel connected and disconnected in a way I hadn't felt in several years. Connected to the pure challenge, to competing in a race simply because it is there; disconnected in the sense of feeling out of my depth as I did at my first MdS in 2000. But also a sense of "tribe" that I certainly haven't felt in almost all the races I've competed in since about 2009. Not in the sense that everyone is all chummy, high-fiving and trying to 'connect' with everyone, thinking "look how we're crazy and different from everyone else, aren't we amazing", which is what I get in French trail races today where everyone talks about "the trail spirit" but actually it's not there at all... But just in the sense that everyone there is at heart a lone wolf, standing at the start anxious and excited by everything that will happen along the way to the finish. People who want to accumulate experiences, not races, even though of course the race is the means to the experience. Many, like the GUCR, Badwater (+ many more) and, yes, the UTMB and the MdS, are iconic because they offer a particular kind of experience. But I would argue that the UTMB and the MdS no longer offer a unique experience. Badwater is unique; but you can get an experience similar to the UTMB by participating in the Swiss Irontrail. You can get an experience similar to the MdS (multi-stage, self-sufficiency and desert) by competing in Augrabies - without the drawbacks of overcrowding and everything else. Sure, you don't get the Mont Blanc or the Sahara, but that's my point: today, the A-types put that argument first, hiding the fact that what it really means is "I want a race name that people recognize, it reassures me that I am donig something really special"; to me it is secondary and not worth the drawbacks. And

Arg, I just can seem to express just how I feel... Perhaps this is the difference I'm talking about. At almost all the recent trail races I've competed in in France, everyone seems to be parading around in their recent finisher's T-shirt making some sort of statement; they all seem to be compiling points to qualify for the UTMB. Most so-called runners I meet nowadays are really proud of the fact that they have never run a marathon, never run on roads - and dismiss anyone who does as "asphalt lover". I remember last year being introduced at a party to someone "who also runs"; when I was asked what my last race was and I said the"100km Millau" and how much fun it was, the guy looked condescendingly at me and said, "oh, I don't do roads". Oh, you mean you don't actually like to run, you just engage in glorified hiking - the more technical, the better...

Prat! He doesn't really understand, to me, what the essence of this is all about. A race experience comes from so much more than just the landscape. In fact, it's when you find beauty in the most mundane and ugly that you know you're experiencing something real. That guy - and French trail races now feel full of them, which is why I have no desire to compete in them anymore - wouldn't understand what James Adams writes so truly in his book (Running and Stuff): "Running ultramarathons gives you a weird sense of romance for places that are otherwise shit. I was not running through Machu Picchu, looking at the Great Pyramids or taking in historic sections of the Great Wall of China (...). No, I was in a Tesco car park in Leighton Buzzard."

The worst thing is, that notion of only competing in mountrain trail runs because everything "Dude, I'm a Born to run nature lover who feels so free running trails" is totally spurious! I have a home in the mountains and will never tire of running/hiking in them - because I'm alone, not stuck with 2,000 people clogging up the paths with my nose pressed against some guy's ass - where's the "freedom" in that!?

These guys are having an experience, for sure. They are surpassing themselves and feeling badass and rising to challenges and overcoming pain and suffering and difficulty... But I still feel they are experiencing it in a way I don't identify with: like a trader closing a deal before moving on to the next, like... I don't know. Something I'm afraid of falling into, I suppose. So I'm just hoping that having someone now draft up a personalized training plan for me will not bring an intensity and seriousness to my running that removes the romanticism.

That's what I'm afraid I've lost and started to retrieve at the run around Lake Geneva and hope to experience at the GUCR: falling in love with a parking lot, which is basically just being in love with Life, with living. And I can only do that if I feel some sense of love for myself, which can be such a difficult task at times - because it involves not being enamored with some image of myself but rather appreciating and accepting who I am at my core.

Ah, yes, "finding my inner child" - woo-hoo!

1 comment:

  1. Well said.

    I found your blog looking for race reports of the Ultratour du Leman which I'm running in 2017. What drew me to the race wasn't that anyone would know about it (I don't think many people do) but the challenge to be out there on my own and testing whether I can do something I set out to do.

    I recently ran one of those French trail races along with 14,000 other trail runners. While I was happy to have done it, my post-race reaction was basically "let's not do that again". Running in a pack of people, nose-to-ass up every climb, long lines on the singletrack, and everyone pushing to beat everyone else? That's not the ultra experience I am looking for.