Friday, October 13, 2017

The mysticism of ultra running

The term "higher power" does not impose any belief system. Believing in one does not even have to imply belief in a creative principle at work in the universe. It can quite simply mean recognizing the fact that there are forces at work over which we have no control - and when faced with them, we must let go. That is the path to peace of mind: accepting that we are connected to each other and the forces in the universe in ways that we do not understand, and not drive ourselves crazy trying to control that which we have no control over, including one another. Running very long distances has helped me understand this, and practice it to some degree.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, accidents or pandemics are obvious examples of events beyond our control, but there are also daily occurrences in our lives – traffic, an inopportune phone call, a ??? – which we would do best to let go. Relationships are another example. There are elements in a relationship where we can play an active part in making sure that the relationship goes well; and then there are aspects of a person's personality or their emotions, that we just have to accept - through better understanding, by looking at things from their perspective, by not trying to change them. Differentiating between those aspects we should accept and others over which we may exert some control, is the difficult part. Mainly it is "us and them": change myself, accept others.

This is, of course, an ideal that may never be reached but should consistently be attempted. There is no "finish line" but what matters is the journey. In that respect, I believe that one lesson ultra running is excellent at imparting is helping to identify those moments when we should just let go. It teaches us that our ego and our need to control are getting in the way of peace, serenity, acceptance. When you are suffering from hours and hours of running and lack of sleep and adequate nutrition – and quitting is ever more tempting – you have to figure what can be done to keep moving but sometimes you just have to accept the pain and keep moving on to the finish. When that happens, when you give in to the suffering and accept it as part of the ultra experience - that's when you realize what the body and mind are capable of, and the sense of peace that comes with no longer punishing yourself for something you can't control makes the ultra experience a quasi-mystical one.

Of course, there's the real danger that ultra running can turn someone into a self-centered narcissist. Read the early pages of Marshall Ulrich Running on Empty, when he leaves his wife who is dying of cancer to go running though she is begging him not to... When running becomes paramount, when we squeeze in that planned "crucial" training run at the expense of the family, despite requests not to do so, because some huge challenge looming ahead is all we can think or talk about, and if we don't do that run, oh my God, the whole race is compromised, if we stop not just listening to others but not even hearing them because nothing is as interesting as our running: then ultra running has gone from mystical to dogmatic.

But if you ultra running stays an experience, and is given its just place - not more, no less - then it provides a sense of perspective and fortitude in the face of the unexpected twists and turns of life. "Life is what happens when you're making other plans" sang John Lennon (or something to that effect) - and in ultras, nothing ever really goes according to the best-laid plans. So you adjust and accept, and in doing really connect with that "higher power".

A very powerful experience.

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