Like specks of dust

It’s that end game period now, as the big day looms. With experience, I have for the most part left behind the escalating nerves and self-doubt that plagued me in the lead up to some of my earlier ultra-marathon efforts. Even for this one, I’m mostly in a mode of philosophical detachment, knowing that very little good can come of trying to over-think or control events that must by nature only be considered in The Moment; in the many thousands of moments that will make up race day.

Race day: those rare days when one does in fact get to live truly in The Moment, within that magical stasis of time that bounds one’s existence between the start line and the finish line. For me, getting to live in that time bubble for a spell is one of the main attractions of this addictive hobby – I feel I am stealing back time from the universe, or from my own limited longevity.

The scale of that time bubble for this particular event – easily thirty hours or more, given my current physical condition – is a big part of what makes it so compelling. It is long enough for a thousand factors to come into play. The adventure is through both space and time. The Space is unexplored bush – new trails I’ve never glimpsed – on a journey from Point A to Point B, some 175kms on. And the Time…I might have lived and died a hundred times before it’s over.

The lead up to this race is complicated by the impact of an extended injury period having hampered my training for what will amount to the TEN weeks leading up to the race. The current plan is not to have run at all for the final three weeks – a strategy that no sensible person would describe as ‘tapering’, and might better fit with ‘suicide’. But it’s the only chance of getting enough recovery from issues in my left knee: bursitis, medial ligament stress and lateral bone swelling.

Don’t worry, this isn’t an injury article. I won’t bore you with agonising over the specifics. What I want to explore is the rationale for continuing to go ahead with this race, in the face of the obvious questions people ask: Is it worth it? Why not pull out and rest it longer? Is it that important? Today I think I answered that question when a colleague asked me about it in passing: “Life’s short,” I said. “I may never get to do this particular race again.”

On the face of it that sounds short-sighted and immature, especially in the context of most rational people’s argument, which is generally along the lines of the relative importance of attempting the race now (and probably failing to finish anyway) versus still being able to walk in your seventies. They’re right to say that, although I should at this point just make it clear that I’ve had an MRI which showed none of the ‘bigger issues’ such as cartilage depletion or meniscus damage, but there are risks of stress fractures and other longer term outcomes, so the theme is still there around health and sustainability. Risk aversion. Forward thinking. All things I am normally prone to lean towards.

But while a risk averse, protective approach to life is the result of the ever maturing intellectual structures of mankind, and is what has helped our success as a species, there is more and more reason to question whether it’s all worth it. The happiness quotient – the X-factor of life – is not necessarily best served by such a structured approach to how we manage our lives. The obsession with constantly shoring up the basic human needs that live at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy – security, stability, shelter etc – does not really compute for those who have met those needs a hundred times over, especially the 1%ers.
By the way, for those reading this and thinking about The 1% in the third person, here’s a reality check: If you’re reading this, especially if you live in Australia, you almost definitely ARE in the top 1% globally, in terms of privilege, wealth etc. You will always find a way to survive. You will always put food on the table. And if you’re reasonably disciplined and diligent, you will probably live quite well. There will always be a way. Even failing your children quite badly and leaving them a legacy of nothing

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

but a fresh start and a mandate to find their own way in this world is…well, not the end of the world. This means we have the luxury to explore ways to live life beyond that narrow focus, and hence why not try to do so, given the limited hours we have on the planet and the overwhelming insignificance of our lives in the magnitude of the universe.

I’m not saying quit your job, burn your bridges and spend the last of your finances on drinking cocktails day in, day out…though there may be a time and a place for that. But there is a balance, and as you move through the stages of life I think it’s too easy for the scales to tip further and further on one side.

I am increasingly becoming convinced in the veracity of the philosophy espoused by those who take a ‘less is more’ approach to life. The freedom available when paring everything down to the bare essentials is something I’ve experienced in running ultra-marathons. Here, problem solving amounts to those bare essentials of: calories in against effort out; pace over distance; staying dry versus overheating; choosing the right direction to take; differentiating between a snake and a stick.

I recently read War and Peace (a highly entertaining tome), and I think Tolstoy captures this in a nutshell, when explaining why the count was happiest as a prisoner of war:

In captivity, in the shed, Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity; but now, in these last three weeks of the march, he had learned a new and more comforting truth – he had learned that there is nothing frightening in the world. He had learned that, as there is no situation in the world in which a man can be happy and perfectly free, so there is no situation in which he can be perfectly unhappy and unfree. He had learned that there is a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom, and that those limits are very close; that the man who suffers because one leaf is askew in his bed of roses, suffers as much as he now suffered falling asleep on the bare, damp ground, one side getting cold as the other warmed up; that when he used to put on his tight ballroom shoes, he suffered just as much as now, when he walked quite barefoot (his shoes had long since worn out) and his feet were covered with sores.


Tolstoy, getting back to basics

Tolstoy, getting back to basics

It’s interesting that this insight comes as a result of a multi-week forced march – a context not very far removed from running an ultra-marathon! People say to me “I don’t know how you to do it. I can barely handle DRIVING 175kms!!” And normally I would sympathise with them too: “…the man who suffers because one leaf is askew in his bed of roses, suffers as much as he now suffered falling asleep on the bare, damp ground, one side getting cold as the other warmed up.” Yep, Tolstoy knew what it was all about. To reiterate his words, “all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity.”

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