Whatever number is given always strikes me as wrong, not because it puts too much emphasis on mind over body but because it seems too simplistic. If someone who has never run so much as a mile decides to run a marathon, all the mental prowess in the world is not likely to overcome weak lungs, underdeveloped muscles, and a heart that goes berserk if the line at the drive-thru is too long and the body enclosing it is forced to park the car, get out and walk. On the other hand, every runner knows the feeling of being completely spent yet willing one’s self, somehow, to keep going, just a little farther, just until that tree, and then that stop sign, and then that other runner, and then that odd-looking archway with the big digital clock and all those cheering people. Oh, the finish line. Who knew.A fellow trail runner and I were once discussing some of our more extreme running acquaintances, the ones who regularly run distances that would carry you to another state, two or three if you’re back east. Of course I had to go and foolishly say that no way would I ever run one of those insane hundred milers (preferring the completely sane 31-milers, naturally), and when my friend smirked because he’d heard me say similar things before about lesser distances, I became emphatic. People do have limits, despite what all the inspirational running aphorisms will tell you. Not everyone can run as fast as an elite runner, so it stands to reason that not everyone can run as far as a hard-core ultra runner. I simply refuse to accept the pervasive mentality that anyone can do X if they just put their mind to it. If that were true, why would you want to do X in the first place? Sure, everyone can write a novel if they want to, which is precisely why there’s so much really awful writing out there. I encourage everyone, always, to write if that’s something they really enjoy, but if you’re doing it because you just want to say you’ve done it, please, for the love of literature, don’t tell me about it.
But then I’ve just said it, haven’t I: everyone can write a novel if they want to. My trail running friend insisted that it was the same for extreme running. You could run a hundred-miler—you could, he said to me. Yes, you’d have to train for it; you can’t write a novel if you can’t write a sentence, but once you get past the basics, it really does become mental. In other words, you can do it, but you have to want it, really want it, for some good reason, and that reason isn’t always easy to find and hold on to.I didn’t buy it at first, but it got me thinking. I suppose most people could get through a hundred miles if they had to—if forced to, if, for example, being chased by something, as non-runners so love to say. Enslaved people, escaping people, people in wartime and famine, all have had to push their physical endurance as hard as if not far harder than a hundred-mile runner. They had to or they would die. This is not the case for an ultra you volunteer to run. You choose to do it. And at that point I had to concede that my friend was right. In the end, the question isn’t “How am I going to get through this,” but “Why am I trying to get through this?” How you get through it is you just do, just like you always do. Something terrible happens and you are devastated and the night has never seemed so bleak and endless and you wonder how you can make it, but the funny thing is part of why you feel so awful on those nights is because you know you can make it, you can get through this, but getting through means going through a whole lot of suffering.
My first ultra is nowhere near a hundred miles long, and it isn’t for another seven weeks, but I’m already starting to ask myself, how am I going to get through this? I try not to ask it aloud because I know what people will say—some variation on “you can do it” ranging from from cheerleader chipper to drill-sergeant tough. And I know they’re right. I know how; I’m just not sure why.I took up running in part because it was something I could do by myself without needing to depend on a lot of special equipment, a special location, or, most of all, other people. Much of my adult life has been a solitary, independent existence, and it’s not surprising that two of my favorite leisure activities—reading and running—are those frequently enjoyed by loners. That said, even loners sometimes join book clubs so they can share their enjoyment (or, what’s even more fun, share their snarky criticism) of their current reading material. And as far as running goes, I discovered what many distance runners do: that running really can be a team sport, at least in terms of motivation. There is no “I” in “team,” but “team” is an anagram for “meat,” and what better motivation is there than a group of runners talking about the merits of eating bacon during a long race?
See, here’s where the “why” question comes back into play. If you are running, say, a 20-miler in training for your next marathon, you are far less likely to ask yourself “why the hell am I doing this?” at mile 17 if someone is running with you. It can even be someone you don’t particularly like, someone who’s chatting your ear off about stupid shit until you want to strangle them except you feel like you’re being strangled yourself, you’re struggling so hard to breathe. Still, somehow, it helps you get through, and you actually find yourself thanking the chatterbox, sincerely, for helping you get through. And then you go find some bacon to eat, or to stuff in your ears, so you won’t have to listen to them any more.Because of my erratic work schedule and the fact that I find it impossible to function on any level before about ten a.m. even with coffee in my system, I’ve been doing most of my training runs for my ultra alone. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing given that I’ll be running the ultra itself alone, meaning that there won’t be anyone to cheer me on during the ordeal. I’ve run a lot of races this way—a 10K in Barcelona, a half marathon in Budapest, a full marathon in Reykjavik—races where I not only didn’t know a single person in the race or in the country but also didn’t understand a single word being spoken by the runners around me. It’s quite an experience to hear a countdown in Hungarian and only figure out what “one” is when everyone starts moving. I enjoyed those races for their exhilarating novelty. Now it’s not quite so novel any more. Now the prospect of going somewhere yet again where I don't know anyone around me just seems like a wearying deja vu. And the prospect of running over 30 miles where I don't know anyone around me is making me wonder why.
I’m not saying that the only reason to do something is to be with other people; I still enjoy independence and solitude as much as ever. The point is that as with anything, the motivation has to come from me. I have figure it out myself: Why am I doing this? What satisfaction will I derive from saying, hey, I'm running an ultra, I'm going a distance I never thought I could do. Woop de do. Aren't I the shit.
And so I find myself once again in a situation where I begin by asking "how am I going to get through this" only to realize it's the wrong question, and the right question, the one that asks why, is one I'm not sure I can answer.