So I ran another ultra this past weekend, but that’s not what I’m going to write about. Instead I’m going to write about camping. You know, that thing people do when they get tired of the monotony of walls, when offices seem like cattle pens, when they realize that everything they eat comes in shiny packages and the food goes through just as much processing as those packages. Camping, one thinks excitedly—yes! Back to basics, a thin shield between you and the elements your only shelter, and only such foods as can be minimally prepared for your meals. A simpler life, a return to the tranquility of the natural world, a more peaceful existence.
Yeah, I know. I don’t believe that either. Camping is frequently a thing that seems lovely in theory and hideous in practice. Camping is bugs and dirt and dirty bugs. It’s burning your food because you’re afraid to eat it undercooked, and burning yourself because you were in such a hurry to eat your burnt hotdog that you grabbed the metal skewer with your bare hands. It’s lying on the cold hard ground and feeling every damn grain of dirt beneath you and smacking the side of your head all night because that mosquito in your tent wants to take up permanent residence in your ear. It’s spending a lot of money on fancy gear so that you can “rough it” in the wilderness and realizing that you just spent a bundle to do the same crap you already do at home—only, like, outside.
No, I don’t entirely believe that either. Camping as an activity does tend to polarize a lot of people; some folks love it and can’t wait for summer (or, if they’re truly hard core, don’t have to wait for summer because they go year ‘round) while others say the word “camp” as though it is always preceded by the word “concentration.” I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m drawn to the idea of camping for a number of reasons—nostalgia being one, as camping was something I frequently did as a child with my family. But I’m also quite cognizant of the fact that nostalgia is often illusory. I remember clamoring each summer for our parents to bring out the tent and the sleeping bags and the portable stove and head out to the beach (this was Hawaii; you can camp right on the beach, and please don’t ask me why I ever left the islands because I’m not sure I know any more), but I’m also certain I likely fussed and whined a lot once we finally got there. Similarly, I was very excited at the prospect of camping up in Wisconsin for the 100-mile trail relay I would be part of last weekend, but in the back of my mind I also knew I’d probably have to reign in the inevitable desire to be a fussy, whiney 8-year-old again when the tent leaked, when the sun and birds woke us up far too early, when the bugs made a buffet out of my limbs and head. Stupid nature.
The BF and I plus a dozen or so of our running buddies set out Friday with our gear, most of us arriving at the campgrounds late afternoon and promptly serving as high tea for the mosquitoes. The most effective torture method ever invented could not even begin to approach the sheer agony that is the whine of a mosquito in your ear. And you thought World Cup vuvuzelas were bad. We bathed in bug spray, deciding that the potential for cancer in the future was a distant secondary concern compared to the certainty of being driven mad with itching, then set up our tents. My tent is a backpacker's version; it folds up to the size of a collapsable umbrella, but it's basically a canvas coffin. Luckily the BF has a tent that could house a three-ring circus, so it was likely to serve just fine for us and the dog—who, we hoped, would be a little less cranky about camping that I had been in the past. Once the tents were up, the bedrolls and sleeping bags assembled, and the gear all stowed, we put wood in the firepit and prepared for an idyllic evening of brats and beer and a lot of laughs.
And it actually was quite nice. Fire—who isn’t captivated by it? Not the bugs, thank goodness. It had been a very warm day and I was already sweaty but I hovered near the pit and bathed in the smoke. Soon the sweat, smoke, and bug spray would be augmented with sunscreen and spilled electrolyte drink, and there would be more layers of crud on my body than on the neck of a near-empty ketchup bottle. Did I mention we had chosen the “rustic” campsites? This meant that each campsite was magnificently secluded with trees, unlike those big open camp fields with no privacy; it also meant there were only pit toilets, a water fountain instead of sinks, and—this is key—no showers. Some of our running buddies with foresight seemed a bit uneasy with this; they would be running anywhere from 19 to 31 miles the next day, and the idea of doing that, going to bed, getting up, and functioning the whole next day without scouring off the filth did not please them. On the other hand, I and a few others scoffed. Surely we could go one weekend without the obsessive need to pretend that life isn’t inherently dirty. We don’t need no stinkin’ showers; we can just be our stinkin’ selves a little bit longer than usual. A little stench never hurt anyone.
True, but a lot of stench is another story, as is a massive lack of sleep. Basically we got up at 5am Saturday and stayed up for over 24 hours to run and cheer on other runners. By the time the last runners came in we were all outrageously filthy and beyond exhausted, but instead of hot showers and comfy beds, we wiped down with Wet-Naps and crawled into buggy tents. Even the dog, who loves the outdoors, seemed out-of-sorts, barking at people when normally she’d be making puppy eyes and looking all sweet and belly-rub-worthy. “Rustic,” I’ve learned, is one of those words like “cozy,” a thinly veiled euphemism. A real estate ad calling a house “cozy” means you can touch all four walls standing in one place; likewise a “rustic” camping experience means all outdoors is one big Port-a-Potty because you’ll be damned if you’re going to walk all the way to the pit toilets after having run 31 miles, over hills and meadows, in searing sun and cold rain, through daylight and twilight.
And what, ultimately, can I say about the running portion of the weekend? I could say “Yeah, I ran badly, but…” and tack on some inspirational schlock, but I’m not going to do that. I ran badly. It’s a thing that happens. Or even simpler: I ran. It’s a thing to do.
An experience like camping takes you so far out of your ordinary life that you really do feel a letdown when you return to the world of showers and beds. Kinda like—and here it comes at last, the Big Flashing Metaphor—running. You can be utterly miserable, which I was for a good four hours of my seven-and-a-half hour run on Saturday; you can wish it were over and you were dead and you can wonder why, why, why, WHY you are doing this horrible thing. And once that horrible thing is finally, finally, finally, finally over, you can decide you’ll never do this again, ever, but the thing is, you might not decide any such thing and instead declare “next time I’ll do this better, I’ll be more prepared, I’ll train smarter, and it’ll be great. Yeah! I can hardly wait!”
You know as well as I do why people are like this. If we got irrevocably discouraged at the slightest setback, we’d never learn anything, we’d never do anything, we’d turn into inert blobs of boringness. We keep going because that’s the only way to be successful. And boy do we love success stories; we love hearing about people who triumph over adversity to become the greatest, the fastest, the strongest, the best. But I tend to be drawn to a different kind of success story. It’s the story of someone who gets through some stuff by running but doesn’t become the best and now has to figure out how to get through that. If you’re good at something, it’s obvious why you do it. If you aren’t particularly good at it, and it’s a struggle, often a painful one, but you still find yourself coming back again and again for more, then there must be something you’ve found that’s keeping you going. You keep trying, even if you don’t ever seem to be getting anywhere, because that’s living. And at least this is an activity that keeps you living, keeps reminding you that you are in fact very much alive and continuing as such, dirt, sweat, bugbites and all.