I have never come across dinosaurs while running through fields and woods, but I’ve come across plenty of other things, some real, some imagined, some I’m not sure which realm they came from. Most of the time, however, I come across nothing. When I run, I have tunnel vision; the trees could burst into flames and the devil himself could appear before me and I’d do little more than pop an S-cap and perhaps wonder if goat’s feet have replaced Hokas as the cool new thing to run in. Yesterday afternoon, running with a friend, she suddenly screamed and hopped awkwardly on one leg in the middle of the trail; I thought she’d broken her ankle, but it turned out there was a snake across the path, one I hadn’t even noticed—hadn’t even mistaken it for a twig because I hadn’t seen it at all. A water snake, the BF informed us, non-venomous, just catching some rays. Luckily no snakes were harmed, nor ankles broken, in the running of the trail that day.
I’ve come upon snakes many times while running, but I have never come across a World War II tank. That was another thing we saw, and that one I did not miss, nor did I miss the jeeps, the gunfire, or the girl dressed in USO garb. I was pretty sure WWII had ended and the good guys had won, but in case there was any doubt, it was being reenacted in the park where we were running. Soldiers stared at us as we ran by. We stared at them. I imagine similar thoughts were going through our heads: what a weird way to spend a Sunday afternoon. We went on our respective ways. I think the Allies won.
Much of the time, however, running isn’t surreal at all. It’s corporeal. You breathe, you move, you sweat, your heart pounds, your lungs burn, your muscles push and push and push. Do that long enough and yes, you might start to hallucinate, your run might start to feel like an out-of-body experience, but in truth that’s never happened to me yet, because in truth, in the world of ultra running, having done 9 ultras in 16 months for a total of just under 300 miles, I’m still just a newbie.
When you first start to learn about ultra running, it seems about a surreal as dinosaurs and tanks suddenly appearing in a state park. Like a lot of people, I used to think 26.2 miles was the absolute limit of how far a human being could run, and even then it could only be done by a few freaky people who would be peeing blood for days after the race. To learn that there were people who ran twice that, four times that, seven times that, on a regular basis—well, at first I simply dismissed that knowledge as too wacky to care about. All those pages of the Guinness Book of World Records that describe things you can’t even believe one person would ever do much less multiple people compete to be famous for doing—things involving bees, sharp objects, electricity, and possibly snakes—that’s where I’d relegated ultra runners in my mind. Then I became one, and a mighty cognitive dissonance had to be confronted.
At first I did what many of us do: wore the crazy like a superhero’s cape. I would use the word “badass” as though it were my middle name, and in fact I might have considered legally changing my name accordingly. I would smile condescendingly when people spoke of marathons with hushed awe, my smile meant to say “So what did you run after the 26.2-mile warmup?” If I met that me now I’d probably want to smack her but would refrain only because I’d know that soon enough, running would humble her, as it always does, even to the badassest of us.
Indeed, I have been humbled by running, many times to the point of wondering why I bother doing this when I’m not really all that good at it. That me, the one with an excess of second guesses and a deficit of self-esteem, is just as bad as the one with the condescending smile. She’s caught up in the drama, like someone lovestruck who goes from believing their love is an epic, cosmic connection to being utterly annihilated by their rejection. Calm down, me. Love can be a calm, steady, tranquil thing, too, and while we may be conditioned to see anything that isn’t extreme as boring, the funny thing is it’s a lot harder to find that calm, steady, tranquil thing. Extreme screams; we can’t ignore it. It’s a dinosaur or a tank. And ultimately, even though it’s memorable, it’s irrelevant.
Yes, running is humbling, and running is glorious. There is urgency when you run—and tranquility. There’s all that crazy contradictory shit and more, yeah, but oddly enough, in the end what keeps me running isn’t what makes it extreme but what makes it mundane. The truth is running ultras isn’t any crazier than reenacting WWII, or following a baseball team all summer, or reading every book your new favorite author ever wrote. It’s the same as any other endeavor you do to pass the time in a way you decide is enjoyable and meaningful. You don’t get to choose a lot of what goes on in your life, but you can choose this, you can make it a part of your everyday existence.
I’ve got three ultras coming up in the next four months, and I’ll admit that saying this did initially make me want to revive the idea of putting a “B” on the cover of my next book instead of an “L” between my first and last names. Ultimately I’ve decided against this; too many other people are using that middle name, so I guess I’m stuck being me.