It’s a wonderful thing to find the intersection of two of your passions. For example, I love cooking, and I love running, so naturally I’m drawn toward culinary creations that can fuel my races. Of course, at the point where you are obsessively chasing ridiculous distances, everything become fuel for races, even bugs that get stuck in your teeth during trail runs, so those two particular passions aren’t intersecting anymore; they’re both pretty much riding the same highway to hell-yeah. With reading and running, it’s a little different. I’ve read surprisingly few running books, and don’t feel all that strong a desire to change this despite my love of reading. Most books about running are memoir or nonfiction, which I don’t read much of ever (I prefer truth disguised as fiction over fiction disguised as truth), and as far as novels, there’s Once a Runner and … that’s about it, far as I’m concerned. There’s a sequel and a prequel to Once a Runner, neither quite as good as the first, as sequels and prequels are wont to be, though the sequel did at one point make me think about the topic of this post.
In the sequel, Quentin Cassidy, the trilogy’s hero, is past his running glory days, or so he initially believes. He was a miler in college, a great one, but for various reasons he gets it in his head to go after the marathon. What made me stop reading and start pondering was a conversation Cassidy has with a running buddy about how running has changed in recent years. “Running has become a big deal,” the friend says. “Remember how we used to drive for hours to get to some Podunk turkey trot somewhere, we were so hard up for races? Well, there’s hundreds of races now.” He adds, significantly, “You can look behind you at the starting line and see five thousand people lined up, but when the gun goes off, guess what? … You’re still racing against the same five or six guys you always raced against.”
This reminded me of something I saw in an article in a running magazine (which I also don’t read much of because they tend to have too many articles like this one). The title was something like “Is the hundred the new marathon?” and if you know running magazines, you can probably write the rest of the article yourself. Marathons are commonplace, it seems. Everybody and their semi-mobile uncle has one on their bucket list. Those 26.2 stickers are appearing on trikes. What’s a runner to do if they really want a challenge, something few people dare to do, something that will make eyes widen and jaws drop and prove once and for all that your first name is “Bad” and your last name is “Ass” and you live in Awesome City, population you? Run close to four marathons in a row, apparently.
And this led me to envision a running magazine article which I have yet to read but probably is out there somewhere or is about to be soon: is ultra running being dumbed down?
If you believe magazines, everything is being dumbed down. In fact, I rather suspect the proliferation of “is such-and-such being dumbed down” articles is contributing to the dumbing down. As soon as you see that question in a title, you can write the article yourself. People will argue that these days, so many people want to do X and don’t see any reason why they can’t do X so they all try to do X but they do X in such a half-assed way and X is absurdly simplified for their benefit and yet they still brag about their X-factor that people come to see the half-assness as perfectly fine. As a result, doing X exceptionally well is no longer given the respect it deserves because people will sniff, “Huh, my 6-year-old did that last month.” Ultimately these articles may begin with a sort of scornful head-shaking but they generally end with a weak “eh, it’s all good” attitude, because ultimately the dumbing down question is a pointless one. Even if the answer is yes, people are going to do it anyway, and regardless of the answer, what does it even matter?
Does it matter that the average time for marathons has gotten significantly slower in recent years as the number of runners completing a marathon has risen dramatically? Does it matter than many of them will never do another marathon? And what if the same thing happens to ultras—to the hundred, even, as unthinkable as that might have once seemed? Does it matter that ultra distances that once went up mountainsides now are as flat as a high school track? The obvious knee-jerk response to all of this is no, of course it doesn’t matter; one person’s accomplishment doesn’t diminish anyone else’s, and in fact the more people do something, the more we can appreciate those who truly do it well, even while the rest us get to enjoy a new experience. That said, there’s a reason these articles are written, and a reason I stopped to think about all this seemingly too-obvious too-pointless blather.
When I started running longer distances, I hated when people would congratulate me for “finishing.” I don’t just want to finish, I would bristle. A thing worth doing is worth doing well. Why would I want to go through all this training and hard work just to trudge across the finish line right before they take away the scoring mats? To say I did it? Anyone can do that, and if anyone can do that, why on earth would I feel like I did something special? I know this is an ugly attitude, but I have to be honest in admitting it was once mine—and in admitting that I still think this from time to time, when someone tells me a marathon is on their bucket list or boasts about their kid having written a novel. Something inside me cringes just a little, and that cringe starts ripples in my brain that threaten to swell into ranty tsunamis.
On the one hand, of course it’s great that people want to do challenging things. Of course it is. And why limit these things only to people who do them better than 99.99% of the population? Why can’t an ordinary person take on an extraordinary challenge? And yet, if you’re doing it to say you’ve done it, and you don’t care so much how you do it, and you don’t spend a whole lot of time learning how to do it, it starts to feel almost like you don’t really even like what it is you’re doing. I love running, so it irks me that people would see running not as a deeply satisfying part of everyday living but as something to “get through” so you can brag about it later.
And yet—there’s always another “and yet”—when I stop to think about the people I know who run these crazy distances, I’m not irked anymore. Not even a little. I’m overjoyed. Several of my friends ran their first 50-milers this month (as did I), several more ran 100Ks, and one ran his first 100. These are car-drive distances, done on foot. Some of those runners are crazy fast; one woman who did her first 50 did it in about 8 hours and 40 minutes, which to give you some perspective is roughly equivalent to running two back-to-back marathons at a 10-minute pace, which to give you some more perspective if that means nothing to you is fucking amazing. But many of the others would be the first to tell you that their finishing times were not anything even close to amazing—downright slow, in fact—and they never expected it to be otherwise. They aren’t ashamed of that fact, nor should they be; shame is not something that one should ever feel after running nearly continuously for over an entire day. Hell, I ran only a little more than half that distance in a thoroughly unimpressive 12 hours and I’m thrilled to my unattractively calloused toes.
Are we dumbing down ultras? Perhaps, but my 12-hour 50+ didn’t take anything away from my speedy friend’s 8:40, nor does her 8:40 mean that I should have just stayed at home in the A/C that sweltering Sunday and not bothered. And here’s the most important thing about all this: even though my 12-hour ultra was, shockingly enough, not always an enjoyable experience, it was an experience. Before it’s a goal, before it’s a challenge, before it’s a dream or an aspiration or a desire for glory and success, it’s something interesting I want to try. Believe it or not, there was never a time in that race when I wished I hadn’t decided to do it. I wanted to stop, frequently, almost continuously during the last loops, but as someone who is often called a pessimist, I believe in acknowledging that most of life isn’t going to be exactly the way you want it, and that being the case, most of life is about soldering on. Does it dumb down life that so many of us want to keep living? Irrelevant. We do. We do it in any way we can, in any way that makes it worthwhile and exciting, by reading, by writing, by cooking and eating, and sometimes by running for a really, really long time.