Scatter my ashes here...

Scatter my ashes here...
scatter my ashes in the desert...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"Don't you have anything better to do?"


It occurred to me on my run the other morning that I'm coming up on my 25th anniversary of being a runner. I consider my starting date to be January 1984. It deserves some sort of celebration. More on that in a future blogpost.

I've been meaning to write a post to explain the ongoing evolution of my own personal philosophy of running, somewhat grounded in theory and spirituality but mostly based on time and experience, that has brought me to where I am now in my own approach to running ever longer distances, and my current state of feeling and thought about what running means to my life.

"Why do you do it?"
I could try to explain until I turn blue to those skeptics who think running for days at a time is not only insane, but a big waste of time that could be better spent on other so-called productive things.

That wouldn't be productive.

What I can do is attempt to explain it to anyone interested enough in the why of ultrarunning, to read this blog. Most people who hear about what I do are mildly curious but have no interest in doing that sort of thing themselves. A few might be secretly envious of whatever it takes to do it, but consider their lives so far removed from the freedom to have the level of motivation, dedication, and fitness it takes, that they never attempt it. People do ask me a lot of questions about what drives me, what I think about, and how I feel when I'm doing these runs.

I'll explain from a few key theoretical, spiritual, and psychological approaches without going too deeply into any of them, and then integrate it into a holistic, balanced model that I think is where I've arrived at this point in my life, but is always evolving.

People often ask me, "What do you get for finishing a race? Is there money, or sponsorship?"

That's a perfect place to start. They want to know about an end product. Money, sponsorship, status, recognition, and other things are tangible rewards to which we are so accustomed in our culture when we see the media attention focused on big money sports like golf, football, and baseball. These rewards are extrinsic factors, they come from outside the individual athlete and can often play a role in motivating talented athletes to continue in a sport to professional status. The athlete might be originally coming from a state of intrinsic motivation, but these extrinsic motivators can't be ignored.

Every four years we are reminded of the other sports that normally receive little attention, when the Olympics roll around and we are treated to two weeks of spectatorship. A gold medal and all the sponsorships, commercial advertising contracts, and opportunities to benefit from celebrity status are also extrinsic factors that are available to the few athletes who reach this level.

Ultrarunning, and even more so, multiday running, is even less visible. It's not in the Olympics, it's rarely on TV, and most people have never even heard of it. For most ultrarunners, if the race offers a belt buckle to finishers, that might be the only extrinisic, tangible reward they receive. After all, it takes time and effort to train for an event, time and money to prepare for and go to the event, hard physical effort and time to run it and time to recover from it. And in our culture, time is money.

"For a belt buckle????!!!"

Yes, and sometimes no. Sometimes there isn't even a belt buckle. Sometimes there isn't even a listing of the runner's name in some obscure running magazine that they finished or even won the Frozen Fat Ass 50K in 6 hours and 35 minutes in below zero temperatures with a 20 mph headwind. Meanwhile the front page of the sports section of the Denver Post shows a photograph of the winner of a local 5K getting a check for $1000 and it only took them 15 minutes in perfect conditions on flat city streets, and they didn't even pay an entry fee because the race director was generous enough to comp them in and put them up in a hotel the night before.

No wonder non-runners are confused by this diverse sport lumped under the label "running". They see pictures of an all-out sprint for the finish line in a 5K road race and then when they hear of ultrarunners who spend half their time walking in a 100 mile trail race, they think, "That's not running. I could do that!"

The public is so accustomed to seeing the tangible extrinsic motivators paired with a sweaty, skinny, straining, sprinting racehorse, that they don't know what to think of the slightly overweight middle-aged guy walking up a rocky hill on a trail eating a granola bar and chasing a packet of energy gel with a bottle of water with a big fat pack on his butt, 42 miles into a 50 mile trail race, he's smiling and taking his time, but he's moving forward and will cross the finish line no less sweaty but at a lot slower pace. And he might get a belt buckle if he finishes under the 12 hour time cutoff, but he's more likely to take 14 hours.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual. Examples of intrinsic rewards are pride, self-satisfaction, or a feeling of personal achievement.

This has been explored by cognitive psychologists who study motivation, like Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi. His concept of flow can be applied to any activity where a person becomes "completely involved in an activity for it's own sake." (Czikszentmihalyi, 1990, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience) Flow exists where challenge and skill are perfectly matched, and the person is in a state of focused attention and intrinsic motivation.

In our culture we are so focused on the external rewards, and money and other tangibles are of such great importance, that it's hard for people to focus away from that. It's hard for them to remember that there are other great and valuable sources of reward out there that don't have a dollar value on them. An economist might argue that anything can be measured in terms of dollars, but I'll let them chase after me and catch up to me in a 100 mile race to argue that.

To some schools of thought it really is almost a subversive act to pursue anything that doesn't lead to money or those extrinsic rewards. So I understand when people have a hard time wrapping their minds around why anyone would put so much effort into something that doesn't "pan out".

But I know I feel my best while running, I can lose myself and totally escape if I want to, or I can emerge from my run with a mental list of fresh ideas and problems solved. I feel good after a run. I feel good remembering my last run and anticipating my next. Running leads me anywhere I want to go, and I always come back to myself, better off.

"Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God." -Leon Bloy

When I think of spirituality, I don't associate it with religion. Religion is nearly a foreign concept to me. With a few brief and unwelcome exceptions, I had a highly secular upbringing and this has extended to my adult life. I rejected any religious views held by extended family members and my own parents never forced it on me. The most formal exposure I've ever had to learning about religion, that I care to remember as palatable, was while attending a Quaker School as a child in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, and that was about as low-key as you can get in a school with any religious affiliation.

What I didn't realize was the impression this left on me. I've been studying a bit on my own and somehow things keep circling back in serendipitous ways, and I've discovered that the values espoused by Friends (e.g. integrity, equality, simplicity, peace) align most closely with my own personal and political values.

For me simplicity has always been about having few things, about not getting caught up in the dominant culture that is so materialistic. As I've gotten older I find myself with more things than I used to have, but I do try to keep my accumulation to a bare minimum of what I really use. Running is a great sport for simplicity, when it comes down to it, all you really need is a pair of running shoes.

I try to keep simplicity within my life, to keep things uncluttered, to minimize the number of things to which I devote my energy. It's hard for me because I am a creative person but I need intellectual challenge and sometimes those two (left- brained, right-brained) are in direct conflict with each other. I have to make dissatisfying choices sometimes, mostly with neglecting my painting, but I find other ways to meet my need for creative expression.

I find that the most important thing is keeping "work" in perspective. If you can find ways to make whatever work you do seem like it's not "work", then it's a lot easier.

When I discovered the Take Back Your Time movement and connected with that, it made me look at my life's work in a whole different perspective. Though I'm not gainfully employed in it now, I studied natural resources recreation in graduate school and my dissertation research focused on the psychophysiological components of outdoor recreational pursuits in restorative settings. I later moved away from the cognitive psychology-oriented natural resources end of the recreation spectrum and toward the exercise physiology end.

The Take Back Your Time movement advocates for simplicity, among other things. It is all connected to peace, as far as I'm concerned. It's about quality of life. It's highly spiritual from my point of view. Spirituality could be defined as a sense of being connected, and a sense of being part of something greater than yourself.

At the same time as experiencing connectedness to something greater, there is the matter of being an individual. Running is rarely viewed as a team sport, but the individual nature of ultrarunning has much appeal in being yourself as pure and unmodified as you can possibly be in this culture that values conformity and complicates our lives so much when we allow it to.

I'm not going to explore the other values except to mention this about peace and running and a bit about equality below. Running promotes and nurtures peace within the runner, which is the first step to having peace in your life, once you have peace in yourself, you extend that into the world around you.

I have met many of my friends through running, and many of my favorite people are runners. As big a part of my life that running is, at the same time I strive to interact socially and meaningfully with non-runners, non-athletes, and runners of different abilities because it's so important to have that balance. Every one of us has a gift to offer each other. It's important to not get so caught up in one thing that we forget to recognize what other people can offer, and because one person has a gift, they are no more special than any other human being. No one needs to be elevated above anyone else. I guess that's part of the testimony of equality that I so long ago incorporated into my own value system.

I love the following excerpt from the statements of Satyajit Saha. A discussion of multiday running would not be complete without some reference to the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, but since I have not been involved in any Sri Chinmoy events, I can't speak for it. Anyone interested in further learning about multi day running events should google on Sri Chinmoy and start reading. Satyajit Saha writes,
"Transcendence! Self-transcendence is the essence; the quintessential core of what multiday running is about. During a multiday transcendence event all the trivial nagging minute forces of human frustration and sorrow that dog mundane, habitual living melt away and dissolve in the one-pointed focus and mission of covering at least one more mile before taking pause, or giving in. The struggle of running becomes the sole mission, the all-consuming purpose of the runners' consciousness. The runners' consciousness becomes clear, uncluttered and untrammeled in its singleness of purpose. Just run one more lap. One more lap. One more lap. Nothing else matters. The body aches, the nervous system is taxed to its limit. But the mind is clear. The heart is clear. There is nothing to prove to anyone. No place else to be. No bonds, no cares, no worries. Just run, or walk, and be free. The rest of the world takes care of itself. Just run one more lap.

It seems to me that the other runners feel this and commune with this Spirit which percolates through the struggles of each. It is unspoken, but the runners know, and they know the other runners know. In certain ways they feel connected to each other more than they can possibly express. The only expression of this unexplainable oneness is to push for another lap-run another mile, and another mile. And when it is all over, even before the body and mind have fully recovered, the hints come up from the subconscious; images, memories of something very, very special - the hunger to run another race, the call from inside to return to the Source, to run another mile, one more mile. That's multiday running. And the training becomes a daily celebration of what it truly means to be alive. "

"A spiritual person tries less to be godly than to be deeply human."- Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Jr.

"What do you think about while you're running? Don't you get bored?"

People always ask me this and it used to drive me crazy. My immediate, uppity thought used to be, How could you ever get bored? You must find yourself pretty boring if you can't stand to be with yourself for any period of time without some artificial outside source of stimulation.

I am sure there are plenty of people who do find running to be boring. I rarely find myself bored with anything, it's only when I am restricted by some outside source in what I can do at the moment, and never with running. But then I avoid things that I find to be boring, as those people do with running.

My mind doesn't start out active when I go out for a run. It's sort of a passive thing, I let the ideas and thoughts come to me. I don't force it and I don't try. Things pop into my head, depending on what's been on my mind, if I'm stressed about anything in my life, or where I am running. Sometimes it's enough just to pay attention to your surroundings because of traffic or other hazards.

Generally I try to avoid city streets and I find my eyes looking over the landscape and I find running a huge source for inspired creativity. By creativity I mean anything I'm doing, whether writing, painting, cooking, studying, or solving problems in any aspect of my life.

When I paint so many of my paintings have a common theme, a road through them, with the landscape rising on both sides and out in front, stretching out forever.

I find that on most of my runs I am running through landscapes so I see elements of the landscape from a number of different angles and perspectives, particularly if I'm doing an out and back run and go the opposite direction. I'm going at a slow pace so I notice details, have time to absorb them, and make mental notes.

Someone once told me that you have to love your subject in order to paint it. By the time I've finished painting something I feel like I know it so completely that I don't know where I end and it begins. That wouldn't be healthy if it were a human, there would be no boundaries. But it does create a bridge between you and the subject. When I run in beautiful places those places become a part of me and I feel like I can go there again, I know it so well, that I can almost escape.

Running for me is social, it's spiritual, it has physical rewards, it's restorative, there's an intellectual component to it, it fits with my own values of simplicity, it has minimal impact on the environment most of the time, and it's presented me with so many opportunities to personally learn and grow in ways that reach far beyond myself. I've learned and I am still learning, being consistent, being dedicated, and knowing that short term discomfort can be brushed aside in a way that yields many intrinsic rewards.

In Death Valley this summer, I saw how the heat strips you of any pretense and humbles you. You have to respect this force greater than yourself, you are relying on your good sense, your preparation, the wisdom and commitment of your team of crewmembers to guide you safely through and out of there.

What I learned from Badwater is that I was able to transcend my ability to tolerate discomfort and perservere, in a way that I had never achieved before. People have asked me, "Why would you want to put yourself in pain?"

It was painful, yes, every step of the last 50 miles was painful, but I was able to somehow focus my mind away from the source of pain-my feet-to push through it and come out on the other side of it. I found a huge source of strength that I didn't know about. If that isn't intrinsically rewarding then I don't know what is.

To summarize as simply as possible, I find myself intrinsically motivated to run, running is aligned with my personal values, I find that running helps me feel connected to other people and things which enhance my quality of life.

Talking about self-transcendence is one thing. But in my conscious day-to-day activity and thought, I'm not even actively, consciously thinking about trying to transcend myself or anything. All I know most of the time when I think about running is this, I'm never happier than when I'm running around in circles, which is why I keep going back, year after year to do it.

Here's what I wrote about New Year's Eve, at last year's Across the Years 48 hour run:
It's a miracle and a blessing that we meet here, this same group, year after year, to be together in this single pursuit of the same thing, while each individual runner brings their own meaning, their own philosophy and reason for doing feels like we're dancing around the track for days on end together, some to music, some to the night sky, some to their own creator.

Therefore to wrap up this long-winded discussion, I'm going to quote myself.
"If you see me running around in circles, leave me alone. I'm happy."

Photo credits: Across the Years race pictures by Nathan Nitzky


T said...

Thanks Alene, that was very cool. I do relate. Congrats on 25 years. I hope that you get to celebrate 50.

Alene Gone Bad said...

Thanks. I hope to celebrate 50, and I hope all my running and non-running friends will be there to share it with me.

Dan said...

Very cool. It's funny about the outside, artificial stimulation. I love running with an iPod and GPS BUT I always run better, smoother and faster without them.