The Quotable Ultrarunner | August 10, 2014
Okay, I admit it. I’m hooked on ultrarunning. My black toenails, my closet full of broken down running shoes, my permanently mud-stained socks, my hurried exit out the door after muttering to my wife that I’m going for a “quick twenty” (miles, not minutes) all conspire to give me away.
The running is wonderful, the training is fun, and the races are exhilarating. The enduring is, I will admit, not sweet, but it’s manageable and worth the reward, whatever the reward is. I’m never too sure about that. But what I love most about ultrarunning is the gallows humor, the things ultrarunners say to each other to keep themselves pumped up and moving forward in a sport where each step can become a mountain to climb, a grueling test of character and courage.
I get goosebumps when I hear such tender advice as, “You’re not puking and nothing’s broken so get going.” I melt when I hear such sweet sentiments as, “I was starting to hurt, but then I burped and took a cr_p and I’m feeling much better.” And who cannot fall in love with the wisdom of “If the bone’s not showin’, just keep goin’!”? And then you have the imminently useful advice to “Start slow, then taper off” or the ultrarunner’s lament of “I didn’t go out too fast, I just died too soon.”
Ultrarunning is a prism in which all light is transformed, all experiences are rendered fresh. Take love, for example, ultrastyle: “So as we walked along the river toward Rucky Chucky, I said the words that most men say to a pretty woman as they walk along the river under a starry night on their first date: ‘If you were a real hardass, you’d stick your finger down your throat and clear your stomach and if you won’t do it, I will.’”
Ultrarunning is a super cool learning experience, like going to college: “Each time you run you will receive lessons. You have enrolled in the school of ultrarunning. You may like the lessons or think them irrelevant and stupid. What you think makes no difference; the lessons will be presented until they are learned.” George Sheehan notes about the education of running: “It’s very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants you to quit.”
Who could pass up the opportunity to run down a trail, preferably in searing heat or driving rain, until being reduced to a sniveling iota of a sub-atomic particle dragging itself hopelessly along Earth’s spine, far from any smidgeon of human comfort, feeling pain, fear and self-doubt, feeling doom like Frodo felt when he first glimpsed Mordor. What joy there is in ultrarunning! Navy Seals have it right: “Pain is good. Extreme pain is extremely good.” An ultrarunner must take comfort in such truths as, “It hurts up to a point and then it doesn’t get any worse” or “It used to freak me out when I threw up, now I don’t even slow down.”
“Out there” the ultrarunner turns philosophical: “If you start to feel good during an ultra, don’t worry – you’ll get over it” or similarly, “No matter what hurts at the beginning, by the end of the race something else will hurt worse.” And then there is the simple and direct logic of “I run distance because I want to be in good shape when I die.” Along those same lines, Robert Frost complained that he had miles to go before he could sleep; the ultrarunner is more sanguine, “You can sleep when you die.”
Judging from Yogi Berra’s physique, running must have been his least favorite pastime, yet he spoke to ultrarunners when he said, “If you see a fork in the road, take it!” What ultrarunner has not acted on this advice at some time and gotten lost? Vince Lombardi could have been warning ultrarunners when he said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” but “all” apparently doesn’t include ultrarunners who deal with fatigue all the time. To Lombardi we answer with Nietzsche: “That which does not destroy me makes me stronger.”
One runner in his keen excitement exclaimed, “The race continued as I hammered up the trail, passing rocks and trees as if they were standing still.” Another runner said he had “slowed his pace to the point that he could have been rear-ended by a sleepy snail.” Even an accomplished runner such as Ann Trason explains that she needs to break a race down into manageable chunks by running “from tree to tree”–in a forest!
Ralph Waldo Emerson encourages us simply to “Do the thing and have the power.” Maybe it is good that he is vague about what the “thing” is or where this “power” is coming from. One runner maintains “Too much knowledge can hold you back. Ignorance on the other hand, now, that was something that could get you to the finish line.” At Leadville, Ken Chlouber says to runners, “We’ll tell you when to start and we’ll tell you when to stop. In between, don’t think, just keep running.” Perhaps this not thinking strategy explains much about ultrarunning. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” In ultrarunning, it is, “I don’t think, therefore it doesn’t occur to me to collapse.”
Maybe Thomas Paine nailed it when he said, “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow brave by reflection.” Yes, I think that’s it. It is seeing how an ultrarunner, caught in the jaws of a titanic struggle in the dead of the night, will smile, gather his or her strength, and grow brave. That is what you have to love about ultrarunning.
(Credit goes to the following runners for their quotations: Stan Jensen, Red Fisher, Keith Pippin, Vivian McQueeney, Ken Chlouber, Roger Rehwald, Joan Risse, Ann Trason, Mark Will-Weber, Bob O’Connor, Gene Thibeault, Dave Olney, and Walt Stack. These and other quotes can be found at Stan Jensen’s excellent ultrarunning website: www.run100s.com.)