What do you think about when you’re out there running for that long? Almost everyone unfamiliar with the ultra marathon distances asks this.
As runners, of course, we know that it is almost impossible to answer this question with any kind of brevity without sounding like an imbecile. If answered honestly, the response isn’t going to be interesting or sexy. So we turn to cliches. “It’s my time to clear my head.” “It’s my meditation.” “It’s my alone time, for me.” “It keeps me sane.”
Yes. This is all true, I suppose, but it also skirts the issue. The answer, for me, is paradoxical. I think of nothing and everything. Usually at the same time. Which is just another way of saying that I’m not really thinking. Rather, I’m listening. To myself, in an as unintentional manner as possible.
This inherently self-centered act of listening–letting anything and everything and nothing bop in and out of my mind without intent–is, after 17 years of running, usually the first thing I miss when I can’t run. Running is that space each day for me to just be, with as few unnatural distractions as possible.
As Wallace points out, listening to oneself with full attention is something that, as a species, in modern society, it seems we’ve become almost phobically averse to. I’m not willing to place a value-judgement on that–I’m not convinced that there’s anything inherently good or better about being comfortably alone–but I do know, that for me, it’s an important and unique part of my daily routine. And it does seem to be something, that, as a culture, we’re rapidly moving away from.
Anyone who has bumped up against the limits of their physiology in an endurance event knows that it isn’t usually the actual physical that does the limiting; it’s the mind, the spirit, even. The last 20 miles of a tough 100 mile race is nothing else if not an intense session of self-examination, of feeling with one’s full attention.
It’s also often a lot of other things–suffering, tedium, vomiting, stumbling, etc., etc. But, ultimately, these things are all secondary to the very real, very personal process of finding the motivation to get to the finish line, and of feeling the experience in a very visceral manner. There’s a reason 100mi races are so compelling and yet so difficult to relate to someone who hasn’t experienced one. I think it’s because the experience is so personal. A lot more personal than we tend to get with ourselves in almost any other segment of life, because we’re almost always willfully distracting ourselves.
Running is an activity that often requires our full attention, and while I’m not willing to say that that necessarily makes us better people, I do think that regularly practicing the act of carefully tuning in–not tuning out–ultimately leaves us more open to the emotions of, among other things, humility and compassion. And, even if it requires willfully engaging in the dull and tedious to get there, I think it’s safe to suggest that the world could always use more humility and compassion.