I have given much of my thinking about a sweaty life in general, and ultra trail running in particular, to the subject of "Why?"
My writing has explored this topic more than any other. It's certainly more important to me than "Where?" or "How?".
That's partly because it seems to be the quintessential question of the observers of lifestyle sweaters, and I'm often asked to explain. But it's mainly because I was born with an insatiable inquisitiveness into the meaning of life. My family encouraged the exploration of the essence that lies beneath the symbols and words we use to fill our lives. I was taught that courage is going beyond fear to face the sub-surface. And I suppose I've become suspicious of a sheep-like use of standard phrases and neat answers. It feels like a lazy alternative to thinking for yourself. So I ask "Why?" a lot.
It's a pain for those who prefer to avoid awkwardness; a source of affectionate amusement for those who love me; and a joy for those who are orientated similarly. The thing about the quest for meaning is that it's never finished. Just like clipping your toenails. Unless you deny the need for it, you're just going to have to keep on doing it. And both strategies will bring discomfort - you'll either have to smile on top while suppressing the pressure below; or bend over, have a look, and do something about it.
One of the reasons I run ultras, especially on lonely trails, is that it gives me resilience for facing life's challenges. It strengthens my ability to bend over, have a look, and do something about it.
Recently, in just one week: I discovered that the person who'd been doing my tax for the years before the guy who recently took it over, well... didn’t do my tax. I learned that I will run the rest of my life with a tri instead of a quad in my left leg. I faced a particularly tough round of corporate martial arts. My eldest daughter was selected for a prestigious post-graduate programme at a pricey establishment abroad. I realised that it's time to sell the house I built with my own hands. And I had a bit of a tiff with a dear friend. I also had to trim my toenails. Jeepers!
Some panic. Little sleep. Much fear. No break.
So I did the thing people like us do in such times - I went for a run. A long one.
Trail. Trees. Birds. Stones. River. Decaying logs.
Less panic. Steady breathing. More centre. Some clarity.
As I ran, the familiarity dawned on me - I'd felt like this before: Exposed, overwhelmed, the end beyond sight but no turning back. And I’d won.
When was it? What experience was I recalling? How did I win then? What could I learn from that to apply to this?
PUFfeR on the lonely section on the back of Table Mountain, with a bone-crunching descent ahead. TUFFER PUFfeR in the Cape Point Nature Reserve at midnight, with a gale-force wind coming in. Rhodes Run on the jeeptrack when Mavis Bank is behind you, and there is still a lot of run ahead with very little air. New York Marathon on the eerily silent Queensboro Bridge, with my bare feet starting to get numb. Running 45km in the Tuscan hills above Firenze, acutely aware of aloneness in a place of such romance and beauty. Painstaking rehab after injury and having to withdraw from the Marathon des Sables, and start training all over again for next year. The Jinja Marathon in Uganda with its long, lonely hill at 30km. Getting lost while running a trail in the Slovakian countryside, and stumbling upon a tucked-away, highly guarded facility. Lost again, in the mountains above San Martin de Los Andes in Argentina with it getting dark, no water, and very little Spanish.
As I ran, I realised that I’m no stranger to being overwhelmed, the end beyond sight but no turning back.
Every time I go out for hours on a trail, there comes this moment of exposure when I have to dig deep, negotiate with myself, and find a way to finish.
I've learned to steady my breathing, calm my fear, set simple goals, and keep moving. I run far on trails because it keeps fresh that faculty.
Note to self: "When life feels too big, run when you can, walk when you have to, crawl if you must, but do not stop. You know how to do this - you’re an Ultra Trail Runner."