Ultra-midlife crisis redux, the next 50-miler, and again, ‘why run?’

I put off signing up for the next race for a long time, until I was deep into what should have been the training cycle, especially if the next race was going to be a fifty miler. I held onto a baseline of marathon fitness and mental well being, running an easy 40 miles a week, and immersed myself in work and family, and the days were as full as they’d ever been and time constricted from a broad placid river to a narrow channel of white water tumbling at high speed and high pressure through a rocky gorge. Some days , especially when I was running poorly or tired or discouraged I told myself I wouldn’t sign up for any more races, ever. I’d watch my diet and run a little here and there and fill the time with family, with work, with the writing that I always feel guilty over not doing. After all, with so little free time, not just day to day, but left in life (oh, indeed, I am now beginning to think in those terms as I come ’round the corner and find myself looking at a summer where I’ll be as close to 50 as to 40) how could I possibly squeeze in the kind of running I’d have to do to run another race? But I knew, with that lizard brain buried somewhere in my spine, that I’d sign up for something. Those weekly, long, dead-of-winter tempo runs at the Y, spraying sweat onto the poor woman in the headscarf walking on the treadmill next to me , were not just about the half marathon or 5K or long run with the fellas. They were about needing to push outside of comfort again, somewhere.

I am self aware enough to know that at perpetual war with my best intentions, I have a central vein of selfishness, a self-absorbed core that obsesses in the equivalent, at least in terms of shallowness or decontextualization,  of 140-character bursts about the inner newsfeed of my life like a manic Twitter. I am, I need, I am, I need, I am, I need, I am, I need, I am, I need, I am, I need, I am, I need, I am, I need, I am, I need, I am, I need. I think most people, except maybe great saints, have something akin to this. We resist it, search and struggle for altruism; it’s part of the dynamic tension of a human life, our instinctive self-directedness versus our desire, our longing, our need for other-directedness. Our desire to use and our need to be of use.

The great challenge with marathons, ultra marathons, or more broadly, with triathlons and adventure racing and competitive cycling or perhaps even a serious cross fit addiction, is that they take a lot of time. They require a serious commitment. And the question that rises out of this is: are these inherently selfish activities?

Who am I going to take the time to train for this fifty mile race away from? Family? Work? Sleep?

I am fundamentally skeptical of all productivity, or to put it another way, I presume there’s always fat to be trimmed from a schedule to make time – there are always five more hours to be squeezed out of a week. Stop checking Facebook, don’t watch TV, get up 30 minutes earlier, etc., etc. But is there a point where you’ve squeezed all five hours of productivity flab out of the week? Where you are truly straight out? (Everyone claims to be straight out, just like everyone claims to be super busy all the time. This feels to me as much like a boast as a measure of hard fact.)

What Is All This Running For?

Just as crucially as what one must give up for training is the question of what will I get from the training (for the training is really the lion’s share of time here, the race is only one day). What will the training for and running of this race provide me, do for me, that will enable me to be better at giving things back, at strengthening the impulse toward other-directedness?

If the training and the running is just about fitness, then it’s too much. There’s no need to run 50 or 60 miles a week to stay fit. In fact, that much running may even degrade certain parts of one’s fitness, and leaves a certain chronic fatigue in the legs and body.

If it’s about winning races, achieving greatness in sport, then it’s also pointless, because the majority of us aren’t ever going to be great, aren’t going to be champions. I’m not.

If the training is about staying sane, staving off the fear of mortality that begins to cast a shadow over a life, like a darkly rising planet coming over the lip of the horizon, then we’re on to something. You don’t have to stretch metaphors very far to make running as an obsession relate somehow to running away from or toward some metaphysical goal.

I thought when I first started writing this post, two weeks ago now, that I’d come to some conclusions in it. Instead, I’ve only managed to come up with the questions. Which feels right. Maybe in this year of running, here, coming around the bend toward 45 years old, as I said earlier, as close to 50 as to 40, I’ll work through some of the answers and offer them up as they come, in writing here or in some other writing, the kind that in the days before Google Drive sat in fast manuscript stacks in your desk drawer. There’s some kinship between writing and distance running, the perpetual tension between selfishness and other-directedness they both require.

A few weeks ago, I signed up for my next race, the 50 miler at Pineland Farms. And I began to write this. In May, I’ll be done with that 50 miler, one way or the other. This, I’ll probably still be working on.