Running and Worldmaking
…the adventurous traveller seems as if surrounded by the fragments of a world destroyed or with the materials out of which another might be constructed.
— Richard S. Fisher, Book of the World, Volume I, 1849
Shortly after I crossed the finish line, I was pulled into a long, dreamless sleep. In the evening, my legs—pulsing, aching—wrested me awake. I had some food, then fell back to sleep until the next morning. I packed up my rental car and began the eight-hour transition from Loudonville, Ohio, back to Philadelphia. On the drive I listened to a Haruki Murakami audiobook, a story about characters slipping between worlds. Just like in the book, my transition wasn’t smooth and painless. It was confusing, lonely and sour.
It was the first time I’d run 100 miles. When I think back to the race , even now , I get choked up. I used to hear people say that — choked up — and I always thought it was just something people said to evoke melodrama, but now I understand. Right now, my throat is closing, forcing a swallow, and tears are welling up in my eyes. My fingertips go a little numb and my spine gets cold. Details reemerge: dripping treetops, sloshing mud, my heavy legs, endless hills, nightfall, the Irishmen, a cup of ramen, sunrise, the finish line. In that rush of images, the present me stares off into space, breathing deeply, slowly, sighing.
For almost 32 hours, my existence was singular: running. I ate, drank and urinated, but only in the service of moving my body forward. I talked to others along the trail who were also moving their bodies. We talked about being alive. I was a different person from my Philadelphia self. I didn’t once think about schoolwork, paying rent or buying cat food. Those things didn’t exist to be thought about. I was in a different world.
There’s a universe out there, made of bustling atoms in all manner of configuration, made of waves of all lengths, amplitudes and frequencies. We’re part of that universe, powered by the same atoms and waves. That universe is physical, measurable, predictable—but we don’t experience it. We take in the universe with our senses, which are limited and idiosyncratic, and we are further limited simply because we can’t be everywhere at once.
Given our limited grasp of the universe, it might seem that the human experience is impoverished. But our experience is not that way at all. Human experience is built like scaffolding over the objective universe. As Kafka said, a person can only regard the universe “through the narrow keyhole of one’s own personal experience. But through it once perceives more than one can see.” We fill in the gaps, we find patterns. What it comes down to is this: If we see two points, we cannot help but draw a line between them. We assemble the nighttime stars into images and construct stories around them. We make worlds. Many, overlapping worlds, and we share them.
One of my worlds is the world of ultrarunning. It is characterized by, in the words of ultrarunner and author Bryon Powell, relentless forward progress. Physically, in a race, to reach the finish line, yes. But it’s more than just that. Moving the body forward in space connotes constantly confronting bigger challenges in life. In running we pit ourselves against these challenges intentionally — longer distances, tougher courses, more turbulent climbs and climates. They prepare us to face the challenges we do not choose, brought on by life itself — deadlines, falling-outs, illness, death. To meet these challenges, ultrarunners value perseverance in the utmost.
Overcoming challenges, ultrarunners cultivate a relationship to existence that could be called integrity. Today we think that word means something like honesty, but in its origin it was closer to the idea of wholeness — a consistency between intention and action, a continuity between self and world. Indeed, when completing a course, the ultrarunner tends not to distinguish their own self from the act of running or the outside world; rather, the ultrarunner transcends the act of running and tries to merge with nature. Even the word nature becomes meaningless, for nature is everything and the runner is part of it, just like a leaf or a bird. This state of mind has been termed “Absolute Unitary Being,” the apprehension of the inseparable oneness of everything, which characterizes mystical experience in many spiritual traditions. No surprise, then, that many ultrarunners describe running as not only therapeutic, but spiritual.
The integrity of ultrarunning extends not only between the runner and the material world, but between and among other runners. As we share struggles, we share stories. And as we are all part of the same thing, the differences among us disappear. We enter a state of intrinsic motivation, friendship and selflessness. Even when we run “alone,” we are not running alone. In this way, it becomes a world.
When Worlds Collide
People who don’t approach running in this way don’t seem to understand ultrarunning. Even as it becomes more mainstream, when I tell people about my hobby, I am mostly met with confusion. “Why would you do that? I don’t even like to drive that far.”
What is so weird about ultrarunning? It’s not just the running part. Races up to the marathon distance have exploded in popularity since the 1970s. In the media, finishers of races of marathon length and shorter are touted as heroes with extreme courage and grit. These qualities are all the more salient in ultrarunners, and yet ultrarunners are more often described by those outside the sport as more obsessed rather than heroic. Marathoners hear, “That’s so amazing that you did that!” Ultrarunners hear, “What is wrong with you?”
It’s a two-way street. Just as the activity of ultrarunning is incomprehensible to non-ultrarunners, the activities of normal society are incomprehensible to ultrarunners. I noticed this in myself after I ran my first 50-mile race, and it was strengthened with my first 100. Ever since my ultrarunning induction, I’ve spent my time differently. I care less about things that used to occupy me, and I care more about things I once took for granted.
To explore why this happens, we can look to the research on flow. This concept was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s to describe certain kinds of intrinsically-rewarding activities. In his first book on flow, Csikszentmihalyi writes:
In the flow state, action follows upon action according to an internal logic that seems to need no conscious intervention by the actor. … There is little distinction between self and environment, between stimulus and response, or between past, present, and future.
Csikszentmihalyi suggests that a person is likely to experience flow if the challenges presented by a task are matched to the person’s skill level — it’s not so difficult that it creates anxiety, and it’s not so easy that it creates boredom. Ultrarunning, surely, fits the bill. Even if an ultrarunner is not in this idyllic state for the entirety of a race, there are undoubtedly stretches in which the runner dips into flow. In my experience, the longer the event, the more flow.
One important element of flow is what Csikszentmihalyi calls the narrowing of consciousness. In everyday life, we only register the stimuli that are relevant to the task at hand. During flow, what is considered “relevant” becomes much more limited. When I am running, the concerns of my non-running life do not occur to me. All that seems to matter, at any given moment, is my next footfall. My eyes are trained on the trail ahead, registering rocks and roots, scanning the incline. If I am lucky enough to be in the company of another runner, we’ll probably share a conversation — part of the overall flow experience — punctuated by stretches of silence when the terrain demands it. When running, my consciousness is limited to the world of running. Everything else, for me, doesn’t exist.
Because flow in ultrarunning can be extended for twenty hours or more, in which the ultrarunner is, in Csikszentmihalyi’s phrasing, “in harmony with the world,” the exit is jarring. When running ends, the world of running collides with other worlds. The sphere of consciousness expands once again. The harmony partly evaporates.
This is what I find so difficult in the aftermath of every ultramarathon I run. After spending so much time in the narrow consciousness of running, it’s hard — rending — to let the business of everyday life back into my mind. After running the Zion 100 Mile last year, for instance, I was swamped with editing and formatting manuscripts, meeting with professors and managing the politics of my dissertation committee. It was hard not to look at these activities as wastes of time and energy, considering what I’d just experienced.
I had spent 26 hours in the Utah desert. I endured blistering heat and torrential downpour. I passed through headaches and nausea. I climbed and descended mesa after mesa. I pissed off a cliff. I pounded on undulating spacerock. In the night, I walked among the stars. I struggled to find my way in the desert, the trail obscured by pockmarks of sagebrush. I slipped in the mud and fell and fell and fell. I stopped at each aid station and wondered if I could really manage to keep going. I had a cramp once that brought me to the ground, forcing me to massage my legs and beg for mercy. As tired as I got, I kept moving forward, trying to remain unperturbed by my progressive slowing. In all this, I thrived. I was in harmony with the world. The experience taught me that I didn’t need much to thrive — all I needed, it seemed to say, was running. And so it is unsurprising that, when I came back to Philadelphia, I couldn’t get myself to find interest in the things other people took so seriously.
Slowly, after each race, the aftermath settles. After my first 100, it took two weeks, during which I felt a dissatisfaction with life that only lifted when I registered for my next race. After that one, it took a week. Then a few days. Though my “recovery” quickens with each race, I find that every time I go through it, a little more of the ultrarunning world stays with me. Permanently, now, I am beginning to see things differently. The collisions were sharp at first, but now they’re starting to smooth. I’m coming to occupy the world of ultrarunning at all times.