Sunday, February 5, 2017
A "controlled adventure" is an oxymoron.
After 5 years of running ultra-marathons I had forgotten this. Over the last few years, I had fallen into a comfortable pattern of laying out yearly schedules of ultra-running "adventures" that I knew I could finish.
I didn't do this consciously. Pressed on the point I would have denied it. These were 100s, after all, mountain races, all challenging enough. I knew I wouldn't escape any of them without suffering and challenge. Who says I'm taking it easy?
But the fear was gone. The unknown was gone--or rather, all the unknowns were known unknowns. Why drag them back in? I'm 52, for God's sake--why introduce yet another uncontrollable or chaotic element in my life?
Why not be satisfied with planned, periodic adventures which, after all, most people would consider extreme enough?
To break the circle, swerve
Ants are the supreme trail makers of the animal kingdom. One ant, stumbling blindly in a squiggly path, comes across some food. Other ants follow, trailing after the chemical scent. They follow a simple, binary message: this way, not that way. Each ant straightens the path a little more, strengthens the chemical signal. Soon there is an ant road, an ant highway, a network of trails connecting food sources.
On occasion, the perfect system defeats itself.
Rarely, a trail forms that begins where it ends--a circle. Ants fall into line, dutifully strengthening the circle ad infinitum, until it becomes an ant highway to nowhere. The ants will march until they are exhausted, or starve. In ant terms, they are acting rationally, following the signs: this way, not that way.
If you were to fall into a similar rut in your own brain--that other supreme maker of networks (and of ruts)--how would you know? How would you break out of a circle entirely composed of rational, tested decisions--of well-worn signs, all of them telling you this way, not that way?
You would have to do something quite irrational. You would have to do something that in the well worn logic of the circle didn't make any sense. You would have to swerve.
Photo courtesy of Candice Burt (race director for Bigfoot 200 and "High Priestess of 200s")
In 2010, I swerved sharply. I began running ultra-marathons. I made other "extreme" changes in my life at that time.
Seven years later, that one-time swerve had become a well-worn path.
I finally broke the circle (again) last December, signing up for the 2017 Bigfoot 200, an event that is truly way outside the horizons of anything comfortable for me. With 96000 feet of elevation gain, it's a point-to-point scenic tour of the Cascades. It's a continuous run, not a stage race. You keep going for multiple days (up to 4) until you are finished.
The distance doesn't frighten me as much as the climbs, altitude, unknown terrain, the challenge of not getting lost, solitude, wild animals, sleep deprivation, and so on. And those are just the "known unknowns." What else might I encounter?
Contemplating this effort has had a strange effect on me. As fear has seeped back in, so has my excitement. Photos and videos of the course take on a sharper edge. Maps of the course have a mystique about them, like maps of a lost kingdom.
Training has taken on a new urgency, too, well beyond my routine concern for health and fitness (another rut). Getting stronger is not just a nice thing to do--it's a matter of survival.
Just in time, one more time, I've swerved again. And it's reminded me of what I've forgotten. There is no adventure without fear. Ultra means beyond. More is different.