Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Compulsion, Why I Run

I’ve been completely obsessed lately with the Indie-Rock band “Typhoon” ever since I heard an Interview of the lead singer on NPR, Kyle Morton, where he talked about writing songs dealing with a difficult childhood plagued by illness and coming to grips with the person he is and not what he thought he might become.  Kyle Morton’s story and songs were something that I could identify with and may partially explain the compulsion I have towards running Ultras.  Not to get too personal here, but I had an isolating, difficult, and stressful childhood myself for various reasons that still troubles me to this day, because of this I grew up very introverted and retreated from my life whenever I could into the world of Comic books, novels, games, and movies and television on Fantasy and Science Fiction; there I could escape and aspire to be someone greater.  Life is not a fantasy however, we don’t all get to play the Hero, sometimes you just feel like one of those nameless arrow fodder in those big battle scenes being played out in Lord of the Rings. 

“I found that getting sick, it obliterated any sense of these kind of monumental truths that I had as a kid, that I would grow up and that I would be strong and tall. And that's something, I mean, just on a personal level, I've been trying to come to terms with. Still, sort of this regret or this feeling of loss over a person I never became. And so that's, I mean, that's the only thing I find worthwhile to write about, because not only is it important to me, I think it's a feeling a lot of people can relate to, a sense of wanting to be something and not being able to achieve it.” 

Coming out of college, where I more or less went because I couldn’t figure what else I was supposed to do, I couldn’t find a job right away in my field (being a shy introvert during job interviews was difficult...) and suddenly, after 4-5 years of getting headaches nearly every day studying for one pointless exam after another, I found myself working the nightshift to pay off all the bills, loans, and other debt that had been rapidly accumulating.  To say I was disillusioned with my predicament would’ve been an understatement, and I feel absolutely terrible for all the recent College students that just so happened to graduate during the worst recession since the Great Depression during the past 4-5 years, and now can’t find any meaningful work to pay off their burdensome student loans, and having to put their lives on hold because of it.  I’ve been there, it’s a deep anxiety riddled hole to be stuck in, with more dirt, mud, and shit shoveled onto you every day in the form of ever deepening shame and of debt and interest payments that seem impossible to ever pay off. 

To get through this dark period of my life, I sought to escape reality whenever I could, and developed an addiction many would consider more dangerous than any drug...World of Warcraft.  Outside of this game, my life was a stagnant mess, inside of it, I could be a powerful Warrior going on epic adventures to explore ancient Dungeons and slaying fearsome Dragons; the dichotomy between the two realities couldn’t have been more different.  Like all illusions though, they’re bound to shatter, and after several messy years of working the Nightshift, going back to college off and on again to get an Accounting Degree because I didn’t know what else to do, and trying to stop playing World of Warcraft, I had finally landed a decent job where I could start paying off a mountain of debt and move out of the Folk’s home.

While being a decent job and all, it was still a terribly boring and unfulfilling office job where I dreaded coming in every morning, and wanted to stab myself with a fork at the end of each day from the tedium.  To deal with the stress and the Groundhog Day like aspect of my job, I started running again after several years of hiatus, and partly to get back in shape.  Like I wrote in the Bio section of this Blog, I ran a lot as a Teenager to deal with all the stresses of growing up, I ran to the point of constant dehydration, aching pain, and deliriousness from exhaustion, “Running Myself into a Coma” is not just a clever blog title I made up, it was what I actively sought while running; the closest to passing out I could get during my run, the closer I would come to reaching the state of absolute peace and Nirvana.  I sought this inner peace again while working at that job (switched jobs in the past few years to a better, but still boring office job) and started running again; seeking to become a better runner, I eventually came across the book “Born to Run”, became inspired like never before from it, and have been training for Marathons and Ultras ever since.

I discovered I was born to run Trails and Ultras, the sport combines so many aspects of myself that it almost seemed tailored made for me.  Ultras have the extreme distances that’s able to bring me to utter exhaustion, physical breakdown, and peace that I desperately seek, as a Nature loving Hippie it allows me to explore and feel connected to the beautiful outdoors like never before, it allows this still rather introverted creature to seek out social interaction while still being able to enjoy the feeling of isolation of running through the woods by myself, and most of all, running Ultras can seem like those epic tales of adventure I would get lost in while reading books or playing games, especially 100 milers.  I also discovered I have the OCD mindset in order to be successful at Ultras.

Training for Ultras is like grinding (mindlessly killing weak monsters) for experience points to level up your character in World of Warcraft, while running Ultras are those epic dungeon adventures that puts all your training and skills to the test.  Surviving these dungeons meant that your character is now strong enough to take on even greater challenges, and like Ultras, there’s always something more difficult to test yourself against; the journey to create a stronger character is never over, and it’s utterly addictive.  The process of training for Ultras is probably difficult for even the casual runner to find appealing, such as running 50, 60 or miles per week, running the same trails and roads, and up and down that same hill over and over and over again is comparable to a Hamster running endlessly on their wheel.  I, however, looked upon it as making my character, now myself, ever stronger to be able to take on the newest challenges standing in my way, being able to finish an Ultra was the reward for all that hard work done in training; I also find repetitive training to be rather meditative, as most Runners probably do.

Over the past couple of years, I became completely obsessed with Trails and Ultra’s, having done 17 so far and 5 other trail races of a Marathon distance and under.  Was I just trading one old addiction (gaming) for another in the form of running and competing in Ultras?  There had to be some deeper compulsion driving me towards ever further and more difficult Ultras, constantly risking injuries by running along the knife’s edge of over training and running on increasingly dangerous and technical trails.  When I discovered the band “Typhoon”, their songs just hit me like a ton of bricks, and everything made sense, I was running so much Ultras partly to make up for the many years I lost as a disillusioned youth.  

Lyrics from “Young Fathers”:

“When you're young you're hot
You have your whole life before you
Everyone will adore
You'll grow up, you'll be an astronaut
Or anything you want

What goes up, goes up in flames
And now your choices surround you
And decision confounds you
And you're pacing around the place
Shows you everything you're not”

Lyrics from “Common Sentiments”:

  “As a child I aspired to be a superhero
Now I live with the corpses for the lives I let go
Well I know you all know how these things start to show

I've been trying to make myself better
So I can fare the fare foul weather
I write a song like a prison letter
I write a song maybe to make me feel better
It won't break free my fetters
Singing, "When am I gonna feel better?
I said when am I gonna feel better?
I said when am I gonna feel better?
I have been patient for a long time now
I've been a patient for a long time now
I've been the patient for a long time now
I've been the patient for a long time now
And I will never be a younger man now"

Typhoon’s songs and the interview earlier of Kyle Morton was deeply moving to me, I’m still coming to grips with the person that I wasn’t able to become when I pictured myself as a child, and through running Ultras I’ve been trying to make myself a better, stronger, and more confident person; to be the brave adventurer I was never able to become.  There was a great article on after this year’s Western States was completed, it talked about the healing process people can go through over the course of an Ultra.  While I don’t necessarily believe everyone running Ultras is doing it to fight back against their demons, I genuinely enjoy just running them, everyone has their own reasons for why they do it. 

“As ultrarunners, we are indeed healing from something. But everyone is. With running, we join together and we heal. We join together with our goals and are then more likely to accomplish them. The healing deepens. We join together with our goals and accomplishments in natural spaces, and we further the healing process. It is in this shared practice that we find identity and self worth as humans capable of achieving the seemingly unachievable. At the 2013 Western States 100, I witnessed just that—a tightly bound community joined together in celebration, a brave pod of wilderness stewards committed to goals, to pushing their edge, and to healing in the healthiest of ways.”

After DNF’ing at Cactus Rose 100 this year, I realized I needed to be more mindful of my approach to running Ultras; I just plainly over did it, entering 11 Ultras this year and that’s with spending a good several months of being injured after completing Rocky Raccoon 100 in the beginning of the year.  With my sights and wanderlust increasingly pointing towards much more difficult races in the Mountains, I’m only going to enter in a few key races next year, and focus most of my energy on the endless grind of training up the base needed to meet those challenges.  While I’m not quite ready to commit, out of a healthy dose of fear of the Mountains, my biggest goal of next year is the Bryce Canyon 100 Mile Ultra held in June; with 19K ft of elevation gain/loss and running in Altitudes up to 9.5K ft, there’s still much I have to do to work up the nerve to commit to such a monster.   I long to experience the restorative powers of the Mountains though, and will be lining up my schedule to make finishing Bryce 100 a possibility; starting with Bandera 100K in January where I’m hoping to go sub 16 for the Western States qualifier, then my first real taste of the Mountains in Arkansas at the Run LOViT 100K in February, afterwards I hope to recover fast enough to run one of the most beautiful trails in North Texas at the Possum Kingdom 52 Mile in April, and finally Bryce 100 in June.

- Touring alongside the Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon

If I’m not completely wrecked from my first Mountain Hundred, I also hope to have another crack at Cactus Rose 100 next year, I have to finish what I started there.  One last video to close out this post and 2013, it’s of a great monologue, set against beautiful footage of trails, on how Ultra’s can leave us vulnerable to emotions we normally repress, this guy’s voice can seriously get inside your head.

“It's exhausting work exploring the depths of our darkest emotions. When they're freshest, thoughts smash around our skulls like possessed plant equipment. We feel like there's a broken record playing up there, our thoughts playing some sick game of psycho-somatic Hide and Seek with our clenched and twisted guts. Coming out of an Ultra, it's safe to say we're fatigued. The exhaustion lingering from the event washes away our self-defences and this conscious scraping-back of the Soul further erodes our reserves allowing unbidden thoughts and feelings to threaten the already threadbare fabric of our sanity.”


  1. I ran with a couple of people for a while during Cactus Rose. One was a man in his 60s, the other a guy younger than I am, maybe mid 30s. The older man was an experienced trail and ultra runner and entertained the other runner and I was with his stories and wisdom. The most memorable moment tho, was when he said "All trail and ultra runners are either Buddhists or recovering addicts". In the silence that followed, I think both the other runner and I were wondering which the other was: Buddhist or addict.

    1. Well, I'm sorta Buddhist (born into it, more agnostic these days) and a recovering WoW addict, haha.