Friday, July 9, 2010

Why the Race?

Consider this—early man lived by his wits, skills, and to a large measure, luck.  Life spans were measured in years, not decades.  Survival was a moment to moment reality, certainly not something taken for granted.  Early man was on the edge virtually all the time.

But take modern man—virtually never on the edge, almost never called on to perform at 100% intensity.  In a sense, we've grown soft, but this is an observation, not necessarily an indictment. As an example, just think about your job.  If you're like me, I frequently work hard but almost never with absolute, total intensity and concentration. We now seem to get our living and our intensity largely vicariously.

Here's an important question: when was the last time you were totally concentrated, absorbed, focused, going to the limit?  Unless you are, say, a performing actor or musician, you probably do not absolutely reach that state.  And this question is more than merely rhetorical. The answer to this question can define a person, can be one of those "either/or" issues that separate humankind into two camps: those who know the perils and pleasures of what it's like at the edge, and those who don't.

Running—racing—is my way (and I've recognized it's perhaps my only way) to go to the edge and beyond, to perform something with total abandon, intensity, and concentration.  The last time in my life that I totally abandoned myself to anything was at the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Race this spring, in which I realized that at the halfway point, I had run 10:05 for 50 miles, and a sub-24 was possible.  So over the next 50 miles, over the next 12+ hours, I strove to maintain my pace and not slack off. 

My world shrank to encompass only me, the trail, and that next runner ahead of me. The race became total concentration, my whole life's drama being played out on that brief stretch of trail. The start of the last 12.5 mile loop came and I continued to press, more than I needed, almost gliding now as my concentration and effort became pure distillation of that primal urge for survival, for I had entered that strange world where pleasure and pain are the same. I found that the masochist is not a pervert, he is merely an extension of ourselves. In the process of the race I discovered a little bit more of who I am.

I both dread and love that feeling; I approach the race with fear and avoidance, attraction and longing. Race day brings alternate feelings of both dread and excitement. Am I capable of holding this pace that I desire? In a more esoteric sense, am I worthy enough to put myself on the line both mentally and physically?

So why even go to this mystical edge?  I'm not a psychiatrist but I feel that it's important for one's mental health to experience the full range of one's psyche. And why the race? Simply put, most of us won't push enough in training to get to the limit; the race is the most convenient means to get to that level of intensity and thereby open up your mind.

This post is simply a plug for using the vehicle of a race to go to a place deep within yourself, a place on the edge where the vast mass of humanity never goes, and sadly, never even suspects is there. And so the measure of success in a race is not necessarily the time showing on the clock, or the distance run, the position placed, the medals, the ribbons, the certificates, or the camaraderie, fine as all those things may be.

No, the true measure of success in a race is whether you did your best, and in giving your best, did you somehow approach that edge?  Did you flirt with that shadowy realm of total intensity, where vicariousness was abandoned for immersion?  Did you somehow sense that survival is not merely an abstract concept rendered quaintly obsolete by the veneer of civilization?

If you get close enough to sense that edge, then you have in fact succeeded.

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