Recently I’ve been reading Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. It’s an entertaining and fascinating book about people who run obscenely long distances, including the Tarahumara, a Native American tribe in Mexico who run for days on mountain trails in flimsy sandals, fueled only by corn beer and chia seeds.
To me, a 26.2-mile marathon seems like torture enough, but ultramarathoner run twice or even three times that, often in much more challenging conditions than a simple road race. In Leadville, for example, racers run up and down steep mountain trails by flashlight, climbing roughly 3500 feet over the 100-mile course. And the Badwater race, known as “the world’s toughest race” is a 135-mile trek through Death Valley, beginning at 282 feet below sea level and ending at 8,360 feet above sea level. It takes place in mid-July when temperatures are over 120 degrees, and racers have to run on the white lines of the road to keep the pavement from melting their sneakers.
Ultramarathoners aren’t the only ones testing their endurance limits. Diana Nyad just completed her Cuba-to-Florida journey, swimming 110 miles in 53 hours through shark- and jellyfish-infested waters. And let’s not forget the Race Across America in which nutters bicycle 23-hours a day the 3000 miles from west coast to east, often duct taping their bike helmets to their necks when the muscles holding up their heads give out. (There’s a fascinating Radiolab podcast in which I learned about this race.)
Reading about Diana Nyad and these ultramarathoners fascinates and confuses me. Are they insane? Why do they do it? How do they do it? I can barely make it two miles around the track at Greenlake before I give up and start walking.
“I just don’t think I could ever do a marathon,” I said to Paul yesterday. “I mean, I know I could, technically.” (McDougall’s book is filled with reasons why the human body is actually a marathon-machine, built for running, and it’s only our brains and our sneakers that hold us back.)
“Yeah, you definitely could, if you trained for it,” Paul said. He ran a half-marathon last year and had just decided to start training for another one.
“But I just don’t ever think I could find enough motivation to do the training,” I said. “Because that’s what it boils down to, right? Motivation.”
“So you don’t want to train for a half-marathon with me?” Paul asked.
“What would it take to make you do it?” he asked.
“I’ll take to you Teatro Zinzani,” he said, mentioning the expensive vaudeville dinner theater I love.
“Nah,” I said. “Not worth it.”
“I’ll take you to Italy.”
I weighed the week or two of fun in Italy against the misery of months of running. “Nah,” I said. “I just can’t think of anything that would motivate me to run that much. I mean, if someone was like, ‘Eva, if you don’t train for this marathon and run it, I’ll shoot you in the head,’ then yeah, I would do it. But otherwise, no.”
I felt weak and lazy admitting to this, but it was true. I give up too easy. I’m not an endurance type of person.
People are always telling me they like to run, and I just can’t understand it. Whenever I run, my lungs start to burn and my legs start to hurt, and I think how much better it would be to just walk, or better yet sit down and read. Runners mention the endorphins (I guess I’ve never run long enough to feel a runner’s high). They say they enjoy the feeling of stretching their legs, of feeling the wind in their hair. It’s not for me, I say. But I feel guilty. I always feel like I should try to get into running.
In Born to Run, McDougall writes about Scott Jergen and Jenn Shelton and other ultramarathoners who run with great big smiles on their faces. Not that they don’t have to do some hardcore, brainwashing-style motivation to push themselves through their grueling races, but there’s a part of them that just loves just putting their feet to the ground and taking off.
I look at all these runners and I feel bad about myself. They like running — I should, too. They find the motivation — why can’t I?
It wasn’t until today, when I was reading about Diana Nyad, that it hit me — not everyone is a marathon runner. Some people are marathon swimmers, or marathon bikers. And then there are those of us who like to test our endurance in different ways altogether.
I know people who routinely stay up all night reading so they can blow their way through an entire nine hundred page novel – book marathoners. The improv theater group at The College of William and Mary holds an annual Improvathon in which the members of the troupe must continuously perform improvised skits for twelve hours straight. And I once participated in an eight hour dance-a-thon, only taking two five minutes breaks from the dance floor all night.
Of course, there’s also the famous marathon writer, Jack Kerouac, who wrote On the Road in a mere three weeks, stopping only briefly every now and again for food and booze and sleep.
Aha! Writing. Maybe that’s my endurance sport. Because, if you think about it, isn’t endurance what a novel is all about? I train by writing short stories and blogs, but then I hit the ground running and try to pound out 100,000 words over the course of a couple months. I give myself recovery days, but most days I wake up and write for at least a few hours. It’s grueling work, and sometimes I really have to push myself when I’m feeling tired or frustrated, but when I hit my stride, I really enjoy it.
In fact, I recently passed the 300-page mark on the novel I’m currently working on, and I’m getting close to the climax of the story. In other words, I’m on the last leg, and it’s looking like I’ll reach the finish line. Maybe I give up on the track around Greenlake Park, but I’m not a quitter with something I have true motivation to finish. And why do I have motivation to finish my novel? Not because I think it will be a best-seller than makes me rich and famous. No. I want to finish it because writing is my thing. Just like running is Jenn Shelton’s thing. And swimming is Diana Nyad’s.
So it’s not that I’m weak and lazy. It’s just that running isn’t my endurance sport. And trying to force myself to be like other people just because I think I “should” doesn’t make for very good motivation. There needs to be something you intrinsically enjoy about the activity before you can try to marathon it. Because, in the end, it’s not guilty feelings or trips to Italy that provide motivation; it’s pure and simple joy.
A racer with a duct taped bicycle helmet from http://vannevar.blogspot.com/2012/01/bicycle-dreams-race-across-america-raam.html