Humans instinctually amass resources. It’s hammered into our ancient DNA to acquire and protect. It’s hunger and thirst, wealth and ease; it’s each of these with a propensity to the stimulation of our mind’s reward—pleasure—centers. We’re pickers, choosers, and takers. We select the good, work for eventual perpetual relaxation, and along the way take materials that will get us there, or give us a taste of it.
Sometimes, though, against our deepest cries for normalcy, things turn bad. An easy example is the COVID-19 pandemic, but it isn’t always as obvious and widespread. It can be personal, familial, or within a community. Chaos doesn’t ask for the world’s attention; it only needs one person.
It dances about and laughs at whoever notices it, those pickers and choosers and takers who spent so much time creating their worlds of eventual relaxation. Their eyes try to blink away the tears, and still chaos circles and laughs and begs them: Why did you think to control it all? Who are YOU?
Control. It’s a human’s attempt to live with blinders on.
It’s a craving to experience that perpetual relaxation, to control the timing of chaos.
Let it come while I sleep.
Let it come after my career.
Let it come for them, over there.
When a picker or chooser or taker loses perceived control (he or she never had it, after all), when chaos dances about, snickering, compensation must be had. We scream at chaos: I did it all right. I picked the goal, chose the path, and took the resources that would get me there. Give me time! Give me space!
Compensation looks like entitlement. It is entitlement.
Struck down, bank account empty or health gone or love lost, we demand. We demand help from Time and Life; we become reliant on support and stimulation, tricking our brains into a false allegiance with hope.
It’s not real hope, though, because you never gave up picking and choosing and taking. You were struck down—unspecially—for your craving of perpetual relaxation. You wanted control of chaos and blinders to altruism.
The pickers and choosers and takers leave behind only the tangible waste of consumption and desire. They’ve put little thought into habits, lived inconsiderate of life (and it doesn’t take any effort to live inconsiderate of life), and ignored the songs of birds for screens and opinions.
If I had to elevate to prominence one gift ultrarunning has given me, it would be awareness of picking and choosing and taking. It’s the existence without thought and curiosity; overcoming it takes work, change, and time.
Hobbling along dark trails with other people—all traversing many miles with sore feet and tired eyes, all craving something more in the experience of their lives—I saw forfeiture of control as the path toward achievement. There was no picking which muscles would be sore, which toes would blister, and which aid stations would be out of my wants. I could not choose sunshine and warmth, smooth and flat. The ultra marathon, like chaos, does not yield to the runner’s demands. We cannot cry and ask for extra time, or space from discomfort; achievement demands only action and indifference to the despair of the trail.
It takes work, change, and time: I’ve DNF’d and thrown pity parties. I’ve succumbed to cold and fatigue. I’ve sat on the side of the trail, wishing it would end.
But I’ve also learned a great amount about thought and curiosity, consideration for life, and the songs of birds.
I now think deeply about purpose and its relation to the world, other people—like those other runners on the dark trails. Why do we run these races? [This might be why…]
I am curious now about other people, and myself. What habits, actions, and beliefs create an indomitable will capable of training for and succeeding in ultra marathon events? What of where I am now is holding me back, and what are my strengths in this arena? How does physical and mental endurance translate to the propagation of strength and character among other people, families and friends and coworkers?
I’ve always had an affinity for animals and wild things, but ultrarunning begged me: What is life? I looked around at the thousands of trees and plants and animals that gave a home to the fatigue and massive challenge of ultra marathons, and fell into alignment with preserving the outdoors, keeping the natural world as it is for the life it gives me, for the opportunity it provides to smile with tired eyes and blistered toes and shaky knees. My life, one of growth by the scalding fire of ultra endurance challenges, depends on the green planet we live on.
Thoughtfulness, curiosity, and an appreciation for life—mine and the moving and growing things around me—all come together when I hear birds sing. It’s especially prevalent just after a race director releases us runners from the starting corral. Their hums and whistles and loos have such variety and color I become curious of their origin; what sort of bird made that sound? As my mind listens to the sounds of the birds singing, and the trees and dirt coming to life, I find myself observing the forest, sensing its depth and complexity. A thoughtful quietness comes over the pack of runners; the smells and sounds of any dirt trail will induce reflection. The reflection turns to the adventure ahead; the miles and hours of winding and rooty and rocky trails unfold and come to pass, one mile or one hour at a time.
It took work, change, and time to get here, and I’m far from all the way there. There are dragons to slay, mountains to climb, and races to run. There are books to read, conversations to have, and habits to study.
Take control of your life—true control—by taking the blinders off. Acknowledge the decay that accompanies picking, choosing, and taking; identify your lifestyle choices and habits that leave that tangible waste of consumption and desire, and leave you vulnerable to chaos.
I’ve crossed some off my list.
Challenge yourself in the discomfort of your own ultra marathon. Move toward thoughtfulness and curiosity. Consider life, yours and the green and feathered and furry ones your journey depends on. Listen to those birds; they have a lot to sing about.
Find your Wicked Trail…