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White Knuckles

Written By George Callahan

Apr 27, 2020

The blue sky turned grey, the concrete turned to ice, and our wandering eyes, exploring the Virginia mountainsides, turned to the road. The snow fell in clumps and the temperature dropped; the higher our four wheels drove, the whiter my sister’s knuckles became.

We passed the ski resort we’d be staying at and climbed higher and higher toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, America’s Favorite Drive, where packet pickup for the Bel Monte 50 waited in the silent, white trees.

A truck passed us on the two lane, precipitous road. Around a steep bend, we saw hazard lights flashing and vehicles pulled over.

Then our wheels spun, and the car slid backward.

Contrary to our general assumption, her SUV was not four-wheel drive.

“It wasn’t even supposed to snow.”

We were sliding, turning, and she was trying to keep it between the deep, snowy shoulder of the mountain and the hundreds-of-feet drop—impressive and wonderful before the snow—to our now right side. She managed to right her car facing down the mountain road and we slid, sometimes stopping, mostly going, always with white knuckles and teeth gritting.

“If you lose it, just steer into the shoulder,” I remember saying. “We don’t want to go that way.” I looked over the edge, an arm’s reach away.

I didn’t think we would make it down that long, steep, mountain road without a ruined trip. The snow was too heavy, the roads a slick slush over ice, and cars kept whirring past us, heading up the reluctant mountain.

A small inn, perched on the edge of the mountain, perhaps built just for those envious of AWD vehicles, saved our trip. We slid into the parking lot—wondering if we’d make it back up the short incline to the road—and waited.

We were less than a mile and two hairpin turns from our true destination (forgetting early packet pickup, by this point). We asked if the inn had a room, and they did. However, the owner told us, “When the plows come by, you should be alright.”

The plows did come, sooner than we expected, and we found our way to the relief of our Airbnb.

Perpetual Comfort

Technology has enthralled our minds with conditions. There need never be a moment of uncomfortable sensation in our lives. Deep libraries of music, movies, television, and books lay at our fingertips. Cars turn on from our frosted windows and their heated seats invite us in from the cold and rain. Medication can heal your smallest pains, or mental insecurities. Everything can be just so.

Even primitive elements of human life have become conditional: taking the elevator after leg day, or when you’ve got your steps in; sitting to read only when social media has run out of entertainment; conversing with like-minded people—or family—only when under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Is that not where humankind ought to head? That state of limitless access and conditional participation?

Shouldn’t we be toiling endlessly for perpetual comfort and enjoyment?

Shouldn’t we invent and create and innovate to make comfort accessible for everyone?

STAND AGAINST IT.

It’s a hard position to stand against, and this is not an appeal to live a life without joy, satisfaction, and pleasure (Though I would beg people to consider the sources of their joy, satisfaction, and pleasure). I don’t mean for you to take to the streets and protest technology, entertainment, or innovation.

It’s a personal stand, a personal step into rain and wind, snow and ice, and the dark forest.

The Stand

Life, though we try, cannot be tamed. The conditions, even as we work to keep everything in line, evolve rapidly.

When we sit near the fire of culture, that warm glow of light that keeps the monsters away, our smiles grow big. We smile and laugh and forget the dark forest around us, contrasting the flickering fire. Our legs and back weaken, our lungs breathe the soft flavored smoke of contentment, and our eyes grow weak. Soon, an orange glow is all we can see, blurred and gentle.

Don’t sit around that fire, weak and warm and eased into complacency, unaware of the monsters creeping about the forest. When they come—as they certainly will—the one who set his conditions, who lights a fire in the dark forest, drinks warm cider, and numbs himself to sensation, will be devoured. He will blindly cry and beg and be dragged away from that warm glow, deep into the black nighttime forest, unlikely to escape.

Stand against it.

Sink into the forest, away from the warm fire and the giggling fools captivated by it.

Find the monsters in the forest and cut them down with strong legs, study shoulders, and clear eyes. Breathe well, cold and alone, pained and fatigued.

This is the ultra marathon; it is the dark forest away from the fire of culture, the one that ropes people into blind smiles and vulnerable giggles.

Setting Conditions - ultra marathon blog post by Wicked Trail Running

Your Conditions

Give fear, white knuckles and heavy breaths, a place at your table. When you’re sliding down some icy mountain, afraid of failure and worried for your journey, remember why you started up the mountain to begin with. Acknowledge the monsters creeping about—ice and snow and the precarious cliff—and know that the conditions are not your own, and they never will be.

It is your responsibility to act unconditionally, and to proactively fail to set conditions. Keep the seat heaters off, leave your headphones at home, turn the TV off during that bike trainer session. Skip the beer, take the stairs, and start your day without any glance at social media—or technology (try one of these books, maybe).

Be Your Own Culture: it is with such ease that we fall into an addiction to conditions. It’s the direction of technology and innovation, and the money fueling these, for everything to be set to our desires and preferences.

Your favorite workout song, the one you start every set with, might lead to failure down the road. Your pre-run PB&J or coffee, those sweet and sharp fuels of routine, might be handcuffing you. Your average weekend, conditioned into cozy relief from work, might be drawing you into a life of mediocrity.

I know my preferences, and you know yours.

The Wicked Trail has her own; you’ll never know them, and you don’t need to. You’re there anyway: squatting under the barbell or climbing the mind-numbing switchbacks late in the race or pounding your feet over miles of pavement. You’re in the forest, running toward challenge and discomfort.

And you’re smiling because you’ve been there before. You’ve stepped into the dark trees every time you skipped dessert, turned the AC off, put the phone down, or held discomfort’s hand.

Isn’t this why we run ultra marathons? To stand against ease and accessibility, warmth and known conditions? To hold onto, with white knuckles, the distant finish line, hours and miles away?

You see the fire glowing in the distance and hear the soft song of culture. Keep running.

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