Heidegger remarked of a Van Gogh painting of an old pair of shoes that it “restored the world to thinghood”: by dehabituating ordinary objects from the default mode of perception in which we respond to the world automatically, art induces a state of awareness in which the essence of Being is unveiled. Long distance trail running has a similar effect. So it was with some such hope of perspectival restoration that I jogged easily amidst a line of 300 or so fellow ultrarunners down the dusty dark trail out of the parking lot at the start of the 2015 Wasatch Front One Hundred Mile Endurance Run. It was ten days after the end of an emotionally turbulent year as a predoctoral clinical psychology intern: a year immersed in stress in sadness and therapeutic transformation, marked at its beginning by the murder of a young man in my neighborhood and then my encounter with his grieving friend who became my therapy client. The memory of this lost boy, the life denied him, of the boy’s virtual ongoing presence in my patient’s dreams and our dialogue about them were still resonant in my heart and mind, yielding a sense of something ending and something yet to begin, of loss yet renewal, as I embarked on a day or more’s immersion in the mountains, accountable to nobody and nothing except myself, this unambiguously tangible athletic goal of magnificent absurdity, the simple act of moving forward on the earth, footfall upon footfall, breath after breath, establishing a rhythm that itself acquired its own form of agency, as if it were not me the runner that created the rhythm but the other way around, a freedom of movement and thought propelled by a pair of shoes that promised to restore the world to thinghood. For an experience that felt so big at the time — 31 hours of running up and down 9,000 foot mountains — it is perplexing in the aftermath to discover that what feels communicable in a narrative of that ostensible enormity is a list of truisms that would not be out of reach to a second grader. The world is beautiful. I love my family and friends. Life is precious and ephemeral (perhaps a second grader might write “short”). But in the thin air and good vibes of a long mountain ultra such insights, however rudimentary, get ratcheted up several notches of intensity. It was like the time I heard a love song that I had heard before, Whitesnake’s “Is this love?”, at a time when I was madly in love, and suddenly felt that the lyrics expressed the truth of love in such a profound way that I was amazed I hadn’t appreciated Whitesnake more before, as a result of which I committed myself to thoroughly investigating Whitesnake’s back catalogue and pledging to overcome the irrational biases that hitherto blinded me from appreciating classic rock ballads as an art form no less deserving of respect and scrutiny than supposedly more serious genres, and even feeling somewhat guilty in hindsight for aesthetically privileging Van Gogh over, say, Van Halen.
I was in good shape for this one, my fourth attempt at the hundred mile distance: several long runs earlier in the year, including a 44 mile Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim run in March, the Miwok 100km in May, high altitude exposure in the San Juans and eastern Sierra in July, heat training on the Tahoe Rim Trail in August, and some weeks of higher volume and hill intervals and speed work throughout the summer, had in synthesis delivered a body and mind that approaching race day felt good to go. A sense of calm was reinforced by the relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere at the pre-race meeting in a public park in downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday, distinguished by a couple of remarks from the race director seemingly satirizing the culture of similar pre-race addresses at other increasingly oversubscribed hundred mile events. “We like to acknowledge all the faster runners here at Wasatch….” he said, in a sentence trailing comically into silence without, in fact, naming any elite runners. Then he said, “We also like to thank all our sponsors…thanks very much,” without naming any specific sponsor. The warm welcome of my friends and Salt Lake City residents who would be pacing me, Ben Lewis and Bethany Lewis, consolidated the relaxed, vacation vibe that sustained through the night and even a 2:45am alarm and Bethany’s generous offer to drive me to the pre-dawn start at the foot of the Wasatch Front range.
Happiness Writes Like Whitesnake
The early 20th Century French essayist and novelist Henri de Montherlant may have had ultramarathons presciently in mind when he wrote “happiness writes in white ink on white pages”: in transforming the experience of feeling blissed-out for hours on beautiful mountain trails a sunrise into writing, the bliss and beauty’s lack of conflict, adversity or tension — the absence of the structural qualities that are the necessary conditions even of a story as straightforward as The Little Engine That Could — ends up, post-translation, leaving out precisely the central experiences that makes these running adventures compelling. Euphoria’s intrinsic unwritability may indeed be the expressive barrier that inclines many written accounts of endurance events by default to articulate those aspects of the experience that are at least marginally adverse (e.g. tight calves) or conflictual (e.g. finishing times): a foregrounding of hype and hyponatremia to make up for hyponarrativity. A neutral observer reading such narratives might legitimately feel perplexed by the ultrarunner’s voluntary commitment to an endeavor of such functional futility if its distinguishing feature is masochism: a “deliberate step backwards to create an object”, in Philip Larkin’s words. As my Latina friend Lorena Pena asked me via Facebook, in response to my brief post-race note emphasizing sore feet and sleep deprivation, “Maybe I’m gonna sound really ignorant but I don’t get it. Not being judgmental at all just kinda scratching my head. Mexicans and other immigrants/refugees, will brave the desert, the ocean and whatever physical hardships they have to endure, but there is the promised land to get to. It’s functional and there is a tangible purpose and a goal in mind. What drives you to take on something like this? I’m really asking.” It was an excellent question, to which my answer was that blisters were a possible side effect of an adventure that’s essentially blissful — to which Lorena replied: “Bliss. That’s the opposite end of the pain/suffering spectrum that inspires/drives humans to act. All humans want to escape pain and experience bliss. I get it” — despite which understanding I’m aware that the feeling of bliss itself still trails off in white ink. So…close your eyes and remember something blissful, in as much sensorial immediacy as you can muster. Project that sense memory here _______________ That’s the best I can do. Dusty trails illuminated under headlamps, a few random chats with fellow runners, a long hike up to 9,000 feet and then miles of ridgeline single track: see, the flashbulb images miss the____________ Happiness writes like Whitesnake.
Yes, I’m Changing
After a long slow hike stuck behind slower runners on steep single track the field spaced out, and as the sun rose I briefly plugged in my earbuds. I hit play on Yes I’m Changing by Tame Impala. The song was so beautiful, somehow happy and sad at once, an enveloping ambience of happysadness which seemed the only possible anthem quite appropriate for the mood instilled by midmorning golden light, the autumn colors of the trees, the personal milestone I’d just passed finishing my intern year, a grateful acknowledgment of the years of emotional adversity and transformation that originally inspired my decision to become a psychologist, the death of my client’s best friend, the continuity of his spirit in my client’s mind and my own, my client’s recovery from grief, the stunning fact of sheer aliveness and freedom in my movement down the trail. They say people never change/ But that’s bullshit/ They do.
By midmorning it got hot, somewhere in the 80s, and there was a stretch between miles 28 and 34 where I ran out of water, felt my mouth and lips dry and then the onset of mild panic — a feeling, however, soon restrained by the rational acknowledgment that I was not in fact adrift in the mountains solo, and thus not at any risk of death by dehydration; that I could simply ask another runner for a few sips if he had any spare, which one fellow in an orange shirt kindly did, the consequent realization of non-isolation, my vulnerability, the finitude to which all human flesh is heir, striking me at the time as poignantly profound, as if the realization it is okay to ask for help were a mantra intoned by no less than Master Yoda: to ask for help okay it is.
Going on Forever
Reaching the Swallow Rocks aid station at mile 34 I rehydrated, cooled off, sat briefly in the shade of a small tarp to stretch out my hamstrings, and soon set off to Big Mountain at mile 39, where Bethany met me with her daughter Ada. Seeing them yielded an immediate mental boost. Taking quick inventory of my physical needs, I was aware of a hot spot in my right mid-foot. I lubed up my foot, and set off on into the heat of the day for a long stretch before the race’s mid-point, during which I felt a sudden squelchy detonation where I’d previously noticed the emergent blister on my right foot, accompanied by a momentary spike of localized pain — and then nothing. At the race mid-point, Bethany met me again this time joined by Ben as well as their daughter Ada again. I had learned that Ada is a fan of the Oscar & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma — a show not unfamiliar to me, having performed in the star role as Curly McClain aged fourteen in an amateur production at King Edward VIth secondary school in Southampton, England, almost three decades ago — so while Ben dowsed me with cold water, I joined Ada and Bethany singing The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, the moment echoing backwards through time to 1985 and my earnest attempt at an American accent as Curly, the nervous excitement of the lead role, the imaginative metamorphosis of a small patch of Thatcher’s England into a rickety imitation of an ersatz Broadway reimagination of frontier territory, the memory of a copy of a copy of a copy, yet within that past a vision too of the future — the self projected by 1985 me as the possibilities of eventual adulthood — and at once the acknowledgment that this present was, in fact, the manifestation of that very adulthood that once seemed so remote: a convergence of two selves, one present and one past, selves singing the same show tune but otherwise so mutually distinct. Don’t you wish you’d go on forever/ And you’d never stop?/ In that shiny little surrey with the fringe on the top. The race, however, was not something I wished would go on forever — another fifty miles seemed really quite adequate — so with my friends’ encouragement, I wolfed down some chips and coke, performed a short series of yoga stretches in the dirt, and headed out with Bethany from Lamb’s Trail into the course’s second half.
Soon we were in the twilight shade: after twelve hours of heat stress and introspection, my lowered core temperature and Bethany’s good company catalyzed a lucid mental state and legs still fresh for solid power hiking up the steeper trails and easy jogging elsewhere. We sustained a deep conversation free associating between family, medicine, running, politics and culture in the periphery of which loomed aspen groves, some uphill sections, the sunset and then nightfall, seven hours slipping by and the end of Bethany’s pacing section at mile 75 seemingly soon upon us, until painful blisters in both mid-feet slowed me for around the last hour. Reaching the Brighton ski lodge at mile 75, our original plan had been to get me back on the trail efficiently (to avoid succumbing to the long rest that Wasatch veterans observe often risks becomes an even longer rest, and an eventual exit from the race), but my aching feet commanded a change of plan. A member of the race staff’s medical personnel called Mark then fortuitously appeared. His tone was striking in its warmth and kindness, his demeanor almost contemplative. If instead of having blisters after 75 miles of running I was in hospice with stage four cancer, a man like Mark is who I’d want around. For the next forty minutes I surrendered to Mark’s compassionate podiatry, while Ben stood by with well-regulated eagerness to get us on our way. I hobbled out of Brighton around four in the morning.
The One Who is Already Completely Free
For the next few hours my feet stopped being sore and my mind stayed surprisingly sharp. In my past hundred milers the night has reduced me to an undead shuffle when the need for sleep kicks in after twenty plus hours of exercise, but this time I felt oddly chipper. My second long and deep free associative dialogue of the night the unfolded, encompassing ultras, family, psychiatry, psychology, and philosophy. A day earlier Ben had told me about the Big Mind process, a form of therapeutic dialogue integrating Zen and gestalt psychology, in which participants articulate aspects of themselves from a third person perspective, such as the One Who Cares, or the One Who Does Not Care, or the One Who is Already Completely Free. Over the course’s final quarter as my foot blister pain remerged and then intensified and then sleep deprivation finally did catch up with me around 5:30am, several such third person voices variously assumed a leadership role in my awareness: The One Whose Feet Hurt, the One Who Will Finish No Matter What, the One Grateful For The Company Of My Friend and Pacer.
Climbing Mount Analogue
The French poet Rene Daumal recounts, in his great unfinished metaphysical novella Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidean and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures (1952), the quest by a motley band of adventurers — a linguist, poet, a journalist, a painter, a mountaineer, two acrobat brothers, an actress, a ladies tailor, and their expedition leader Father Sogol — for a hidden giant peak, the eponymous Mt. Analogue, a sacred formation connecting the terrestrial and divine levels of reality in the manner of Moses’ Mt. Sinai or Hinduism’s Mt. Meru, defined by its “inaccessibility by ordinary human means”, a summit attainable only through a process of self-transformative insight. Daumal was preoccupied for much of his life with the possibility of a realm of existence beyond death, engaging in experiments with anesthetics, occultism, and extreme acts of asceticism inspired by his encounter with the cryptic Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, in a wish to penetrate this hidden realm beyond. If Daumal were alive today I imagine he might have have run the Wasatch Front 100. I suspect the motivation for many of us drawn to long wilderness adventures like hundred milers may derive from a wish to seek our own personal Mount Analogues, an opportunity to turn inward in the act of outward movement, illuminating the self in a more basic form, attaining a sense in overcoming physical duress of enhanced competency that not only instills greater confidence in the return to ordinary life but also, likely unconsciously — in running all night and moving through exhaustion to renewal at sunrise – enacts a ritual of death transcendence, a way through extreme fatigue of simulating the onset of the dying process stimulating in microcosm of the intense autobiographical self-review that reportedly often occurs close to death, with the paradoxical yet welcome bonus at the finish line of not actually being dead. This pseudo-resurrection’s unconsciously desired outcome is perhaps a brief reprieve from death anxiety. In the darkness and disorientation of the race’s late stages, there was something about our march up the dark trail, a landscape which outside the circular illumination of our headlamps had now become invisible, that shifted the experience into a mode of haunting mystery, the wan faces of depleted fellow runners spectral in my headlamp’s illumination like the skeletal calaveras faces in San Francisco’s Dia de los Muertos procession. After sitting briefly to drink miso soup at Ant Knolls (mile 79) I felt suddenly woozy and fatigued. I got moving up the last major ascent, my pace slowing even as an orange line on a distant ridge augured imminent dawn. “I feel quite strange,” I said. For a moment I even thought there might be something wrong with my heart. How useful in a suspected cardiac emergency it was to have a physician for a pacer: Ben Lewis, MD, took my pulse. “120 bpm with regular heartbeats,” he said. I felt reassured, but still weird. “If you ride this out, eventually it will pass,” Ben said – which was exactly the right thing to say, even if, Ben told me later, he didn’t necessarily know for sure at the time whether this bad feeling would in end, or get worse, and compel me to quit. Fortunately, that nuance did not occur to me; I simply trusted Ben’s seemingly total confidence in the possibility of my riding out the bad patch, and indeed soon the sun came up again and the light and warmth revived me. Day was unambiguously day. I had survived the night and the sun had returned for us: an unsurpassable dawn, the finish only ten miles away now, a wondrous land in which everything felt possible and there was nothing at all to fear, not even dying, where the whole world was new again except my battered shoes.