Sunday, July 10, 2011

Who Are Those Guys?

“I couldn't do that. Could you do that? Why can they do it? Who ARE those guys?”
Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy

The astonishing Race Across America bicycle event has ended for another year, with an impressively large  field of finishers:  28 solo men and 2 solo women (plus over 200 cyclists in relay teams). I find myself once again wondering: who are these people? What drives these extraordinary athletes who can go basically without sleep for 10 days and nights while remaining upright on a bicycle, all the time pedaling and moving forward. One fellow cycled for half the race while suffering from Schermer’s Neck, a condition that makes it impossible to hold your head upright. He had his bike helmet duct-taped to an aluminum frame mounted on his back to support his head so he could see where he was going.

This coming week 95 seasoned ultra athletes (the average age is 45 years old) will run the Badwater Ultra Marathon, a 135-mile footrace across Death Valley and up the side of Mount Whitney. The temperature at the start is forecast to be 117 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are a sun-worshipper, Badwater just might cure you forever.

Who are they, these humans that can accomplish such miracles? Are they even human? Do they put their running shorts on one leg at a time just like I do?

To an extent it is all relative; in the eyes of couch potato sprawled in front of his 47-inch flat screen with a bowl of chips balanced on his 48-inch stomach, the idea of running anywhere even for ten minutes is inconceivable. To many 10k runners, a marathon sounds superhuman. And to most marathoners, an Ironman would seem like the very limit of endurance. Yet over the past 30 years we have arrived at the point in our culture where thousands of ordinary people accomplish these distances every weekend.

This is not so for an ultra endurance event. Aside from national institutions like South Africa’s 89 kilometre Comrades Marathon, which attracts over twelve thousand runners every year, very few people attempt to run or bike more than conventional race distances.

What does it take to be an ultra athlete? To ride your bike for days on end, to run across deserts and up and down mountain trails, to travel under your own power through withering heat, rainstorms and vicious headwinds; to endure? I have read many thousands of words on the subject and I have yet to discover the answer.

One opinion I have heard likens ultra running to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; the seemingly endless repetitive plodding over hundreds of kilometres at a pedestrian pace can only be accomplished by someone who has lost his grip on reality somewhere along the road.

Marshall Ulrich, the legendary ultra runner has just published a book about his 53-day run across the United States. It seems like he was in pain from about mile 10 onward, and yet he ran every day until he finished. Maybe endurance is about enduring pain for longer than the average person.

On the other side of the coin, Gordy Ainsleigh, the very first finisher of the Western States 100 Endurance Race has spoken admiringly of a fellow ultra runner thus: “…his own rhythm is strong enough and his own joy is great enough the he’s able to win [the Western States] more than anyone else”. Is it an indefinable, unfillable capacity for joy that drives an ultra athlete?

In To the Edge, his memoir of completing the brutal Badwater Ultra, Kirk Johnson paints an excellent picture of what running nonstop for two days through Death Valley in July was like, but he doesn’t tell me how he did it; what pushed him to finish when many others did not. He had warm and supportive family members in his crew and I have no doubt this helped him a lot.

Years ago in an essay on marathons, I wrote that we athletes were running out of mere being into our essence; that we ran in order to demand something supernal of our souls and bodies. Fine. But these poetic sentiments are not a lot of help when your hip flexors have seized up, your feet are on fire, your gastro-intestinal system is in revolt, your morale is in the cellar and you still have an inconceivable distance to travel before the finish.

What do I need to get to the finish? I’ve come to realize that my fascination with this type of athletic lies not only in finishing an extreme event, but also in discovering what it takes to do so. Obviously the answer here is not something that can be taught, but something that must be learned.

To be continued…