Last night we went to the Trails in Motion Film Tour, hosted by Manitoba Association of Trail Running (an amazing night, thank you!). The night’s films showcased all the beauty and craziness that is the sport of trail running. Elite runners trying to claim “fastest known times” (FKTs) on 100+ mile routes (and failing), and zealous newbies biting off more than they could chew (and succeeding).
This showcase of running made me think about, ironically, walking. The funny thing about trail running is how much not-running is involved. In these spectacular FKT attempts, even elite athletes were eventually reduced to walking, either because the course demanded an uphill hike, or due to sheer exhaustion.
There comes about point in just about every epic trail running adventure where a song comes to the runner’s mind. It’s the Backstreet Boys singing, “Tell me why,” over and over. And due to exhaustion (and lack of BSB fandom), the rest of the words are foggy, but there’s something about “heartbreak” and “mistake”, both of which are accurate, at least in my experience.
But the metaphor in all of this is rich. In the daily grind of life, or in any project we undertake, there comes a time when it’s not fun anymore. The runner’s high has left us to stumble along in the dumps, as we question why we ever signed up for this torturous monotony in the first place.
This is, in Donald Miller’s words, “the long middle” (oh wait, I quoted him in my own book 😉 ).
At this point in an ultramarathon adventure, we walk. Or maybe “power hike”. But there’s no power left. Morale is low. But we press on. One foot in front of the other, which is the only way to get the job done.
Because, as one smartass quipped, “If I wanted to stare at my feet, I could have stayed home.”
You might even say, running is an important skill, but more important is to do the “death march” well. Moving when you don’t feel like it is undeniably the more difficult skill.
In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry quotes Thomas Hardy’s poem which rings true:
Only a man harrowing clods– Thomas Hardy
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
There’s a fire deep within all of us that keeps us fueled when the going gets tough. Once all the fun and excitement has burned off, those red-hot coals below the flames are what will sustain us on the long haul. Maybe this is what they call character.
And maybe this is the only way it’s ever been done.