Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Reasons to Run?

A common question that any runner usually gets is “why?” An expression I have heard multiple times is “I don’t run unless it’s from the police”; and it’s a valid point. There are few situations in which most of us need to run for life or death, or freedom or safety. So the question “why” does merit some thought, and there a myriad of answers that one might hear. For me, I might answer that running is like a drug. The more I do, the more I want to do, and the only diminishing return stems from the fact that my body is physically equipped to do more and more. There’s also a very spiritual element to running in my case. It’s a chance for thinking, meditation, and a place I go for continuous discussion with God about the general concerns and issues of this thing called life. I feel filled-up after a run. There's resolution and resolve.
            There’re plenty of other reasons I can think of, but for now I will refrain from that discussion to ask the same question, but in the context of the ultra-marathon. Because that really becomes a different thing, doesn’t it? Where most of the general public can understand the cost/benefit of running, say, 10k’s or even marathons, this logic quickly breaks down once we move into that weird land beyond 26.2 miles. The former answers to the question why, while they may still be true, are no longer sufficient on their own to account for why someone feels the need to run really far. I mean really, really far. The answers to why are, at this point, going to make less sense.
            In the past seven years since I ran my first marathon, I have been all over the board in regards to my approach to running. After my first marathon, which I enjoyed immensely, I decided to never run another. Once was simply enough. I achieved a life goal, and I did it pretty well (3:45) and now, I thought, I can spend my time on other avenues of life. But less than three years later, I was at it again. It stemmed from a deep desire to get back to that level of fitness that I was in when I ran the marathon, which had slipped over the couple of interim years. But it was more than that. I missed, really missed, those long runs. It is, like any drug experience, hard to describe just what happens to someone on a long run to the uninitiated. Call it runner’s high, if you will, but it is ultimately more than that. It is the whole ritual of it, of laying aside a good chunk of time on the weekend to go run for three or four hours; of making sure you have enough fuel and water, of planning out breaks and refueling. It was feeling exhausted to the deepest of my core-- but in a way that was somehow affirming. I felt better running. I felt even better when I was doing long runs. This carried over into everything in my life—work, relationships, and overall mood.
Getting ready for a trail run in Gangchon, Gangwon-do, South Korea
            In 2010, I had a stress fracture on the metatarsal of my right foot. I was overzealous after reading Born to Run about the barefoot movement, I bought me some Vibram Fivefingers, and I just ran, and ran, and ran. And then bam! I couldn’t run anymore. I could barely walk for weeks. And it was all taken away from me. I feared that it was forever. A doctor told me that I should never run again given the lack of arches and the poor padding on my feet. Maybe he was right. I started cycling and tried to forget running. I tried a couple of comebacks, but the pain in my foot would flare up again, and I would be frightened out of any further effort. Life was, truthfully speaking, not the same without running. Not that I couldn't find equal happiness in other pursuits, but that I hadn't found any other pursuits that gave me as much as running did. So, in October of 2011, I gave running another go. Slowly and painfully, I started introducing the idea of running back into my life. My injured foot was seemingly fine, but my hips were in pain, I had piriformis syndrome, my lower back hurt, and I was (still am, but dropping) 20 pounds heavier than I was when I was forced to quit running.
            So maybe not the prettiest comeback. But the odd thing is, that as soon as I started running again, the desire for the long run was there, just like a relapsed junkie. Except this time I have been running mostly on trail. I don’t know why or when, but among my group of peers the faint whisperings of a trail ultra-marathon could be heard, until the volume and frequency of the discussion led a few of us into signing up for an 80km mountain run in Jeju-do. Here I was, freshly back from an injury that kept me off my running feet for more than a year, and I had it in my head to do an ultra. So I began ramping up the miles in January, and, not surprisingly, had another foot injury by February. Nothing too serious, but enough to knock me out of sufficient training for the Jeju Ultra. In fact, only one of our group made the intrepid journey down and ran the 80km and finished before the cut-off (Kudos, Robb!). I was disappointed and frustrated, but weeks later I was at it again, this time slowly ramping up miles and doing a lot of cycling in between.
            Now, it is August, and two months out of a 60km mountain ultra in Yang Yang on the east coast of South Korea. I’m about 8 pounds down from my weight in December of last year, injury free, and feeling really good about the prospects of running 60km. Why? I don’t really know. To me it seems like an authentic goal. It is one of those things in life where no solid reasons are needed, and the lack of a reason doesn't make it any less meaningful. It seems like, given the way we work and operate here in the 21st century, with all our gadgets and rich foods and sedentary lifestyles and cars and convenience—it seems like running 60km is a pretty good idea.