We train and work hard and endure so that we may know pain and suffering. This is the gift we give to ourselves - the ability to say to the world, "There's nothing you can do to me that I haven't already done to myself." - Tony Sandoval
I haven't written in awhile, so there's a bit of a blog-jam in my head. Today has turned into one of those 'found time' days, and it's nice to have the chance to do a bit of a download from my mind to the internet - even if it is really beautiful outside and I feel like I should be out there instead of on the computer.
I've been planning a couple of different posts - one about 'trailrunning values' that fits in with my previous series on the role that running's played in my life, and another on the myriad running experiences that Angel and I had during December - Deception Pass 50k, the Pigtails Flatass Marathon, Santa's Fatass 30k(ish) Christmas Nacht run, pacing Stacey Nievweija's solo 100 mile Quadorah (with apologies to Quadzilla) almost quadruple Loop the Lake Marathon...
Instead, I'll write about something else in the spirit of the New Year, informed by those thoughts and events, and inspired in large part by this short but powerful post by my friend Craig Foster (which you should go read if you haven't already). Mostly this is about the people you meet, and partly this is an Auld Lang Syne reflection on the past year.
This year, for the first time, Angel and I centered our life on trailrunning, and the trailrunning community. We didn't consciously plan it out this way, but the vast majority of our social and recreational time (and money) was spent with trailrunners, on the trails. At this time last year we knew a couple of people through the Seattle Running Club who we ran with regularly, but this time this year we know dozens more trailrunners. Even off of the trails, we hang out primarily with other runners. That's developed naturally from a full schedule of events (races, and smaller group runs), a steady diet of local running blogs (more interesting than nursing school textbooks), and a compulsive need to get to the trails and mountains whenever we have time free from work and school. It also developed naturally in the way that all social groups develop naturally - people meet each other, they get along, and they start hanging out more often, self-selecting into cliques and groups of like-minded people with similar attitudes, values, senses of humor, etc. In large part, we've started spending a lot more time with trail runners this year because we like trail runners. Craig's post got me thinking about why that is, and particularly about the kind of people you meet doing long distances in the mountains.
Informing my thinking on the subject is one of the more helpful and interesting things I've learned in nursing school about the relationship between mental and physical health, which relates to the way that people cope with stress. I'm sure I'm butchering scientific precision with this summary, but for a scientifically imprecise summary, there are basically two types of physiological responses to stress - one driven by epinephrine and adrenaline, which amounts to a fight or flight response, and one driven by cortisol, which is characterized by depression, or a fatalistic acquiescence to circumstances. These responses aren't situational as much as individual - that is, events don't predict the way that people will respond to stress as much as personality, learned behaviors, and physiology do. Some people tend to respond to challenges by taking some kind of action (fighting back, or leaving and changing your circumstances - think the person who responds to a job loss by creating their own business or finding a better one), while others tend to respond by giving up and absorbing the consequences (you lose your job, so you spend all day complaining about how hard life is on Facebook). Those who respond by giving up tend to struggle with more physical health problems than those who respond by fighting back. The adrenaline folks feel anger and anxiety. The cortisol folks feel depression. In my experience, despite the fact that we all have genetic predispositions and learned tendencies, responses to stress are within the realm of personal control - if they have the resources and knowledge to do so, people can choose whether to fight back or give in.
Something I've noticed before, which Craig's post draws into focus, is the fact that the running (and particularly ultra-running) community seems to have a huge cross-section of people who are fighting back. Specifically, you meet people who have used the mountains, the act of running, and the people who run with them, as coping skills to get past something painful, or to gain control of life when it was out of control - so running is a choice for fight or (literally, sort of) flight rather than resignation. I've talked a bit here about how running helped Angel and I get through a really difficult period of career and religious transition. I know multiple people who've run off 100+ pounds of weight during health crises, people who've run in order to work through divorce or death, or to become better parents, people who use running to fight back against depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, and people who run in order to replace chemical dependency.
Unless your issue is physical health, running is an indirect response to life's stresses, so I've wondered a bit about why people use it to deal with such a wide range of problems. I think part of it is that the physical act actually causes your body to produce more adrenaline and epinephrine (that's a guess, but one I'd put money on) - when you run, you feel more confident in your ability to deal with your problems afterwards, and I would guess that there's a physiological reason for that. But I think another key, psychologically, is that the running functions as a cipher for life - a four, or sixteen, or thirty hour run is ridiculously hard, but so is life - if you can make it through the challenges and pain that come along with the run, you can figure out how to make it through the challenges and pain that come along with life. It's practicing psychological strategies for dealing with pain directly in a controlled environment so you can deal with it competently when things are out of control.
And because of this, I think, endurance runners tend to be tough, determined people. Anyone can fake their way through a 5k, but there are no quitters at the finish line of an ultramarathon - There are people who fight through on adrenaline, epinephrine, and disgusting glucose gels. There are people like Craig, who can run 100 miles and can sure as hell keep control of an addiction, and there are people like George, who can run 200 and can use the mountains as a way to take off a couple hundred pounds. They're the kind of people that we should aspire to be.
The first time I finished a marathon, one of my initial thoughts was that I respect anyone who can do that, because it's not easy, no matter how fast you go. As I've gotten to know more runners this year, I've realized that toughness, respectability and resilience tends to be present in their character, not just their recreational activities. It's been a gift this year to be surrounded so often this year by so many people who are genuinely inspiring (and to be married to one of them), and to be healthy enough to be able to participate in an activity that reinforces and develops the same sort of characteristics that all of those inspiring friends already possess.