On "Outside Voices", Insanity, and Extreme Pursuits in the Wilderness

OUTSIDE VOICES from the Wolpertinger on Vimeo.

Thanks to a generous gift from our friend Erin Earle (who writes beautifully about life and adventure at Sakura Blooms), last night Angel and I got to attend the Sunday session of the Trail Running Film Festival in Seattle - an event that another of our friends, James Varner of Rainshadow Running, has developed from a dream a couple years ago to a slick, nationally touring dynamo.

"Trail running film" is a niche market and a lot of the movies are probably primarily interesting to outdoor junkies, but the final show of the festival, "Outdoor Voices" directed by Joel Wolpert, and profiling trail runner Jenn Shelton, was haunting as a piece of art that raised bigger questions about mental health and coping with the challenges of human existence.

Shelton is a well-known character in the trail running world. She was featured as one of the most colorful main players in Born to Run, the New York Times Bestseller that made ultras famous, and she writes a regular column for Trail Runner Magazine. Along with being known as an elite runner, she also has a reputation as being a bit out of control. The film, if anything, will add to that reputation.

100 Miles? That's Crazy!

The first time I heard about ultrarunning, it was actually talking to a friend who was reading Born to Run. At the time I wasn't a runner, and my gut reaction was "Running 100 miles? If that's even possible, it seems genuinely crazy." Having lived in the mountain endurance sports world for a few years now, running ultras and hiking the PCT last year, the "That's crazy!" response has become a familiar one coming from other people, to the extent that one starts to internalize it a bit. In the outdoor community, maybe our shared passions are "crazy" at some level - an indicator that there's something wrong with us that we cope with using extreme wilderness endeavors?

"Outside Voices" was basically one long trigger for that suspicion. The film has some element of the reality show dynamic, where the viewer is presented with various theoretically mundane aspects of Shelton's life as it happens - training sessions on the track, a leisure run in the mountains, drinking with friends, running a race, sleeping in her van. The hook for the film is really that she is, herself, innately interesting - outrageous at times, unpredictable, gregarious, impulsive. The film is successful in that regard: even though the movie doesn't tell a story, per se, Shelton is intriguing throughout, and the audience was rapt despite the film being shown at the end of a 3 day festival. But it definitely isn't hagiography. For my wife and I, and several others we spoke with, the primary thing we felt walking away from the film was discomfort, and maybe a bit of embarrassment, having watched a chronicle of a person making a series of unusual, and often questionable, life decisions.

On the psychiatric unit I work on, we would in fact note a lot of Shelton's behaviors in the film as signs and symptoms of diagnosable mental illness: she tells stories about disordered eating behaviors (gorging on $20 worth of Taco Bell, then vomiting it all up) and relationship difficulties based on her "typical Shelton" tendency to take things too far, we see emotional lability, swinging from calm to laughing uncontrollably, heavy drinking, which leads to property destruction and police interactions. And, of course, the compulsive exercise - we see her training intensely despite ongoing physical illness.

In common parlance, her life looks crazy. And if she's an icon in the trail running community, it makes us all look a little bit crazy by extension.

Wilderness keeps you alive

But more comprehensively, part of the discomfort of watching Jenn Shelton's life is that it is a much more complex picture than just "she's crazy", and I think that helps us get to the key message here. Along with seeming erratic, Shelton through most of the film also seems genuinely happy and successful, and as a viewer it was hard to determine if we were watching quirkiness and eccentricity or self-destructive behavior. She has a community of friends who love her, she's good at what she does (despite claiming that her only skill is putting one foot in front of the other, she's a successful writer and public personality), and the film is filled with joking and laughter. Shelton was presented as highly individualistic, with a playful, idealistic, inspiring love of nature. And she's become an icon in the trail world because she lives the dirtbag dream - traveling in a van, exploring mountains around the world, setting records, making a living through writing and sponsorship, and seemingly getting primarily joy out of the experience. 

And in looking at her life from this perspective, one comes away with the impression that she is, in many ways, a person to be emulated - a countercultural proof of the potential of wilderness and endurance sports to enrich our lives, rather than an icon of insanity.

 100 Miles? That's Therapy!

And so, that brings back the question of whether ultrarunning, and similar extreme pursuits are pathological. I think, ultimately, that the message from Jenn Shelton's life, as presented in the film, is the opposite.

Many of us who run, or hike, or climb, or paddle can affirm that we're often motivated by anxieties or demons, and that those that engage in those activities to extreme extents may sometimes have more anxieties or demons than the average participant in a social 5k. And while its true that extreme activities - whether 100 mile runs or 36 hour alpine pushes - come with real risks, every type of medication comes with potential side effects. 

Shelton makes for a good example of a life where the benefit of extreme pursuit almost definitely outweighs the potential negatives. Through running extreme distances in the mountains, she's established a community, an autonomous existence, a purpose for existence, and a concrete career that helps her pay concrete bills. And, though I don't remember her quoting this herself, as most runners will attest, she probably gains a sense of empowerment and control from the experience, as well as regulating anxiety and stress that comes from daily life. It isn't clear that running itself has caused her any physical ills, even if moving long distances alone through the mountains does come along with inherent risks. If she does have some kind of diagnosable crazy, its pretty clear that running is helping her manage it.

And for those of us who participate in these kinds of things ourselves, that's the aspect of her seemingly chaotic existence that makes her both relatable and inspiring. It might be true that the sicker you are, the more medicine you need, but the concept of gaining a community, a sense of purpose, and a sense of control through outdoor pursuits is a familiar one even for the most emotionally stable among us. 100 miles isn't crazy, it's therapy.