Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Reflections on Crazy

"When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained. " --Mark Twain

If I were to be able to monetize all recent interactions where someone says to me, "You're crazy", I would be well on my way to early retirement, or at least paying off student loan debt.  It's actually interesting that people can, in what would be considered the course of polite conversation, casually cast aspersions on another's mental health and treat it like harmless banter.  While not generally sensitive personal slights, this oft-repeated exchange has made me wonder what it is that people are really trying to say, and why.

Let's start with Webster's definition:

n.1.The state of being insane; unsoundness or derangement of mind; madness; lunacy.
 2.(Law) Such a mental condition, as, either from the existence of delusions, or from incapacity to distinguish between right and wrong, with regard to any matter under action, does away with individual responsibility.

As a practicing lawyer seeking to run 100 miles, I'll go ahead and discard the second definition.  I suspect I retain the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and have absolutely no intention of shirking individual responsibility for my actions.  That leaves "unsoundness or derangement of mind; madness; lunacy" . . . hhhmmmm, are we getting somewhere now?

No, we aren't.  At least not in this context.

When people call someone else "crazy" for life choices, they are essentially saying, "I could personally never imagine doing something like that."  That promotes the definition of "insanity" as being a person who's conduct deviates from a collectively-acceptable norm.  Since this so-called "crazy" endeavor is so far outside a person's own realm of contemplation, they categorize the mental state required to pursue it as defective.  Ultra-running is but one example.  Any extreme sport - skydiving, bungee-jumping, drag-racing - might evoke a similar reaction.  So might trekking through the Amazon; or dog-sledding in Alaska; even hiking the Appalachian Trail.  But, is it a fair characterization?  I cannot imagine ever speaking or understanding Japanese, but I don't think those who do are "crazy".

And, what is it that all these sorts of pursuits have in common?  The possibility of sustaining physical harm by virtue of a leisure activity.  Never mind that any of us could be in a car accident at any time.  Or that chronic inactivity and poor diet will likely lead to a host of medical problems in middle and old age, if we live that long. 

We have arrived at a point in modern Western civilization where most of us are able to go about our daily lives with minimal physical exertion or discomfort.  Of course, some people still break their backs doing hard manual labor, be it in the field, or in factories, or in construction, etc.  But, now we are able to press buttons to do things that once required actual effort.  And with that ease comes a sense that we're "safe" from injury.  A lot of us spend our days at a desk, typing on a keyboard, clicking a mouse, maybe talking on the phone.  We sit for breakfast, during our commute, at our desk, and then again when we get back home.

Problem is, we weren't designed to sit. 

So, some of us choose not to.  We choose to move through the world propelled only by the power our own muscles can generate.  We run a 5K race.  Then a 10K.  Then we gear up to the Holy Grail of endurance tests: the marathon.  Except that marathons aren't the end-all-be-all of testing the limits of our aerobic capabilities.  That's where ultramarathons come in.  Ultras don't necessarily reward innate athletic talent.  They don't favor the super-speedy, or the incredibly strong.  They certainly don't require a ton of coordination (though nimble feet are a plus on trails).  One need not measure 7 feet tall, nor bench press 300 pounds.  No, just look at a race field and you'll see that runners come in all shapes and sizes.  Why is that?  In large part, it's because completing races of 5 or 12 or 24+ hours is largely a mental endeavor, and a brain capable of that sort of tenacity can fit within all manner of body-types.

Is it therefore "crazy" to pursue something which affords a tremendous chance for personal growth, loosens our daily shackles, and provides perspective on the things which most matter in life, even if that means experiencing discomfort, fatigue and maybe a not-too-serious injury?  Some of us submit that it is.

As I recently reflected from one of my all-time most personally influential books, Robert M. Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance":
" 'Is it hard?' Not if you have the right attitudes. It's having the right attitudes that's hard.”
What percentage of this will be mental?  I truly have no idea.  But I do know that setting off on a well-supported journey of 100 miles without knowing whether I will be able to complete it, how long it will take, or what toll it will take on my body AND mind is the essence of the appeal of this.  I am choosing to strip myself bare of the daily trappings which keep us safe, but which simultaneously create a barrier between us and the world we inhabit.  I don't just want to be of the world; I want to be truly in it. 

Trying to "run" 100 miles through a scenic part of Vermont is just one way to achieve that presence.  If that's not what does it for you, then maybe you can find another way.  Or at least choose your words more carefully when you hear about someone doing something which strikes you as extreme: "What?!  You're running a hundred miles?  How cra-, er, I mean what a wonderful way to challenge yourself." :-)

Thanks for reading. -Ron

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Putting the "Mull" in Mulligan

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” -Robin Williams

About 355 days ago, I set out to run 100 miles.  Within the virtual bowels of the interwebz lies an unpublished draft of my 2014 Vermont 100 race report.  I could never figure out how to write up that experience without coming across as an annoying, navel-gazing whiner . . . not sure that the almost-50.5 weeks which have since passed have allayed that concern, but here I am again, on the brink of embarking on this journey for a second time.

Last year, I was reasonably well-trained, but extremely anxious and wound up in the weeks leading up to the race.  I'd just gotten married, had a wonderful honeymoon, and was managing a busy law practice, split-schedule parenting, and the generally hectic and unrelenting projectile nature of modern American life.
This year . . . ummmmm . . . no weddings or honeymoons, at least.

The 2014 Vermont 100 Endurance Run began well for me.  I was present, happy, social, in control . . . for the first third of the race.  Then came the first "bad patch", swollen hands, concerns about over-hydration leading to hyponatremia.  I weighed in at Mile 47; 5 pounds heavier than my pre-race weight.  The first-year Medical Director told me I was done.  I didn't argue.  I just did the manly thing and burst into tears. 

Blood work at the at the ER confirmed that things were trending towards trouble, so dropping out was objectively and reasonably the right thing to do.  But, not once in 355 days has it felt to me like the right thing.  Not one day has passed that I have not thought about how I might have approached 2014's race differently.  Not once have I truly accepted that I gave my best that day, and that my best was no where near good enough.  Seriously, if that was my best, then I had better hang up the shoes and find some other leisure pursuit.  I've heard a lot - A LOT - about CrossFit, but do I have what it takes to bring my self-involvement and tireless proselytizing to the next level?  No, I'm not quite there ... yet. ;-)

The disappointment of letting myself, my crew, my friends, my family, and my donors (to the four causes for which I was running) down has gnawed at me like little else in my life.  I knew from the moment that I threw in the disgustingly sweaty towel that I would be back this year . . . and would keep coming back until I cover every inch of that 100+-mile course from start to finish in one try, and in less than 24 hours.  Having joined the race committee as the Sponsor/Vendor Coordinator has only increased my appreciation and esteem for what this event is all about: the myriad moving parts, the community engagement and coordination, the collective effort towards adventure and self-improvement.  And beer.

So, he we are, with mostly the same crew, plus my 14-year-old son Carter, and a baby-to-be-named later (due in early-September), ready to put myself out there again and finish what I started last year.

This year, I think I'm in comparable physical shape.  A year older, of course.  Hips still cranky.  Hair unruly, but shorter in the back.  But, I am far more ready for the mental aspect of this challenge.  How?  PATIENCE  By definition, the primary aim of any race is to get from Point A to Point Z as quickly as possible.  But, much like the Vermont 100's elevation profile, this is by no means a linear pursuit, and success is not measured solely by digital numbers on a clock. 

I am prepared to endure discomfort, pain, challenges, obstacles, both expected and unforeseen.  I have spent much more time training to walk big hills for long stretches.  My ultra-running best-pal Nate has introduced me to overnight walks.  Now I know how it'll feel to keep moving when physical exertion meets sleep-deprivation and things start to get loopy.

One other similarity from 2014 is that I am raising money again.  this time, though, just for one cause which has become a major part of my running and non-running life: the Massachusetts Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired (MABVI), specifically its Team with a Vision (TWAV).

Oh, and I'll run a (short) section of the Vermont 100 course blindfolded, with a guide, of course.  Why keep things straightforward if there's a way to make them more challenging?

If you'd like to donate to the cause, please click here: https://www.crowdrise.com/vt100formabvi .  Even if you aren't in a position to make a donation, please consider becoming either a sighted running guide for blind/VI athletes, or otherwise volunteering in your community.

As for mental preparation, I have been reading about extreme endurance, and have received some excellent chestnuts along the way:
  • "The key is to keep moving while you decide whether you can keep moving." -Ray C.
  • "You can always do/give more than you think you can." -Lots of wise folks
  • "A 100-miler isn't an athletic event.  It's a spiritual experience." -Joe H.
  • "The more you try to force your plan on the race, the harder the race will fight back with a plan of its own. So embrace the shit show". -Jenn Shelton
You get the idea.

And so, it is with a year's worth of daily contemplation -- i.e., "mulling" -- that I get my 100-mile race do-over -- a.k.a., a "Mulligan" -- where I will have another opportunity to find my limits, expand them as needed, all the while being supported by some of my closest family and friends, in the midst of a wonderful community of like-minded adventurers, while covering some of the most beautiful terrain in creation.

Some -- like, say, every older Jewish relative I speak with -- may ask, "Why do you do this?"  The reasons are plentiful, ranging from poetic to philosophical to psychological to spiritual to inspirational to selfish to insipid.  On one end of the spectrum is the fact that setting huge, intimidating personal goals leads to greater growth and self-awareness.  On the other, that I want to earn a pewter belt-buckle to wear around for the next 365 days . . . well, maybe not EVERY day, but most of them.  And definitely through airport security, so that I may remove it with a flourish and loudly identify its nature and origin to anyone within earshot.

Come to think of it, maybe I am ready to try CrossFit.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more updates . . . or, if you actually have an interesting life of your own, don't.