Ultra Touristy

doc6gmgvjhjvitjqmxbdi0Everyone loathes a tourist. Everyone except marketers, that is. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Beginning in the early 1980s the recreational running world had its first unfortunate encounter with what exercise physiologists have since termed exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH), a potentially life-threatening state of water intoxication caused by excessive pre hydration. At first blush, it is tempting to want to blame irresponsible marketing for the nascent malady. Though in fairness, marketers were only happily amplifying exercise physiology’s abrupt hyper-awareness of hydration’s alleged leading role in exercise performance. If exercise physiologists (frequently on the sports nutrition industry’s payroll) and the evening news were energetically imploring endurance athletes to drink more, the advertising departments of sports drink companies grew giddy urging runners to double whatever “more” was. The consequences occasionally turned fatal, resulting in at least 13 EAH-diagnosed deaths.1

Could marketers be going too far once again? In the late 1960s, Marshall McLuhan wrote this prescient line in The Medium is the Massage (here McLuhan plays on the word Message): “Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old.” While McLuhan’s phrase, like the quadruple entendre of his book’s title (i.e., message, massage, mass-age and mess-age), is pregnant with a litter of alternate meanings, one thing it surely suggests is that those who employ advertising media are bound to repeat past mistakes, and that we, as the “official culture,” are going to have something to do with it. Where before the mess-age was “drink more,” today it’s “run more,” using seductive ads smattered across a wide range of digital and print media forms to encourage milephiles to go completely around the bend while consuming pricey sponsored races, online training plans, running camps, apps, apparel, nutritional supplements, and even automobiles to fit the ultra image.

Henry David Thoreau, one of the greatest architects of the sustainable life, objected to “coarse labors long continued” on the grounds that they required that he consume coarsely in support of them. For runners of 50 and 100 mile races, a voracious appetite for life keeps pace with as great an appetite for gel packs (or some such highly concentrated and portable food source). And with higher average training volumes than any other recreational running cohort, ultrarunners join puppies as a running shoe manufacturer’s best friend.

Sure the corporate entities who sell these products would love it if everyone became a life-long ultrarunner, but marketing psychologists know that isn’t likely to happen. Still, over the short haul, an ultra tourist’s money spends as well as a lifelong runner’s money does. In fact, tourists are targeted the world over for the ease with which they can be separated from the fun money they’ve laid aside for “must-sees” like the DaVinci Code walking tour. Take it from the ultimate tourist, Beldar Conehead: what tourists do best is “consume mass quantities.”

In these litigious times, advertising departments are more savvy than they used to be. Taking refuge behind accident waiver and release of liability forms, and the ever-tightening and oft-maligned qualifying standards of high-profile ultras, marketers are free to employ every trick of psychological manipulation to peddle these extreme experiences. Consider the stock memes of ultrarunning culture: the alpine “trail” without a power line in sight; the youthful, ultra-hardened body (which may actually belong to a weight-trained fitness model); the cool-kid aesthetic; the pithy, ego-affirming quote; and the panoply of top-dollar accessories on full display. Amid a confusing lack of scientific consensus, advertising is aggressively pushing the cult of more is more and all the gadgetry that goes with it. Tim Noakes’ book Waterlogged, an in-depth examination of the EAH epidemic, exposes the dangerous fallacy of that way of thinking. Too much profit-motivated “more” and too little buyer sense always results in more disaster. Significantly, it was running tourists and not veterans who took EAH’s brunt.

Like sodium serum concentrations, ultrarunning is nothing to play around with. Isn’t it time that advertising departments backed off pitching ultras as hip weekend getaways guaranteed to improve one’s life and augment one’s image? (I’m surprised they haven’t claimed that ultras regrow hair.) The least race promoters should be required to do is to list contraindications just as pharmaceutical advertisers must. What we should want is a glossy ad that doesn’t look as if it were trying to gloss over the truth (maybe the medium really is the message). In her blog Wild Defined, ultra veteran Candace Burt lists “not having fun anymore” as one of the excuses runners most frequently give for dropping out of an ultra. “I’m not sure why we think that ultras will be ‘fun,'” Burt asks? I have a one word answer for her: advertising. As buyers, isn’t it time we revisited the ages-old warning to beware? Otherwise parties on all sides of the exchange are in danger of playing a starring role in a classic cautionary tale. To the unwary and overconfident newbie, a first ultra (usually a 50k or 50-miler with no qualifying standard) is likely to wind up resembling Westworld after the live bullets start flying, or Jurassic Park after the electric fences fail. If you think that either Yule Brenner as a gunslinging android or a pack of ravenous velociraptors were tough mudders, try hitting your third wall, experiencing hallucinations and suffering rhabdomyolysis–in the middle of nowhere. In the movies, we know who chokes hardest on their just deserts. It’s usually the naïve and profiteering promoter or the vicariously liable lawyer. That’s entertainment. But in reality, it’s the impulse buyer who is most likely to get plucked off the outhouse commode by the figurative T-Rex. The woefully underprepared ultra tourist may find that an ultra-gone-south is more vengeful than even Montezuma.

I suppose all of this caution makes me the Ian Malcolm of this script. In that case I’ll paraphrase my favorite naysaying movie mathematician attired in somber hues: we were so preoccupied with whether we could that we didn’t stop to think whether we should.

So what is it with tourists, anyway? What makes them so ridiculous, and apparently so easy to spot? Mostly it’s that they’re too eager–eager to the point, in fact, of forcing experiences. “The way to kill a feeling is to insist on it,” writes D.H. Lawrence. It’s as if the finished memory, the t-shirt and the finish-line selfie had become more important than the experience itself and especially the patient preparation required for its proper “enjoyment.” And sometimes tourists are just nuisances, like when, Bill Porter reports in his book Zen Baggage, their guided tours introduce bullhorns to Zen monasteries.

Capitalizing on the tourist’s eagerness to own a memory, many ultra promoters are acting like the archetype for Rekall, Incorporated, the fictional retailer of custom memory implants from the sci-fi film Total Recall. “Have you always wanted to climb the mountains of Mars, but now you’re over the hill?” the ad asks. “For the memory of a lifetime, Rekall, Rekall, Rekall.” Hearing the jingle, Quaid considers purchasing the memory of a Martian vacation. Harry intervenes: “A friend of mine tried it. Nearly Got himself lobotomized.” Now imagine opening a magazine in 2015 and reading the words, “Want to run far, but you’re far from ready?” While a running tourist may not end up lobotomized, the portion of her brain that loved running is likely to suffer serious trauma.

Despite all of my admonitions I think that the chances of an ultra tourist making it home in one piece (I say nothing of finishing) are still pretty good. My concern is this. Unpreparedness unscrupulously lured into reckless action most often leads to deeply negative experiences. And deeply negative experiences lead to aversions—lifelong aversions or one-and-done burnout.

As a crusader for the running lifestyle, I’ll weigh in any day on the side of a well-measured, sustainable and lifelong participation in the sport. I shrug my shoulders at the tourist who rides a zipline through our sport on a tragically misguided “tour de force” that, if one could hear it, would sound as harried as the “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Locals often sigh in relief when they overhear tourists say, with a thinly-veiled mixture of contempt and patronization, “Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here.” For my part, I’d rather they did want to live here (without the bullhorn). A neighborhood doesn’t need a living dinosaur theme park to be a great place to bring up the kids. If more miles is what one really wants, then one ought to try being a runner for 20, 30 or 40 years. To any who’d consider it, I leave this Zen phrase: “The Road has two rules only: Begin and Continue.”

1. (The Doctor Mol Show, season 3, episode 15. “Dr. Noakes on Water.” Online video clip. https://youtu.be/8dFlV-Rn1yw. September 25, 2012).

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Project Ultramayhem

dsc_4418Life, we’re told, imitates art. The formula works equally well in reverse: art anticipates life. Just as our planet’s atmosphere acts as a lense through which one may view the sun or moon minutes before they’ve actually risen, art is capable of creating atmospheres through which one receives his or her first glimpse of things to come. Squint just right at a work of art and one sometimes catches an impression of the near future, a fact confirmed only in retrospect.

Through which of art’s back-to-front looking-glasses were we to have seen the ultrarunning boom of the 2000s? What work of late-90s surrealism predicted that by 2015 over 70,000 people–most of them middle aged with day jobs–would in a single year be signing up to run 31, 50, 100, 135 mile distances and beyond, with brutal conditions frequently added to ratchet up the challenge? Even science-fiction (which is art that hopes we’ll be fooled by the word science) would have demurred to make so bold a prediction as that.

Before I offer an answer that might strike you unexpectedly, remember that life need only imitate, not precisely mirror art. When life mirrors something too precisely, that something is probably journalism or film documentary. Running on the Sun: The Badwater 135 is film documentary. What we are looking for needn’t even be about running per se. As a running parable, it could ostensibly be about anything, maybe even, um, fighting. (The remainder of this article contains spoilers and obscure film references–unless of course you’ve seen the film.)

You heard it here first: 1999’s cult classic film Fight Club was an oracle that foreshadowed the ultrarunning boom of the 2000s. That’s right, “we’ve just lost cabin pressure.” Oh, and if the title of this article gave the punchline away, my apologies; at least now you’ve got a great excuse to use the line, I am Jack’s total lack of surprise.

Hey, if Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery could attract a sizable following among runners, I see no reason why Fight Club can’t make ultrarunning’s list of must-sees. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you may recognize a few snippets of dialogue that have survived as pop-culture catchphrases, beginning with the first two of its rules. The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club. Yes, that’s two gag rules. But that’s not ultrarunners. Not at all. They talk about their races. They talk about them a lot, in fact. They talk at water coolers, in blogs, in magazine articles, at the barber shop, on dates and at funerals. Like that matters. You see, just as “the Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao,” the ultra that can be spoken of is not the eternal ultra. Observe the blank faces of those who’ve listened at the water cooler but not heard. To them your blow-by-blow account sounds like lines out of “Jabberwocky.” All the stuff about splits and pacers, fueling and crewing sounds like galumphing, gyring and gimbling in the wabe. Ultrarunners can talk all they want; they’ve given none of the show away. There are those in the know, and those who wear their ignorance like a bumper sticker that reads 13.1. But as with Fight Club, the meme is spreading in spite of its being ineffable. “I look around and see a lot of new faces. Which means a lot of you are breaking the first two rules…” In other words, ultrarunning has moved out of the basement.

Back to the manifesto. Third rule: If someone says “stop’” or goes limp, taps out, the fight is over. The only thing I’ll add for ultrarunning is that if a runner fails to clear a medical checkpoint because, say, he’s lost a Chihuahua’s worth of water weight, the fight is over. I am Jack’s impending renal failure.

Fourth rule: Only two guys to a fight. While there may be, say, 369 people to a race (e.g., The Western States 100), the fight will come down to just two: the ultrarunner one will be at the finish line, and the one she is at mile 70, with 30 miles to go and wanting only to retreat into her cave. “You don’t know what this feels like,” her 70-mile self cries in the throes of a torment from which she begs to be released. Her 100-mile self flashes the scar, the finishing medal and the knowledge that her 70-mile self has everything she needs to pull through. In Fight Club the immediate source of torment is a self-inflicted chemical burn. Fight Club‘s prescription has no room for palliatives: whether one’s crucible is a lye burn or a lactic acid burn (also self-inflicted), here’s the Rx: “Deal with it like a living person does. Come back to the pain. Don’t shut this out.” Fight Club alludes to changeovers, single-frames in which it wants you to think it has spliced subliminal messages into the film, probably illicit in nature. In the end the embedded messages prove to be neither subliminal nor illicit. They’re spiritual. The Buddhist message in Fight Club‘s prescription couldn’t be more clear: “To live is to suffer.” Mile 71. “Congratulations. You’re a step closer to hitting bottom.”

At mile 70, a 100-mile self is a projection; with 30 additional miles, a 70-mile self is an actualized 100-mile self, enjoying all the advantages of reality over illusion; in other words, the projection becomes redundant and expendable, merely a scaffolding for the stone pillar one was constructing. Ok, since you’re a pillar, now’s probably a good time to stop talking to yourself.

Fifth rule: One fight at a time, fellas. That’s exactly what ultramarathoners do when they break ultras into more mentally manageable chunks. By thinking of a 100 mile event as four marathons (of 25 miles each), they seek to avoid taking on four opponents at once. In tournament style, each fight gets tougher. By mile 80, each mile may be a fight. By mile 90, each step.

Sixth rule: No shirt, no shoes. Invite Tony (naked man) Krupica and Barefoot Ted and an ultra starts to resemble the basement of Lou’s Tavern. While the norm is to have several shirts and a couple pairs of shoes on hand, these articles are optional. Sports bras (compulsory) do not count as shirts. I wonder: do Tarahumara huaraches and Vibram FiveFingers count as shoes?

Seventh rule. Fights will go on as long as they have to. Surely even for Fight Club this rule had limits. Guys had jobs. Lou had to run a “respectable” business that didn’t involve triage patients stumbling around and frightening the clientele. At the Leadville Trail 100 fights will go on for 30 hours if necessary, then Leadville returns to, um, business. In something like a 24-hour race, fights will go on as far as they have to.

Eighth rule: If it’s your first night at Fight Club, you have to fight. Admit it, in your first ultra you felt like a “space monkey…ready to be shot into space.” But at least you had re-entry options, also known as aid stations. A third of ultra first-timers DNF. It’s ok. It was in the homework you were given. “You are going to pick a fight. And you are going to lose…Now, this is not as easy as it sounds.” Albert I, the first space monkey, DNFd at 39 miles. Twenty-one years later, Apollo 11‘s astronauts snapped photos from 240,000 miles in space. I am Albert’s smirking revenge.

While Project Mayhem devoted nights to carrying out acts of guerilla terrorism aimed at unbalancing the corporate and financial infrastructure, ultrarunning’s most sinister plot seems to involve putting comfortable distance between itself and mainstream road racing and its ties to huge corporate sponsors. Filmmaking includes a lot of fantasy. Art may run seriously afoul of the law in the name of entertainment. Reality may bend rules, but it isn’t usually felonious. This isn’t to say that ultrarunners aren’t still the guerilla rebels of the sports world. And while its reasons for running in the dark may not be blatantly subversive, Project Ultramayhem involves plenty of it.

You may experience hallucinations. You will get beat up. Your boss and coworkers will begin to wonder about you (especially if you forget to take the race flyer off the printer). “Yes, these are bruises from fighting. Yes, I’m comfortable with that. I’m enlightened.” You will have detailed and contentious conversations with yourself. Others will wonder whether you’ve gone insane. You will wonder whether you’ve gone insane. And while you’re unlikely to hear ultrarunners bonding over the hallowed name of Robert Paulson, be prepared to hear the name Caballo Blanco a lot.

Still not sold on Fight Club‘s being an ultrarunning film? Here’s a line that may help you decide. “I ran. I ran until my muscles burned and my veins pumped battery acid. Then I ran some more.” Sound like anyone you know?

Oh, and at $20.00 a bar, Fight Club will sell you something to wash up with when you’re done with all that running.

Unlike one of Jack’s haiku poems, an article about ultrarunners might go on and on, especially when it’s having this much fun. But what is the serious point to my saying that Fight Club is an ultrarunning film?

With its out-of-joint finger on the pulse of an age, Fight Club declares the waning millennium’s heartbeat to be unhealthfully high, ineffectually feeble. Defibrillation is not to be had from half measures. Enter Fight Club, enter Project Mayhem (Fight Club’s evolving cohort): stand-in actors, both. Ultramarathoning, crossfit, fitness boot camps: these are the actors who turned up for the actual casting call. Project Ultramayhem is no sequel; instead think of Project Mayhem as the pilot, and of Ultramayhem as the currently airing series.

Fight Club points to a malaise that, while it has always stalked us, descends on us like sitting ducks in the sterile, humdrum, consumerist, suburban milieu that looks to TV and advertising for its values. It has been supposed by some historians and sociologists (and apparently Andrew Nichol, who wrote the screenplay for The Truman Show, another piece of late-90s filmmaking that, with Fight Club, tag-teams the same suburban blight) that the existence of an open frontier is essential to the vibrant health of a culture and its constituents. In Fight Club, the frontiers are closed for business. Fight Club is not above trespassing to find a back way in. Fight Club is about living–really living–beyond the pale of the mundane. Clearly ultrarunning sets the stage (by legal permit) for a reenactment of our primitive frontier battles (where the catch is a gold belt buckle instead of a kudu or an impala). But as with great performance art (and avant garde cult films), the subplot’s the thing. The real borderlands refer to the undiscovered country just beyond one’s former physiological boundaries and to states of consciousness that are the exclusive reserve of those willing to venture far–very far–from the everyday world. So that’s what it means to realign one’s perception.

To see the world from outer space, one technically must travel 62 miles, beyond the Kármán line. In like manner, each ultrarunner finds a line that bears his or her own name, from beyond which everything–political entities, institutions, concepts, headlines–that looked big yesterday look small today and may continue to look small for however long it takes one’s consciousness to come back to earth. That’s a lot for a spacemonkey to wrap its brain around.

Both Project Mayhem and Project Ultramayhem have answers for a culture that assumes all of us ought to be content with running the rat race. Project Mayhem answers with hyperbole. Project Ultramayhem sounds as if it ought to be hyperbole, but it’s not–not to those willing to throw their hat into its ring. ‘How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight.” I am Jack’s near life experience.

This article may also be viewed in The Good Men Project at http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/project-ultramayhem-mkdn/

Because It’s Here (appeared in The Good Men Project, June, 22, 2015)

ManRunningNearMountainsThe longer one runs, the more fluent one becomes in the use of its spare language. Whether rooted in English, Tarahumaran or Kalenjin, running talk does not usually hold audience with conundrums; it answers most puzzles by earnestly suggesting, what else but a run? Between runners, all of this passes for shorthand; as long as there are routes and races to run, it matters little to us whether there is a translatable answer to the question most frequently put to us by non-runners: in a word, “Why?”Asked why he cared to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory famously answered, “Because it’s there.” With those three words he became a poet of mountaineering and of all sports; wisely, he answered the question with a clever dodge; he let the mountain speak to the mystery. He needed only to allude to the famous pinnacle, nature’s ultimate pièce de résistance, and others were able to form a clear mental picture of the thing he hungered to overcome, whether or not they cared to add its overcoming to their own bucket lists. Had he any words to add to his perfect utterance, the result would have been a subtraction.

But utramarathons, marathons, 10ks and neighborhood routes are not “there” in the same sense that Everest is, as a conspicuous, imposing terrestrial feature calling out to some universally human (if latent) spirit of adventure. The proving grounds of the runner are human inventions superimposed on a neutral geography, a compact agreed on by us and our GPSs or a few race marshals.

Yet make no mistake: there is a mountain. For each runner the contour lines and stratigraphy differ. Though the runner’s obstacles exist mostly in the realms of metaphor, they are in the end no less real than Mallory’s mountain. For some there is an encircling range, the ascent of which is the sole means of escape from poverty and prospects best described as mean, brutish and short. One hears this in the interviews of the Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes who have, against all odds, clambered up a steep path that carried them through a narrow pass and down a leeward side. This seems appropriate somehow for a people who occupy—literally–the Great Rift Valley. Others have it more like Rasselas, the story-book prince whose only release from a life of courtly extravagance and unwholesome entertainments lay beyond the earthly ramparts insulating the Utopian valley of his boyhood. Picture Bruce Dern, gifted actor and fortunate son, with his streak of 17 years of daily running to blunt the toxicity of Hollywood’s fickle fame and a decade’s-long Vicodin addiction.

To each his own mountain, raised from unseen forces and pressures, formed of what complex aggregates others may only imagine. The bedrock is laid early. Assay the runner’s psyche and read his history in the strata. And don’t be surprised to unearth a skeleton or two. Who can know the story of Billy Mills and not know in his heart that it was the catastrophic tectonics of cultures in collision that raised the mountain up which he had to run? During a harangue by his college coach over a disappointing race, the fiery half Oglala Lakota Sioux Indian with the “white man’s haircut” is reported to have shot back, “What half do you suppose lost today?” We may be sure that Mills stood atop much more than three podium steps when, in 1964, he was awarded the U.S.’s first 10,000 meter Olympic Gold in one of running’s greatest upsets. The mountain wouldn’t come to Billy, so Billy went to the mountain.

Of our uplands, the greater part perhaps is rooted in accidents of our prehistory: the where and the when into which we are born, the lot we draw at birth, including the industrial diseases that are now part of the modern runner’s inheritance. A part too is owing to the accretions of our personal history. One feels this in ultra-runner Jenn Shelton’s confession, “I started running ultras to become a better person. I thought that if you ran 100 miles you’d be in this Zen state…It didn’t work in my case—I’m the same old punk-ass as before—but there’s always that hope that it will turn you into the person you want to be…”
Yes, there’s always hope; flowers are usually rooted in dirt, after all. But how long must we run the mountain before we realize that the mountain is us and that we have only to get out of our own way? Because its location in the psyche conforms to no point on a topographical map, there’s no telling the miles we’ll need to log before we may tag its summit. We haven’t the perspective to triangulate its true distance from us, and to know whether or not the summit we think we see is false.

Surely our mountains are made of more than molehills, but of what exactly? Only a great deal of digging will bring such facts fully to light: The names we were told could never hurt us, the insults added to injury, the hats we didn’t throw into the ring, the towels we did; and so much else that, by way of consolation, we convinced ourselves was immaterial. (No amount of EVA foam will fully shield our thin skin from the jagged memories that underlie these cushy figures of speech. This is the job of callouses.) Here too is all that we repressed and sublimated; all that emasculated, dehumanized or disempowered us; the prognoses and prognostications we couldn’t abide; the anti-depressants and statins we refused to take. Sleep, science tells us, cleans the machinery of our brains, but there are dustbins nearer the soul that its nocturnal housekeeping never touches. Neglected, the overspill may rise so high as to throw menacing shadows and summon storm clouds to its heights. Against these, we must add our day labor. These piles we may never disperse; but by years of sweat and by the counting of mile markers, we may rise above them. This is but one way of overcoming: the runner’s way.

Do we doubt that a figment of the mind has influence enough to call a body to run? How common is running in dreams? So common that even our dogs do it. Sometimes the illusion is so vivid that a body actually becomes involved in the running dream. The crux of running’s enigma is that others see only the running but not the thing being run. No wonder they’re confounded.

To run is to invite accusations that we are running from something. That, I think, is a weak light in which to view our striving. We runners are not so passive, not so reflexive. We run up and over mountains, never mind that we may be the ones who’ve put them there. We know that mountains do not give chase; they stand in our way.

So what’s at the top, anyway? First, there’s the view, the wide sunny prospect that allows one to finally see where one came from and where one might go next. Second, there’s a descent. There is, in every great running story, a watershed, after which it is clear to all that, whether the hero runs faster or slower or not at all, he no longer grinds against the weight of the world. From here, he may run on to new vistas, or retrace his steps home. Having run with a heavy heart for three years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours, Forrest Gump suddenly stops and declares to his assembled acolytes: “I’m pretty tired. Think I’ll go home now.” A flat desert road on a day of no particular importance: this was the appointed time and place for Forrest to get to tell it on the mountain.

Whether tomorrow or a month from tomorrow, we’re sure to hear the words, “Why do you want to run that marathon? That treadmill? That track? That whatever?” We might just shrug and invite our questioner to join us. But if we’re feeling chatty that day, we might invoke the spirit of Mallory and answer (with an inward pointing gesture), “Because it’s here.

Forrest-Gump (1)

Because It’s Here may also be read in The Good Men Project, June, 22, 2015.