'This Too Shall Pass'
an exercise in discomfort mediation by Wim Stevenson
Ultra-marathon preparation is as esoteric as the sport itself. Even calling it a sport feels as if the experience becomes cheapened. It is as dependent on the kit you use as other athletic events, however, there is something else. An emotional tactility to such an undertaking that cannot be easily quantified, but I think can be explained.
Where it differs is scope. The amount of punishment suffered by the body – and in turn endured by the mind – is experienced across such a long time that every experience and emotion is not only fully realised, but completely explored. As the body transports the mind across the geographical landscape, it also travels through an ethereal plane of self-realisation. Much like how you can find yourself scrabbling and crawling up banks or across heather to re-find the trail, so do you search to find your true self amongst the detritus of what is an entirely self-inflicted trauma.
Ultra-endurance can be – and often is – revered as a near mystical undertaking. Indeed, such endeavours have formed important aspects of human culture for millennia. Think going ‘walkabout’ amongst the Aboriginal Australians, or the Vision Quest undergone by members of certain Native American Tribes. Jesus is even said to have spent 40 days and 40 nights in the Judaean Desert. Humans long ago realised concerted tests of endurance not only provided a good test of not just a person’s strength, but of the person’s mental constitution.
Obviously, in order to run over 55 miles with 9,000ft incline in winter, through often waist-deep bogs, in under 24 hours, is certainly not for everyone. This is no slight to the people that cannot – or simply do not want – to undertake such a venture, merely that it takes a certain type of person to want to.
To do so requires grit, determination, and a certain amount of physical ability. However, it also requires emotional intelligence, and above all - compassion. Much like how an important aspect of navigating is realising when you’re getting lost, the same is true when navigating the emotional landscape of such a stressful undertaking. It requires a strong emotional vocabulary to identify why you feel a certain way, and a strong sense of empathy to be understanding and accepting enough of it in order for it to no longer be harmful.
You can understand this requirement from an evolutionary standpoint – humans are pack animals, and having the capability to empathise with and look after others in your pack whilst under immense stress is a benefit to the tribe as a whole. Similarly, if you are unable to look after yourself, the pack is put at risk.
This philosophising forms a large part of my preparatory process for ultras. Taking the time to make peace with the fact that there will be suffering caused by any number of controllable and uncontrollable factors is a worthwhile investment.
Packing light doesn’t have to mean sacrificing comfort or safety. Using simple kit well can pay dividends in terms of wellbeing and performance.
I say ‘controllable and uncontrollable’ because, as we all know, a lot of discomfort can be self-manufactured, either through design or disorganisation. For example, it takes a huge amount of food to fuel the body through an ultra-marathon. So much so they are often called ‘eating competitions with some running involved’. Constant fuelling not only keeps the body moving, but the mind balanced, and all too often dark spells can be vanished by simply eating or drinking.
It is easy to gather that feats of ultra-endurance are intrinsically high-stress. They are, however, elegantly simple. Not just in the nature of a race, but that the act of moving over the world is incredibly natural. We are designed to move at such a speed, and your senses, temporarily unfettered by the over-stimulation of modern civilisation, rejoice in natures palette and repertoire. You notice the texture of light, the gentle sigh of trees swaying in a breeze, the infinite tableau of human experience, performed to the crunch of ground underfoot. If anything opposes this it becomes jarringly obvious, irritating, and can seriously derail a performance. Keeping kit simple, intuitively placed in a comfortable pack is a really easy way of ensuring as serene an experience as possible. Kit selection is a very personal thing, I value simplicity, with performance being born out of a piece’s inherent materiality instead of a fancy gizmo or accessory. Having simple things that work means I can focus on managing my body and mind through the environment.
In many ways, the same goes for safety equipment. Every race very sensibly has a list of mandatory equipment without which you cannot race. Having equipment that you know how to use, and have confidence in, can not only make the difference when things get serious, but also greatly improve the overall ‘system integrity’ of your race by removing potentially corrosive doubts and worries.
So get used to your headtorch – they often have numerous features, brightness’s, and light patterns that can be useful to your race and safety. I wore my Lifesystems Intensity 230 LED Head Torch camping and for odd-jobs about the house for a number of weeks before the race and found its adjustable brightness settings very useful dim for close-up stuff or general, and bright for longer-distances. Its red-light function proved useful for chatting in tents when people are close together and became very useful when negotiating checkpoints without damaging Marshall’s night vision (or retinas!). It was also easy to use with gloves – something often not realised until it’s too late.
Confidence using mandatory kit makes all the difference when you need it, and can only improve things when you don’t.
Similarly, the Lifesystems Heatshield Thermal Blanket is a mainstay of mandatory kit lists, but is something I always have in my pack, whether it be running, mountaineering, or hillwalking. Mostly because it is so light and packable (only 84g) that it is totally unnoticeable, but also because in the unpredictable conditions of the UK, who knows if or when it will come in useful. Unfortunately, because of this it is often also too easily forgotten about. Spending a bit of time playing with it, and figuring out how best to wrap up in it in all kinds of conditions is definitely a good use of time.
This type of thing is easily overlooked and, if all goes according to plan, would not be noticed if it weren’t done. It is the sort of ‘meta preparedness’ that is only noticeable in its absence – if you have done the work, you won’t notice the void of worry. However, after 14 + hours on the trail, at midnight, as conditions start to worsen, NOT having that unscratchable itch of doubt at the back of your mind – the dreaded ‘what if’ scenarios playing over and over again – can significantly improve every aspect of your race.
It is probably very obvious I haven’t mentioned training plans, real race strategy, or anything of that ilk. There was obviously some running done in preparation. A few trail marathons in the Cheviots to test conditions and kit, the usual stuff. With enough training and dedication anyone can run fast or for a long time. Indeed, in order to do well in these races – especially one such as the ‘Goat – you need to. There is a very strong argument in saying that moving as fast as possible can provide the lion’s share of your safety margin in such endeavours, especially when moving through such remote terrain.
By now, I have completed a number of ultra-marathons, and undertaken other feats of ultra-endurance. It is fair to say I do not do well at these races. I do, however, manage to enjoy almost every minute of them, and can relish the challenge of self-realisation free of the shackles of competitiveness and performance. They are hard, they are long, you will get cold, you will get wet, you will get tired. My experiences have taught me the most valuable preparation in COMPLETING these things is keeping perspective. It will all pass, and what will be remembered are the moments of gut-wrenching silence, of jaw-dropping beauty, and the serene connection of mind and body undiluted by distraction. It is a sign of the times that such experiences can be so difficult to find, but it is as valid as ever.
The human body needs to propel itself through the world, and the mind is totally set up to reward itself for doing so. Robert Louis Stevenson summed it up beautifully +
“The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.”
As my second experience of the Montane Cheviot Goat proved, however, preparation can only do so much.