March 1, 2014 by Roger Henke* after the 2014 Mustang Trail Race and salvaged with permission from his now retired blog. Note that some links may no longer work.
I said earlier that the Mustang trail race is not an extreme multi-day event. That, mind you, is not to say that it is easy. And that, in turn, is not going to deter anyone interested in a race like that. For most, the prospect of something challenging is part of what attracts them in the first place. Don’t ask my why, there is plenty running-as-self-discovery out there, and I am not going to add to it. I have pondered the why question when I entered my first multi-day and didn’t get very far.
But I cannot totally avoid the subject, because that would mean short-changing you on a couple of thoughts on our bodies, and what could be more central to running than that? I’ll leave meaningful reflections about the why of running, to those (preciously few) amidst a tsunami of new-agey gibberish, who have something to say, like Lizzy Hawker in her recent Ke Garne. And only share some reminders to realities to marvel at while running.
(the lyrics are worth checking out)
All this spectacular Himalayan landscape, well, any landscape actually, it’s only accessible to us through our bodies. In various senses of that word ‘accessible’.
Obviously, your body is going to be your means of transport. Moving about, over not so easy terrain, while you’re gradually getting ever more tired, is as good a place to start as any, for wondering about the unfathomable complexity of what that body of yours is doing. The coordination required, the energy supply, the continuous adaptation to the unpredictable minutiae of the obstacle course that one is traversing, those working in robotics know how incredible this is, the rest of us just don’t think about it. Which is a shame. You really miss out on something.
But there is other senses: the outside world is only accessible in-here, all our experience is somatically mediated. So yes, we dream the world, but it is not a fantasy. It is collective, intimately connected with our environment, and other beings, micro- and macroscopic. Check out neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran‘s TED-talk on mirror neurons in one of my earlier posts for one aspect of that connectedness. Note that this has nothing to do with new-agey stuff, it’s as material as it gets, it is embodied experience par excellence.
Still another sense is that that body, without which there is no experience, shares so much with all other bodies around it, human and animal, that our mirroring other life extends far beyond our own species. In the same earlier post, virtual reality pioneer and musician Jaron Lanier has fascinating things to say about that. But beyond that, we are to a large extent other creatures, small ones, mainly bacteria, some totally incorporated, mitochondria the most famous example, others symbionts, but, as more recent research shows, also viruses, who live of us, as we live of them. And we are, in a very literal sense, the air we breath. Food is no use without oxygen. And that same air connects us through smells, sound waves, and other stuff within our sensual range.
Just came across this artist, and love his style. This may not be intended as a celebration of the body, but that is the meaning that I choose to attribute to it:
Before I continue, let me get a potential misunderstanding out of the way. What all of the above reminders aim at is not going to help you ‘perform’ better. People running races are often totally focused on the competition, on the right things to wear, on food and fluid intake schedules, on choosing the best shoes, on the plan they have worked out for it all. I’m no good at any of that, so cannot give advice. Beyond the basics of looking after yourself, using your common sense, not going in there as a headless chicken, and going with the flow (I may display new age cynicism, but that doesn’t mean there is not lots of wisdom to be found amongst the nonsense), which are important for anyone who runs the wilds, a whole different territory of details (that may, or may not make a difference) opens up for the elite 1%, for whom I cannot speak. I expect that for those that enter a multi-day like this to win, my reminders are distractions rather than anything else. Their quest is a different one.
So, what is the point of the above reminders then? That’s where the why I run question comes in. A multi-day like this, in a spectacular environment and requiring challenging but not totally all-absorbing physical effort, is a fabulous arena for letting these marvels get at you. And they only can, if you have prepared yourself by absorbing the intellectual content. Our species likes being out in nature, to affiliate with all of the biosphere, and travelling a particularly entrancing natural environment in this particularly intense manner, is a particularly good opportunity to experientially affiliate. No guarantees, but preparation helps.
By way of preparation, here I can only share a teaser, and hope it entices you to follow up on some of this more in-depth. Three very different individuals, giving their view on our intrinsic connectedness with the biosphere. I am a huge fan of one of them in particular, Lynn Margulis, who is also the mother of endosymbiotic theory, drawing upon earlier, ridiculed ideas, which postulates that cells with nuclei (including all the cells in the human body except mature red blood cells) evolved as a result of symbiotic relationships among bacteria. Complex life evolved in its most basic sense from a community.
A last observation: this multi-day will get you tired, the altitude is gonna weigh you down. But those are precisely the best conditions for opening up the doors of your perception, because they tend to concentrate you on this here now, and even facilitate a certain stillness. And turned down mind-chatter (notoriously difficult to do directly), and your attention focused in the moment (again, try it the direct way, and you’ll probably end up anywhere but here), are as good a preparation as it gets for whatever may happen then. And, what matters for this reflection, the Mustang Trail Race kinda multi-day, which doesn’t require prioritizing persistence and grit above everything else, is better suited for this then the extreme formats.
That’s all for now. See you in Mustang.