Welcome to the Insane Mind of an Ultramarathon Runner
[Katie was a recent winner in our "BeyondRPA" program, which recognizes associates that also do amazing things when they aren't in the office.]
As someone who likes to run 100 mile footraces for fun, there are a lot of questions. No matter the order in which they are asked, they always ladder back to one central inquiry: why would you do that? And trust me guys, during every race, I ask myself the exact same thing. So you and I, we’re the same.
Except for the fact, that as y’all often point out, I like to run really long distances in the mountains. It is a chosen activity – no one is forcing me to do it. There are perfectly acceptable outlets for physical activity that aren’t as painful and puke-filled as mine usually are. There are perfectly reasonable distances to run that aren’t 50, 60, 100 miles in total. I get that. And there are many times when the juxtaposition of my life as a Copywriter with my life as an endurance athlete are downright comical.
For example, I often find myself making a locally roasted single origin pour-over in the morning, and be filtering water out of an alpine stream by evening. I woefully lament going with the Costa Rican over the Ethiopian, yet shrug off the bits of literal dirt in my bottle.
I spend every Friday in a climate-controlled office in Santa Monica, where a single degree of too warm or too cold is a hot topic of discussion for the entire corner of the building. Yet I’ll get caught in a blizzard at 10,000’ on Saturday, my fingers turning white and numb and be like, welp, this is what happens when you buy cheap gloves.
I’ve audibly sighed when my Uber took eight minutes to reach me versus the usual three. Yet I’ll willfully find myself in places so thoroughly remote, the only way out is six hours on my own two feet.
The physical act of running is really only a small part of what I do. The rest mostly involves math, calories, self-trickery, Buddhist mantras and avoiding existential crises. All of which must be done to keep myself alive and moving forward.
And you know, I think that contrast might be it. The reason I love my sport, and why I begin each day with some good ‘ole fashioned pain and struggle. Let’s be real for a minute: living in Santa Monica, California is not exactly hard. I ride my bike to work in the glorious sunshine year round, I have access to the freshest most organic-est food at all times, I have a job that is, in essence, making stuff up for a living and they give us free beer on Thursdays. Like I said, it ain’t exactly roughing it. But that’s also not to say the ease and convenience of the world I live in hasn’t also created its own decidedly first world problems.
Being connected at all times creates the expectation of immediacy. Having access to everything means there’s always something that can be done. Doing creative work is a process without an off switch. When you’re a person who places high value on work ethic and integrity (thanks Midwestern upbringing!), the obligations can be overwhelming. Sometimes it’s nice to take it back a few millennia, and just focus on surviving. Since those “opportunities” don’t exist in regular life, I create them.
If that sounds grim, I assure you it’s very rare that I’m actually thinking about literal life and death. When I am racing or doing a self-supported run through the mountains, the main thoughts I have at any given time are actually related to food. Which again, you may find yourself saying “me too!” and see, I told you we really do have a lot in common. The physical act of running is really only a small part of what I do. The rest mostly involves math, calories, self-trickery, Buddhist mantras and avoiding existential crises. All of which must be done to keep myself alive and moving forward.
Once, while running a 62-mile race through the Arizona desert, all I thought about for an entire day was ice. Procuring it, the myriad of ways I might use it, how long it would be until I reached a place that had it, and then how long it would be until I reached it again. It was strangely soothing. Also miserable. But soothing.
On a different day, I learned to disassociate words from their meanings. You see, to the left of my foot was a 2,000’ sheer drop, and to the right of my foot was also a 2,000’ sheer drop, and while the only thing I really had to do was take another step on a perfectly foot-sized catwalk on a 14,000’ ridge of crumbling Sierra granite, YOU CAN REALLY SEE WHY THIS WAS NOT WHAT I WANTED TO DO. But survival necessitated that step, and also focusing intently on it, to the point where there was nothing in the world but that next piece of granite and my left foot. It was years ago, and I can still picture it. Focusing on nothing but yourself usually feels super selfish, but when not dying depends on it, it feels like you can let it slide.
Other times, I create the danger. If things are going well, I push harder. I create arbitrary time goals and try to find the knife edge. How much can I get out of myself? In my creative work, that answer is never answered – I always feel I can do more, be better – it’s never enough. But when you apply that question to a physical challenge, you always get your answer.
Now of course, I’ve willfully put myself in these situations, when I could just have easily gone to brunch. And not to knock some avo toast and mimosas, but I just find that the world tastes better when you have to earn it. The sunrises are brighter. The showers are warmer. The beer is stronger. I’m happier, clearer in thought, and undoubtedly a better writer and a better person for it. I’ve also figured out all the places I could subsist in the San Gabriel mountains in case of apocalypse.
In short, running unreasonably long distances strips me down to a place where I can be and enjoy my most authentic self. I find out how much I can take, and through practice, learn to take more. The struggle is real, and it’s also crucial. Competing in an uncontrolled environment often brutally shows me that anything can and will happen, and helps me to understand that life isn’t fair, even when I go back to my very controlled spaces. Along the way, I argue with myself, I help myself, and I’ve learned to really like hanging out with myself. At a time when we are more connected than ever, these moments of grounding myself and discovering who I am not as a writer, a wife, or a daughter, but as a unique physical, mental and emotional being is the way I keep from losing myself and my place. Running great distances is how I add meaning and structure to my otherwise chaotic and inconsequential existence. It’s a way for my world to be more than just a background, and the way I deal with the fact that I am but a blip who will eventually return to dust.
Also, it’s fun, sometimes I see cool animals and I get to eat candy.