Newton’s first law of motion is that bodies tend to stay in the situation they are in. If moving, they stay moving. If still, they stay still. Momentum works both as actual motion as well as inertia. It is the driving force in the universe. Entropy also is a contributing factor: physics isn’t always clean and simple.
Translated from the original Latin, it reads thusly: “Law I: Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.”
What that means for my running right now is that I am riding a wave of fast. I say this without braggadocio or swagger. I’ve amassed nearly a year of good training without injury (dear gawd let this not be a jinx) and slowly built up a good racing season. Joe Uhan calls this “marble in the groove“. It’s when you take that momentum and build something phenomenal, whether that’s over the course of one race, or a whole season.
After my first “A” race in June did not go entirely as planned—San Diego 100 in heat and meltdown—I focused on a sub-24 100 in September and nailed that without major issue, adoring nearly every mile of that high Arizona course. No unexpected downtime in the lead up, no missed weeks, no stressing. Just flow.
And then. After recovering from that race (which didn’t seem to take much time or effort, either), I broke my 50K PR set more than a decade ago. When I was 30 I ran a 5:22 over in Phoenix, and I thought that was a decent time, at the time. 2004 was a good racing year for me, with my 50 mile PR also set, and my first Hardrock finish yet to be claimed.
But last week outside of Salt Lake City, at an elevation where I do not live, I shaved 6 minutes off that PR at age 44, a full 14 years after the first one. And it was hard but not ridiculous. I was cruising, grinning, and on a goddam high pretty much all 5 hours of that magical race. I’d slept 9 hours the night before the race, but that was to make up for the 2 hours I’d gotten the previous night (umm), so it’s not like I’m some saint of sleep.
And since that race, I’ve continued to train hard. Or, hard-ish, given that I do not have another race on the horizon. I go out for “normal” runs on courses I’ve done dozens of times and set Strava segment PRs. It’s really kind of magical.
And it has to end.
When? Dunno. Why? Because my body will hit some kind of combo of tired and unlucky. Some bug will hit me. My wackadoodle sleep habits the last month could catch up to me. The stress of moving to a new city and social engagements also adds to the physiological bill.
And, on December 1, I will know if my next 6 months of training will be as important as any I have ever undertaken. It is then that I will know if I get into Western States 100. When I run that race, it could be my only shot for years. That means I will run the race of my up-to-now life. That is the goal. There are performance goals that I will have in mind, but the main goal is to run The Best Race. Period.
If I don’t get in (and odds are still greatly not in my favor, with a 6.7% chance of getting in), I will look to a late spring or early summer “A” race again. Perhaps San Diego because that’s a stellar event. And then, there’s still the possibility of getting in to UTMB. Everything will shake out as it needs, but in the meantime I know that my volume of training is what is propelling me along now.
I will do my best to protect it and keep it sustainable. I owe that to myself and to my idea of racing well. Wish me luck.
If you want to have a go at ultra racing, I can coach you. This stuff runs in my blood and in my neurons, for three whole decades. Let’s make some awesome happen.
For 90 minutes my body went through a rebellion: hands clutching and releasing anything they could grasp, palms sweating despite the chilly room, tears bursting out of thin air, all punctuated by the occasional gasp of joy. I was not undergoing dental work. I was not on trial. I was not fighting with a loved one.
No, I was watching a movie about a man with no boundaries and a compulsion to seek perfection, even if just for a moment. I watched him create mastery with death on the line. The man is Alex Honnold. The film is Free Solo. It was exhausting, and—oddly enough—life affirming.
I chose the film for a very specific reason: I needed to FEEL. Deeply, engagingly, with my whole body. I wanted—and received—a brutal dose of the feels. Why? I’m odd that way. I need something large to draw out feelings that seem routine to my friends and most other humans. I am slow to rile, slow to react, and am seen as so laid back that nothing much phases me.
Alex tells a similar story when he talks about how most things just don’t get to him one way or the other. His nickname is “No Big Deal”. Everyday annoyances, the daily grind, relationships: he appears a canyon. Vast, deep, immovable. Only when he gets into his comfort zone of flow—complicated, demanding climbing routes—does he start to feel the pleasure that comes from competence. Add to that the all-too-real danger of free soloing, and he can feel alive.
When I walked out of the theater I was in the right mindset to open up with a friend and explore a recent emotional quagmire. Hours earlier, I couldn’t let myself get there. I felt frustrated yet incapable of expression. Letting my mind get lost in the tension onscreen was key. Tension on Alex’s behalf, and on behalf of his friends and filmmakers. The buffeting my mind and body endured were just right. Just what I needed.
Alex is odd that way, too. During the film it’s revealed that Alex has some “alternative” brain wiring, starting with his amygdala, the part of the brain that registers fear (in addition to all the other “primal” emotions). When tested in an fMRI machine—the kind that shows your brain lighting up in response to stimuli—Alex does not muster much in the way of, well, anything in the way of reactions in the amygdala. Structurally he’s fine: there’s an amygdala in there. But it’s slower to rouse than a hibernating bear.
This makes him highly unusual—even the control subject, a “thrill-seeking” climber, showed fMRI amygdala responses to shocking imagery. In Alex, this primordial deficit might not have been noticed in a conventional, non rock climbing life. If he’d opted for the civil engineer career path he started and abandoned, he might not have known that he didn’t feel things like other people did. Life just might have seemed . . . fine. Boring, but fine. He wouldn’t have known any better.
But Alex is not a civil engineer (yet; he’s still young). Instead he finds that he is able to touch perfection and truly feel alive when he is using his mastery to stay one smear away from death.
I’m no Alex Honnold.
And yet. I see some interesting parallels in how we process the world. Go big or go home is typically how I take on challenges. Everything else is so “meh” that I am doomed to fail. I don’t just break up with someone: I do that and then get rid of most of my stuff and move across the country. Rather than take a job that’s reasonable in a new company, I find a brand new subject matter in a new company and take over a whole department. Oh, and when I run, I run ultramarathons.
When I step into a big change, I get a lump in my throat. A quiver in my belly. A deep sense of purpose that is damn near addictive. Purpose is fantastic. Purpose helps you open a door, peek through, and realize you—to remain “you”—have to step through. It’s not unlike falling in love: in both we find deep meaning and a dizzying “oh shit here we go this is happening” beginning phase.
But that kind of quivering sensation isn’t repeatable forever. Is it? We grow accustomed to nearly everything. That’s a human strength, allowing us to persevere through some truly awful shit. And it can be our downfall when we seek a meaningful life.
The bridge between those big purposeful feels and just being able to experience emotions without judgement is where I get stuck. And that’s where running comes in. A lot of running.
Endurance + Exhaustion = Feels
After an ultramarathon or an energetically challenging psychological experience (movies can do it, sometimes books, sometimes particular music) I can get to that vulnerable place. It is then that I can open up, have those heart-to-hearts if needed. My normal introvert self can’t be bothered to put up a fight when the rest of me is soooooo tired.
Yet I still wonder how sustainable that pattern is. One can’t go through daily life making big life-altering moves AND draining one’s body of energy just to experience an acceptable level of emotions and be able to connect with people.
Can you? I don’t know. It starts with an observation and a theory about normal people and normal emotions. We’re about to go deep. Buckle up.
The Emotion Is Not Strong In This One
I believe that humans are built to experience a large range of emotional intensity. And like all human characteristics the potential range varies immensely from person to person. Let’s say all emotions are on a scale from -10 to +10. A daily chart might show most people existing between -4 and +5 depending on all kinds of things from social interactions to blood sugar. Meaning: in the middle, but fluctuating a bit. This is based on observation and talking with friends and family.
Rare events (tragedy, great news) spike the numbers into the high numbers in either direction. Overall, it seems that the “normal” waves, the -4s and +5s, are good for mental health. When a person is wired to stray too far away from the norm, there will be a price paid. To the conscious mind, or to the spirit.
At one extreme, some people feel BIG feelings more often than average. They’re in those 8s and 9s too frequently. We might call them drama addicts. They probably have issues with cycling between rosy and shitty in their relationships. They could have diagnosed psychological issues. That can’t be fun.
And then there’s the other side of the bell curve: the underfeelers. Here’s where odd me and even odder Alex come in.
I’ve grown to observe my personal daily pattern between -1 and +2. Not much rocks my boat. I am aware that I could be feeling things more deeply, good and bad, but it doesn’t seem to happen organically. The rub? This also leaves folks like me untrained for bigger fluctuations that would be normal to everyone else. So when faced with a -4 or a +4, I freak out a little and go for a run to smooth things out. A bit of self-medication to open up the little release valve.
But that release valve wasn’t serving me or my relationships. After maintaining my emotional ripples at a safe level, my spirit finally made some demands. It WANTS the big ones: those -5s and +6s. It craves them. So I must create them. I do that by watching Free Solo. Or running all day long, which interestingly is the opposite of those short “valve opening” runs. Long bold and exhausting runs contain big ups and downs within, as well as a payout in emotions at the end. Or becoming a freelancer before it’s financially stable. Or moving across the country. In the meantime, I’m going to watch Free Solo, again.
I hope that in learning more about emotions and how to understand and gently let them flourish, I’ll find that joyful spirit. Because feeling the intoxication of possibility is lovely.
I just sent a cold email to Austin Kleon, asking if I could track him down in Pasadena for a "totally non-awkward" hug. This is what the digital age has done for introverts: we can reach out, nicely, from our trembling seated positions to those that we would like to appreciate. It could be an email. It could be a letter. They owe us nothing, but we receive the tingle of optimism for what might be.
It's good to offer something to those you admire, other than a hug. It could just be a story about their impact. "You have made a difference to me, and here's an example of how." A real story is better than just a thank you, but even those are okay. After I sent a letter to Natalie Goldberg thanking her for transforming my approach to the writer's life, she sent me a postcard back from New Mexico. You never know what delights await.
Important side note: it's not good to ask for free advice (though if you do, put it FIRST, not after a whole string of buttering-up platitudes which ultimately make them suspicious of anything you might send in the future). It's definitely not good to ask to be mentored. Mentorship from a stranger is a fantasy that never works out well for anyone.
As to Austin? We shall see if he responds, positively or at all. In the end, I can feel good with the message that I sent, even if it goes into the ones-and-zeroes ether.