… or at least that’s what people keep telling me. “Why would you choose to run 156 miles through the desert carrying all of your own kit in temperatures of 50 degrees?” I understand that everyone’s reasons for attempting Big Hairy Audacious Goals are varied and personal, so here’s some of the reasons why I am doing mine.
Slowing down time
Our western lives aim to make us as comfortable and safe as possible. We are risk averse. We are sedentary, with more labour-saving devices, more ways to minimise the amount of exercise we take. We also attempt to create routines to make our lives predictable and manageable and secure.
This feeling of security in routine is comfortable, but it is also mediocre. You may have experienced the opposite feeling, when you try something new. That feeling of time flowing differently. When you try a new sport for the first time, or a new activity, or a work away-day when you are doing something completely new. It’s a combination of time flowing slowly as you concentrate on the new skill or activity, combined with time flying as you discover that you are enjoying yourself.
About four or five years ago I was becoming uncomfortable with the sense that someone had pressed the fast forward button in my life. I think this may have a lot to do with our trying really hard to establish routines and stability for our children. In doing so, we had stopped creating new memories as everything became predictable and familiar, and so time contracted and all of a sudden a decade had passed, and then another one.
My solution to this was to break the routine and do new things with the intention of filling my life with new experiences and slowing down time. The jury’s still out on whether it has worked or not, but I greatly enjoy the running and it’s taken me places I would never have gone, with people I would never have met.
When I look back at the times in my life that have been most rewarding and when I have felt most alive, the common thread apart from a lack of familiarity, is discomfort, challenge, even suffering. They’ve been times that have really tested me, and which I may or may not have come out on top, but from which I learned a great deal. There have been work situations that have done this. There have been hobbies and pastimes in which I have achieved this, such as climbing, caving or kayaking. Times when I’ve really scared myself and not felt in control but which I have gone on to prevail. Times when I’ve deliberately put myself in uncomfortable situations, and times when I’ve found myself in tricky situations through no fault of my own. Again, time seems to flow differently in these situations as your body harnesses all of your mental faculties to give you the best chance of survival, or the best possible outcome. And looking back, these have all been experiences that I don’t regret, which have possibly shaped me in some way. Talking to others about this phenomenon, it appears to resonate. People remember those times that tested them, and in some small measure, defined them. Our preference for the comfortable and safe means that we never choose to make ourselves uncomfortable, despite it being the thing that makes us feel the most alive.
Linked to the previous two points, one of the common characteristics of these experiences is that I have tended to be ‘in the moment’. I have not been dwelling on the past, nor worrying about the future. I have achieved ‘flow’, that state of being ‘in the zone’, identified by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi where you are fully immersed in a feeling of focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity; complete absorption that results in a loss of sense of space and time. Running great distances with no company except yourself is a great catalyst for flow, assuming you can tame your wandering mind. I’ve talked about this before, that the mind has a tendency to catastrophise and ruminate, especially if there’s not a lot else for it to do. Training the mind, using the Headspace App, to acknowledge these thoughts or feelings and return to the present has helped to create the perfect conditions for flow, and it is this elusive sensation that I am seeking every time I lace up my trainers.
Setting an example
My main motivation for changing from a sedentary, overweight office-worker, to a marathon runner and then to an ultra-marathon athlete, has been to demonstrate to my children and maybe to others, that you can achieve anything you set your mind to. Running six back-to-back marathons across the desert was completely unthinkable two years ago. But, with some structured training, planning and a bit of commitment, it is possible to find oneself with a 1000 other athletes and a couple of helicopters, on the start line of Marathon des Sables, with a chance of reaching the finish line. People have often told me I’m lucky, and I am, but the famous quote attributed to Gary Player holds true that the harder I work, the luckier I get. I want my children to know that they can achieve anything they set their mind to.
What’s your next goal? What’s your motivation? It’s this that will get you out training or practising when you least feel like it, and it’s this that will ensure that you achieve what you set out to do. Good luck.