This is something I've asked myself many times in the past few months before and after registering for the race and something I've been asked at least as many times by other inquiring minds. It seems like a simple enough question on the surface, but the honest answer goes deeper than that.
First, what is the Vol-State 500k? From the race website: "The Vol-State is not just another ultra-marathon. It is much more than that. The Vol-State is a journey, an adventure, and an exploration of inner space. It begins with a ferry ride across the Mississippi River, from Missouri to Kentucky, and finishes at “the Rock,” high atop Sand Mountain in Northeast Georgia. What lies in between are 314 miles of the great unknown. From the time the Vol-Stater steps off the Ferry, until they reach the Rock, they are totally reliant upon their own physical and mental resources. For the next four to ten days, in the face of the heat and humidity of July in Tennessee , the Vol-Stater must make their way on foot, along highways and backroads, from one small town to the next, over hills and across rivers, up mountains and down long valleys, all the while accounting for all of their most basic needs; “what will I eat?” “When will I find water?” Where will I sleep?” Success is not guaranteed. There are no aid stations, teeming with volunteers waiting to tend to your every need and encourage you to continue. There are just miles and miles of empty road."
That sounds like fun, right? So, why would I (or anyone) want to do this? The straightforward answer is simple, and maybe even a little cliche: to see if I can. That's it. I just want to see if I can run that far.
The not-so-simple answer is something I'm not even sure I can put into words, but I'll try.
I really started thinking about this about 9pm on Friday night June 9th as I was doing a self-supported 117 mile run from my home outside of Boston to Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, MA. Once it got dark and I knew I still had 80+ miles to go I really started reconsidering my life choices and wondering if I should just call an Uber and go home. I thought about this for a few hours as I continued to run forward, toward my destination, all the while constructing a much different blog post as to why it was okay to quit. Why it was okay to bail on the training run and ultimately the 500k, because "I've accomplished a lot the past couple of years and you need a break" and "it's a crazy goal to have anyway...who runs 314 miles without stopping" or even "I probably won't even enjoy running that far anyway". The list got longer and longer with each mile I ran. There in the dark of night, with nobody else around, running back-roads, it was SO EASY to justify quitting. I was THIS close. Then something happened. It was in this moment that I thought about something a new friend, Ken, recently wrote. I thought about all the times I've come up short, been disappointed, let myself down, and I took another step.
“You can keep going and your legs might hurt for a week, or you can quit and your mind will hurt for a lifetime.” - Mark Allen, Ironman Champion
As humans it is in our nature to explore things. We explore new places, new ideas, new experiences, etc. Though, the one thing I don't think most people explore enough is what's inside us. What are we made of? What makes us tick? Sure, go travel to that new place, try that new restaurant, but also push yourself. Our minds and bodies are designed to do what we ask them to do, not the other way around. So, push yourself outside of your comfort zone once in a while. Push yourself to the limit. Maybe if you do, you'll find that the limits you think are there, just aren't.
Even after running my first 5k, I wondered what it would feel like to run further than that. After running several marathons I always wondered what it would feel like to take that next step, past the finish line, and keep running. This basic principle, to find my limit, to find the very limit of my physical and mental ability, has been the driving factor for running further and further in my life. I need to keep exploring my limits, I don't want to do this (I mean, I do want to also), but deep in my bones I need to do this. My life wouldn't be the same without this desire.
"I know not where the limit is, but i know where it is not." - Joseph Arjam
I often picture myself at the end of my life and when I look toward those inevitable waning moments I want to be able to smile and know that I lived every damn drop of life that my body could squeeze out of my time on this earth. Part of this probably has to do with the fact that I don't believe in religion or an afterlife. That knowledge that there is no "better place" when my days are through here drives me to live every day to the fullest. For me, a big part of that means running; but it also means going out on a Monday night for a beer with your teammates on the eve of your first ever 200 mile running week, blowing 125 bucks on a singing birthday Elvis because you couldn't be there in person, volunteering on a Saturday morning at the local food bank, losing an hour of sleep to clean the house up and program the coffee maker so your wife doesn't have to worry about those things when she gets up at 4am for her bike ride before work, donating to that friend raising money for whatever cause they are passionate about, and other times it even means skipping a run to be with family and friends.
My cousin (and one of my best friends on earth) asked me this morning, just as I was getting ready to head out for another 18 mile run, "what are you trying to prove? and who are you trying to prove it to??" with the typical sass that she generally keeps me in line with. As someone who is not a runner, she often asks me these type of questions. Sometimes I forget that not everyone loves running as much as I do. This timing was perfect. For the next 3 hours I really thought about why I was putting my body through the wringer. Why my shenanigans kept my wife up all night worrying about me. Most importantly, why did I really need to do this. Did I really need to this? Did I really want to do this?
I wish I was a better writer and could more eloquently explain just what it means to feel what I feel in those moments. I wish that everyone in the world could experience those moments in life where you are at your absolute lowest. Where you don't want to take another step, and then you do, and then another. Sure, in the literal sense this is very applicable to running, but it's also applicable to life in general. Things don't always go your way. Bad things happen (often to good people). Each and every human being on earth experiences loss, grief, disease, etc. to some degree and it's the people who aren't built or taught to deal with these things that crack. They aren't the same after. We all know these people in our lives. Now, I'm not saying that as humans we should be the same after losing a loved one or dealing with unspeakable hardships. What I am saying is that these things are inevitable and I want to know that I have the strength not only to (literally) go that extra mile, but to also deal with whatever life throws at me.
I hesitate to call it "faith" or "spirituality" because of the religious connotation with those words, but these brief moments in my life are as close to anything transcendent as I've ever experienced. It's not only in these moments of great hardship, when I feel like I can't take another step, that I learn exactly how to do just that. It's also in the hours and days afterward when I look back and learn and grow from the experience. Today was one of those days. I looked back at the 24 hours I spent this weekend running almost 120 miles, alone, with little but my own thoughts and the sneakers on my feet; and in doing so I have no doubt that I am a stronger person.
Now, don't get me wrong. I've also had those experiences where I pushed my limit, where I got to that very wall as it towered above me, laughed, and said "not today" shortly before falling right on top of me. I have learned a lot in these moments as well, maybe even more than the times I stood back up and pounded through that very same wall.
"I did it for me, admittedly, I probably did it subliminally, for you, so I could come back a brand new me you helped see me through, and don't even realize what you did, 'cause believe me you I been through the ringer" Eminem, Not Afraid
(*taken out of context, but nonetheless applicable)
So, why do I want to run for 4 days without stopping (minimum - if everything goes perfect along the way), mostly alone, through the sweltering Tennessee heat in July, and do so relying solely on whatever I carry on my back/buy at a gas station/find on the side of the road?
It is because I want to know; no, I need to know, if I am mentally and physically strong enough to do this.
At the same time, though, it is because I want to honor my family and friends who stick by and continue to support my ridiculous endeavors by being successful. I want to succeed and be the best athlete I am capable of being because of those midnight (Johnny) and 3am (Billy) phone calls of support and for everyone else who believes in me. First and foremost, my loving Woo. Without her support I wouldn't even be on this journey. I want to succeed for her too, to make her proud. The list is far too long to put on paper, but I do notice and appreciate each and every phone call, text/instant message, Facebook like/comment, Instagram heart, etc. that I get. These things help drive me, but they aren't steering the car. There are many people that "run a marathon" or "do a triathlon" for the accolades and finishers photographs, and that's fine too...but that's not enough to sustain a legitimate work ethic and determination for long. It certainly isn't enough to sustain anyone for 500 kilometers.
After what I learned this weekend though, I know that for me to make it to "the Rock" (i.e. the finish line) the only thing that will matter is why, and how much I want to make this dream a reality. For me to do this, I have to put aside all the doubt and the uncertainty and just keep moving forward. I will find the absolute depths of the human condition and I will push through them to the other side and come out a tougher athlete because of it. As Johnny told me the other night after I told him I was riding the Struggle Bus hard: "it doesn't matter what bus you're on, just stay on it! I told myself that many times throughout the night and I'm sure I will keep that close by come race day.
When I do make it to the Rock, even though I'll be standing there alone, I'll know that in reality I'm standing proudly with the best friends and family anyone could ever ask for and I wouldn't have made it there without their unwavering support.
“I found in myself something that I never knew was there.” -Barry Crumrine, former Vol-State 500k champion.
Here are a few photos and a video of the Instagram "story" I added to the whole time I was out doing my 117 mile training run this weekend. The run was perfectly miserable. Just challenging enough to make me question my sanity, push myself to the brink, and come back in one piece.