My calf is in agony. That niggle around the 5km mark is now an unbearable throb and there’s still 10km to go. Will it hold out? The blister on my right heel has morphed into an open, stinging wound, making it feel like I’m wearing a cheese grater instead of a shoe. And how did I forget to plaster up my nipples? It’s as if someone has snipped the tips off with a rusty craft knife. I start to delve deep into an existential crisis and question what on earth am I doing here and why I keep doing this to myself. Why can’t I be into something less physically taxing like bowls or underwater basket weaving?
Every year, millions of arguably sane human beings ignore evolutionary instinct for self-preservation and put their bodies to the test and take part or compete in endurance races. And in the name of what? Glory? Fun? Bragging rights? A sense of achievement? Or it might even be an addiction. Running comes with a sense of euphoria in reaching a state of flow; where the brain goes calm and quiet. Hurtling thoughts slow to the point where nothing else matters but the trail in front of you and just putting one foot in front of the other. And of course, there’s the finish. That zinging high that can only be won through overcoming physical hardship and coming out the other end at least semi-unscathed.
"Why can’t I be into something less physically taxing like bowls or underwater basket weaving?"
I have to stop, I’m not sure I can put myself through this any longer. All that training, all those 4:30 am starts, the boring perfunctory meal plans, the missed social events… All that sacrifice for nothing. The bitterness envelops me and I start to think my race ends here. I see a small flat-topped rock on the side of the trail, partially shaded from the scorching thirty-degree heat by an anorexic-looking tree. A tree that, although long dead, still looks a lot more hydrated than I feel. I sit down. Head falling onto hands, a sense of failure starting to overwhelm me. I think I’m blowing it. Maybe it's better I do give up, stop and avoid any permanent damage. I reach for my hydration and take a deep glug. It cools my dusty, dry throat and gives me a brief feeling of refreshment. I sit pondering over my dilemma, and then I hear something, another runner closing in. I can see the metaphorical crossroads looming. Should I act cool and pretend I’m resting, or should I just cave, admit I’m done and ask for help?
For millennia, humans have been pushing the limits of our capabilities. We’re in a constant state of asking ourselves whether we can go farther, higher, faster. It is the reason why we have become one of the most successful animal species on the planet, and why we’re so adept at pushing boundaries and turning the once impossible into, in some cases, a common occurrence. You’ll have heard the well-used example of the push for the sub four-minute mile. It was first broken by British athlete Roger Bannister in 1954. At the time this feat was considered impossible, not least of all because of the swathes of athletes who had tried and failed to break the barrier. Yet, just 46 days after Bannister made history, his record was broken. Nowadays, the sub four-minute mile, while still a notable achievement, is regularly broken by athletes all over the world.
His face comes into focus. It’s Jake! I’d met him a few months earlier at another run and was used to bumping into him at various races. Scottish-born, but living in California so he’s got this laid-back Californian accent tweaked with Glaswegian vowels. He sees me and gives me his signature big grin before realising something’s up. I opt for somewhere in between the crossroads and wave him off. I tell him I’m fine but he looks at me unsure. He stops, crouches down next to me and I lay out my predicament. After a few seconds of assuring him I’m OK he gets up and sets off. But before he does, he looks at me deeply, ‘‘It’s only pain, man. Deal with it at the finish line.’’
As far as the animal kingdom goes, humans are a pretty frail bunch. Essentially we’re just a bag of meat wrapped around a framework of collagen and calcium. In ancient times, a wrong step here or a small fall there could render us lame and left behind by the pack. An excellent snack for vultures. However, one thing that we truly excel at is running. In a game of Top Trumps, pitted against a Zebra we’d have no chance in a 100m sprint. However, if we were to chase that same Zebra over a few days, we’d come up trumps. This is how some anthropologists believe we used to hunt - simply running and exhausting our prey into the ground. Due to the unique nature in which we sweat, we have evolved with a miraculous cooling system. Whereas most animals pant, we sweat, and whereas a deer needs to stop occasionally to pant and cool off, our continual sweating allows us to maintain a steady level of exertion over a much longer period.
‘It’s only pain, man. Deal with it at the finish line.’’
Jake’s words sink in, and with a rejuvenated will to finish and join him at the finish line, I take another little swig from my hydration pack and start down the trail again. The pain, which was taking pride and place in the front of my mind, is suddenly demoted to second place by pure determination. I start to visualise the finish line and the post-race beer touching my lips. This, it turns out, is just about all the extra fuel I need to keep the machine spluttering along. Granted, this old wagon wasn’t about to set alight any previous PBs, but that simple thought of crossing the finish line had the desired effect. And, when all was about to be lost I had an inkling that this race would still be on the proverbial podium of my top races. So I keep my head down, focus on the trail, and see the finish in my mind’s eye. And as if willed just by me, I suddenly start noticing the countdown markers, 1,000m then 500m, and looking around I realise all this time I’d been passing and running alongside other stragglers with their own personal degree of pain and disdain.
We’ve all heard those cliches ‘mind over matter’ and ‘The power of positive thinking’. While some folk like to pass these off as some sort of hippy-talk nonsense, positive thinking builds our mental aptitude for optimism. It’s this optimism that hunts for favourable outcomes in all situations. With its foundations born of hope, optimism looks past current circumstances and executes emotional power for positive action to help reach the end goal. On the other hand, negative thinkers tend to give up more easily and let the situation get the better of them. Those who opt for a positive mindset will have an immensely higher potential to succeed.
There it is, the finish line. I want to cry but my dumb ego nudges me and tries to tell me that it was never really in doubt. But it was, and now I’m here, across the line both succeeding in finishing and in beating self-doubt. And, in the indomitable words of Joe Cocker ‘with a little help from a friend’ and of course a few simple words. I see Jake standing outside the changing tent already with a beer in hand chatting to another finisher. When he sees me he puts on that big silly grin knowing that what he said got me off the ground. And when I hesitate and ask myself “Will I be back next year?” What a stupid question. Of course. Absolutely.
Every one of us has our own reasons that keep us coming back to this sport. Whether it’s the glory of placing well in a race, or beating a competitor we’ve struggled to beat previously. For some of us, it’s just good old fun along with the camaraderie of the post-race post-mortem storytelling. And yes, it’s also addictive.
For me, what I’ve learned is that I believe the reason so many of us are drawn to endurance races is down to the fact that we are inherently capable. We are gifted with a unique set of physical attributes that have evolved through generations. We also have the ability to excel through endurance with positive mental agility, drawing on this when we need it most. These attributes push us forward when that physical ability sometimes wants to call it quits. Or maybe it’s even more simple than that. Whenever I ask myself why I do this, I hear that beautiful running shoe on gravel voice of Bruce Springsteen, ‘’Baby, we were born to run!’’
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