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Reflections on Ultrarunning

According to a Greek writer, the following aphorism was inscribed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: “know thyself.” The maxim is often interpreted as an epistemic norm of sorts: one should not claim to know more than what one does, in fact, know. The point seems to be that things – dispositions, beliefs, and so forth – about oneself are that which are most knowable; and while things about oneself are knowable, things of the world are far less knowable, since the epistemic bridge between oneself and the world is vast and difficult to traverse.

But how can one come to know oneself?

French existentialist, Albert Camus, provides insight into this question – how can one know oneself – in The Myth of Sisyphus. The myth is this:

The Gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.

As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments towards that lower world whence he will have to push it up again towards the summit. He goes back down to the plain.

Setting aside the details of what Sisyphus has done to deserve such a condemnation, consider part of Camus’s analysis of this condemned man:

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me… I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step towards the torment of which he will never know the end… at each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs… he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock… if the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again… the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Sisyphus is the master of his fate: he determines, and finds out, who he is each time he ascends toward the summit, with the rock upon his shoulder, his face in the dirt, and his feet in the sand. He finds out who he is with each arduous step. Camus is interested in Sisyphus, as he watches the rock barrel down the mountain from the summit, for a reason: Sisyphus has a choice that defines who he is. Sisyphus cannot dictate his circumstances, he can only respond to them. His response can take one of two forms: Sisyphus can endure, be passionate and determined, or he can be weak, distraught, and angered; he can choose to become greater than his fate, or he can choose to succumb to it; he can embrace his suffering with no end, his toil and pain, or he can be destroyed by his circumstances, crushed by his rock. It is the latter that the Gods expect of him in each case.

I’m also interested in Sisyphus, but for slightly different reasons. Sisyphus is stripped of any and all superlatives: he has neither socks nor shoes; neither a watch nor a phone; neither sunglasses nor sunscreen. Sisyphus has nothing but his bare self, his dispositions, and his ability; he can do nothing but make a choice, act, and be disposed to believe certain things. It is in this situation that Sisyphus comes to know himself: in a state of torment, in the face of unparalleled and seemingly never ending difficultly, without a sip of water to quench his thirst or a piece of bread to appease his hunger. Sisyphus has no distractions: isolated from the world, condemned to a monotonous and enduring task, absent any external communication, he is left to contemplate his circumstances, assess his dispositions, and perform his task. It is here that Sisyphus discovers his abilities and determines who he is; it is here that Sisyphus begins to know himself.

Ultrarunners are like Sisyphus. We too stand at the foot of the mountain, with a chance to discover our capabilities, and are left with a choice: we can choose to endure, to suffer, to struggle toward the heights in triumph, or we can choose to do so in sorrow; we can welcome the struggle and suffering, embrace the painstaking task, and return to the foot of the mountain with joy, or we can fight against the difficultly, complain about the challenge, and laboriously raise the rock in anger. With every short training run, every painful track repeat, every tiring multi-hour race, we are faced with this choice. In this way, we continuously find out who we are and who we can be; what we can do and what we are capable of. Like philosophers, we discover what is possible and what could be possible. We seek answers to questions about ourselves by removing the superlatives, eliminating distractions, and engaging in a monotonous, challenging activity; it is here that we come to know ourselves, and it is here that the world, and our place in it, becomes clearer.

When you find yourself in the middle of the woods, several hours into a run, with no one around for guidance or help, when you can do nothing but continue moving forward, digging your feet into the sand, ascending toward the heights, you discover answers to difficult questions. When you find yourself at the foot of the mountain after a very long, hard effort, only to turn back to face the sun and the seemingly insurmountable heights; when you continue to endure in the face of uncertainty and strife, you might even uncover answers to questions that you never thought to ask.

… the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. Yes, because it is during that struggle that Sisyphus discovers who he truly is, just like we ultrarunners, as we struggle against distance and time, discover who we truly are. When excesses are stripped away and one is left only with oneself and the formidable task ahead, one finds out, truthfully, who one really is; each triumph and each sorrow is attributable only to oneself and ones true character is revealed most reliably.

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