The Existentialism of Endurance
I have been on an endurance sport binge recently. Mind you, not actually doing that much running, biking or swimming. Instead, I have been reading about people (well, men really) exercising for ridiculously long periods. In my defence, I did recently buy two pairs of running shoes.
The two books I have read were Becoming Ultra, by Rich Roll (yes, apparently his real name) and Eat & Run, by the noted ultra-runner Scott Jurek. Both books at points suffer from the ailments of the typical sports memoir. There are cliches and glibness: Things like I gave it all I had, and I went past my limits — many athletes seem to have a strange, technically incorrect definition of limit. And ironically, I was unable to finish either one of the books. At a certain point, listening to one more story about running (or biking or swimming) a grueling race just became unbearable.
But neither of the books was without content or completely vacuous. They both tell interesting personal stories. Roll had been a competitive swimmer in college, but had become an alcoholic, and then after getting sober, lived an unhealthy sedentary life. He was nearly 40 when he started exercising again and eating better and 41 when, middle aged and out of nowhere, was a top finisher at an Iron Man competition. Jurek doesn’t have the same hollywood-ready story arch, but he also has a story to tell. He grew up in Northern Minnesota to a mother with multiple sclerosis, and a demanding father, whom he becomes estranged from. He is the misfit valedictorian on the cross-country ski-team who improbably becomes good friends with the athletically talented town trouble-maker, and together start entering ultra-long-distance races.
Since we have been going largely vegetarian in our household for the last few months, it was interesting to hear both of the authors credit a plant-based diet composed of lots of vegetables, fruits and whole-grains. For both, they seem to tell a story of a diet-change coming first, and athletic success following. After a couple months of mostly avoiding meat and milk products, I am still far from feeling like I could run a few marathons in a day, but nor is that a goal for me.
I also found interesting the way both athletes try to separate out the competitive, external incentives of entering endurance races, and the internal motivations that they both claim is the real reason that keeps them running past the 50 mile marker. The enjoyment of the actual running (or swimming or biking) is what really keeps them going, even though both are clearly competitive people who want to win the events they enter. They both emphasise the importance of being in the moment, rather than focused on a goal. There seems to be a broader lesson here. In our careers, we should perhaps try to focus more on what we find meaningful or enjoyable about our work, rather than focus too much on the career goals themselves, which can lead to lots of stress and disappointment. We could say something similar about our family lives and relationships. Being more in the moment is a bit of a cliche, but perhaps one that has a lot of merit.