What motivates an amateur racer to rack up thousands of training miles and take on the pain and tedium of marathons and ultramarathons? Sometimes it’s about keeping a step ahead of your ghosts.
“Do something, or die.” —Meghan Daum
Twenty-three miles down, 26 and change to go. Ought to be an aid station in a couple of miles, and I’m thinking I should pop another energy gel about now. But I’ve already had three this morning, and I’m sick of the gelatinous, glucosey goo, which tastes like sweat-flavored cake frosting. They’ll have peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and Cheetos and Coke and potato chips up ahead, so screw the goo. More gels are inevitable—and salt tablets, too, to stave off cramps as long as possible—but for now I can hold out.
Just over four hours into this mess and it’s finally midmorning on the Ice Age Trail 50 ultramarathon, held every spring in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, in southeastern Wisconsin. I’d love it if I can do the rest in six hours. That’s roughly twice as slow as my fastest marathon this year, but it’s also a marathon on top of what I’m running this morning. I’ve run nearly 2,000 miles since I ran a race called Grandma’s Marathon last fall, but never more than 26.2 in one stretch, and pretty much every time I get up over 20 miles, all bets are off. The first half of an ultra, they say, you can run with your legs. For the second half, you’ll have to come up with something else.
There are about 300 of us today. We range from the best ultrarunners in the world, including Western States 100 winner Timothy Olson—who looks like a hot, athletic version of Jesus and is just about as nice, spouting paragraphs of encouragement as he passes people on this cloverleaf-like course—all the way down to chubby amateurs like me. I just spent the past four miles with Mike from Chicago, a guy who was greeted rowdily by everyone we passed or were passed by. He’s pretty easy to recognize, since he has only one arm.
We’ve been talking about shoes. I’m going light with Brooks PureFlows, like nobody else I can see. Mike’s wearing the ubiquitous, trail-ready, toe-bumpered Salomon S-Labs. Seeing those tanks on his feet gives me pause, but there’s nothing to do about it now, so I just try to jettison the thought.
“Fucking Christ,” Mike says. About what I’m not sure. Shoes maybe. Maybe not.
The pain comes in waves. On uphills like this, my quads feel like there are badgers inside, clawing their way out. My calves are OK, but my knees are rickety. The pain isn’t constant, nor is it a curse, really. It’s mine, and since all it takes to make it stop is stopping, I feel an affectionate ownership of it.
Because it’s both logistically difficult and not socially acceptable to flog yourself in public, I run. I run a lot, and I’m not saying that to impress anybody. I run so much that it’s kind of weird. Last year I ran almost as much as my wife drove, and she does an 8.6-mile round-trip commute every weekday. This raises the question that every runner will get from somebody at some point: Why? What the hell is wrong with you?
What’s wrong is that I’m compulsive, though not, I hope, to a clinical degree. I can enter a room without licking the doorknob or turning a set number of circles. But I’m definitely obsessed. Obsessed, I think, with obsession. I live to be consumed by obsession, and running might be the perfect occasion for it.
Running is not an attractive sport, other than the violent beauty of sprinters or the histrionic slow motion of runners in, say, Chariots of Fire. But that’s make believe. Most real runners, by which I mean distance runners—not the gym-rat treadmillers or ring-around-the-reservoir pageant participants—are not pretty. We run slowly, and we’re constantly evacuating our various septic systems—belching, farting, blowing streamers of snot, the remnants of which spangle our hair, our faces. Our shirts, if we’re real long-distance runners and also guys, often display the marathoner’s stigmata of nipples rubbed so raw that they bleed.
Running is hard, I think we can all agree. And there’s nothing quite so easy as not running. What it takes to run, on the other hand, is at the threshold of the obscene. But once you accumulate a good number of miles, running farther and faster becomes more urgent than running less, never mind stopping. At its best, running is sport in its purest form. Virtually no equipment is needed, except for shoes and clothing that keeps your body parts from flopping around. Running doesn’t require a track, road, finish line, start line, or destination. All it takes is the decision to begin and the sustained commitment to not stop.
And that’s what running comes down to for me, in several complicated and inextricable ways. I love and want the family that I have. But being a father and a husband and a son… well, no matter what the outdoor magazines and catalogs advertise as the fun and vibrant and stress-free modern active family life, there’s nothing simple about being an athletic guy and balancing that with the demands of others. The responsibility of being indebted to another person, of belonging to another person, of coming from another person—that responsibility sometimes feels like I’m physically carrying my mother, my wife, and my son on my back. Or when I’m not, it’s as though I have somehow let them down so profoundly that I fear for their lives.
I know it’s not what they ask me to do, nor what they need me to do. Believe me when I say: It’s not them. It’s me. All I can tell you is that the obsessive drive is there. It’s a large part of why I run and why I find myself throwing grotesque amounts of interest and passion into it, year after year after year.
“Fuckety fuck. We don’t got hills like this in Chicago,” Mike says. “Lotta guys I train with come all the way up here, but Christ that’s a long way just to punish yourself. How you like them ninja toes? Supposed to make you have better big-toe pushoff, or is that just bullshit?”
I think that’s the idea, I say, adding that I didn’t know any of this until he told me. They just fit the best when I tried them on.
We’re grinding hard but slow up what I think is called an “esker,” but I don’t know that, either. I ask Mike, but he’s had enough banter for a while. This long, ridgelike hill rises a few hundred feet from bottom to top. It’s steep enough to ski down in winter.
He pulls a gel from his hip pack, tears the top off with his teeth, spits it out, sucks down the goo. We lope the last few paces to the crest. (“If you can’t see the top, walk,” ultrarunners say, and you don’t need to tell me that one twice.) I really want to ask Mike how he gets his shoes on and tied with just one hand, but he veers off the path.
“Down the trail, buddy,” he says, starting to dig around in his shorts. “Gotta wizz here. Kill it, amigo.”
I wish him luck and go over the top, then jog into a gallop, which isn’t that hard, because I’m now headed down a lovely hill. To keep my mind busy, I do the math to calculate pace and my ETA. At nine minutes per mile for 26 miles, I figure I’ll come in at 234 minutes, and that’s almost four hours, plus what I already ran, plus pit stops, plus walking hills, plus lord knows what else. I tumble the words around in my mind like they’re rocks I’m polishing into something precious: esker, glacial till, kettle, moraine, driftless.
Ultrarunning has a way of insulating you from the typical blight of modern existence, where our lives hang in the balance of every social-media post or middle-management employee evaluation. As a runner, you aren’t owned by these things because you don’t want to be owned by them, and you feel superior to most of the civilians walking around because you motherfucking are superior to them.
Well, sort of. You’re living life intentionally by not doing all the stuff people do just to keep up with each other. Spending all your free time on Facebook. Playing golf. Nightclubbing. Going on cruises. Watching The Hunger Games or reading Twilight or whichever one is not about vampiristic perpetual virgins. You. You run.
And it has more to do with being obscure, and being sure of that obscurity, than with actually belonging to anything. Especially with running, where, more often than not, you’re running from and alone rather than to or with. If it hurts, you’re doing it right. If it feels good, you’re fucking up.
Which is, of course, a lot like life in all respects, but not how we’re told it is. It’s certainly not how we’re supposed to say it is. Especially if you’re a parent.
I run, as I believe most runners do, not to win anything or to lose weight or to knock something off my bucket list or to lower my blood pressure. I don’t run in pursuit of any trophy or medal or fictive runner’s high, which in 25 years of serious running I’ve never, ever felt. I don’t run so that my wife doesn’t worry about how late I stay up or how much I drink or how poorly I sleep or how bad my temper is. And while it’s tempting to say otherwise, I don’t run to set a good example for my son or to clutter his bedroom with my finisher’s medals or the belt buckles from all the races I did last year—ten marathons, two 50Ks, and one 50-mile ultra.
If I’m really honest with them and you and myself, the reason I run is this: I don’t want to die.
And when I say that I don’t want to die, what I really mean is that I don’t want to kill myself. And when I say that, what I really mean is: I’m afraid sometimes that I do.
Before I plunge into any dark holes, I need to say quite clearly how good my life is and how grateful I am for my many gifts. I’m an associate professor of English at a good college with students who more often than not embarrass me with their kindness and intelligence. I’m in very good health for a 40-year-old man. I don’t have any physical complaints, I don’t take any prescription drugs, never have, rarely use pain relievers, don’t need glasses, and weigh about what I should, despite the fact that I drink and eat pretty much whatever I want, always have, and don’t worry about it.
My wife and I are well into the second decade of our marriage and have a peaceful, easy relationship in which she does most of the family’s emotional and moral guiding and I handle the logistics, and that works well for both of us. We disagree on nothing significant, can safely complete each other’s thoughts, dinner orders, and spiritual stances, and endure most of our mutual shortcomings with ease and graciousness.
And we have a sweet, smart, funny, pickle-eating five-year-old son. He’s kind to the toddlers and teachers at his preschool, calls our friend Olga “Yoga,” and, whenever we leave a party or a funeral or anywhere else and tell him it’s time to say goodbye, he hugs every last person in sight, even if we’re in rural Nebraska, where my wife is from and where men typically just grimace at one another—and only if they’re really close. He’s an unmitigated blessing to us and my mother and, except for the ways in which he resembles me in his moments of deep fatigue or sleep-deprived frustration, I wish for him nothing more in life than to continue being the boy he’s best at being.
I know, I know, I know. I don’t deserve to keep all of the above and still say “but.”
What am I getting at? The best way I can think to describe it comes from a TV interview I saw long ago with David Foster Wallace, a brilliant writer who suffered terribly from depression. He was talking to Charlie Rose, I think, but it doesn’t really matter who was asking the questions. Everybody was probably asking him the same questions. Some variation of “So you’re pretty much the anointed king of the literary world right now. Feels pretty good, huh?”
And Wallace, seemingly restrained only by the tension of his bandana from tearing Rose’s esophagus out, said something like, You just don’t get it. There is no fucking brass ring. No. I am not on top of the world. No. I am not happy.
And though I’m many miles away from being the king of anything, when I heard Wallace say that, I thought, maybe for the first time ever: I know what he’s talking about.
And then in 2008 he killed himself. Somebody I couldn’t help but fanboyishly look up to. Gone.
That’s what I mean when I say “but.”
My breathing is regular, and I chew through it as it makes a huruffandchuff sound. I don’t like to think too much about cardiovascular issues, since that always leads me to recent spitball theories about how ultrarunning might, in fact, be terrible for your heart, and it could have everything to do with the death of Micah True, the mythic figure known as Caballo Blanco in Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. Instead I focus on keeping my hands moving, using them as a kind of flailing ballast to hold things together as I start rolling down this esker or whatever the hell it is. Then I see the 24-mile sign—a white piece of foam-core board with a printed-out “24” taped to it, stabbed into the trail with a stick.
The hills have been relentless, as I knew they would be. I grew up near the Kettle Moraine region of Wisconsin, and I used to mountain-bike and run here as a kid with friends from the Torque Center, a bike shop where I worked in high school. I remember how often even the best cyclists would have to dismount and walk up the hills, because they’re so steep and rocky, slippery with loose glacial till.
Relentless, I think about the hills, and the word gives me a mental exit ramp away from heart trouble and on to Bryon Powell, an ultrarunner, blogger, and author who coined the phrase “relentless forward progress.”
I repeat the words in my head, then see how RFP works as an initialism and decide I don’t like it all that much. And I realize, without quite meaning to, that I’ve made it almost halfway.
Halfway becomes a new bauble for my mind as I try to remember what Powell said about how, when you’re going down steep hills like this, you should try to imitate a lumberjack in a logrolling contest—fast up-and-down steps to keep you from slipping.
Right then I realize I’m coming up kind of hot on another downhill runner who’s being more careful than I am. I glance at my feet to make sure my stride is nice and tight, so I don’t munch on the guy’s heels. I look down just in time to see my left shoe slam into a rock the size of a loaf of bread, and away I go.
Despair is as human as the imagination, only it’s easier to use and needs no special fuel or encouragement. An insatiable omnivore, despair is as happy to forage through a mediocre life as it is to dig deep into the stores of real wealth that a life like mine contains in abundance.
In so many ways, the more you have, the more you have to lose, therefore the more you have to carry, guard, and worry about. The blessing and burden of my life is that I have everything I have ever hoped for, and I am still a sad, sorry son of a bitch. Mine is a loneliness that never flees, never sleeps, rarely flags, especially when I don’t have too much work to do or when I can afford to spend the day with no worries other than what adventure to undertake with my family.
Michael Chabon, in Wonder Boys, tried to get at something similar. Writers, he said, all too often succumb to something he called the midnight disease, wherein they suffer from a kind of “emotional insomnia.” Much as I like that description, I’m not sure it’s what I’m experiencing.
Depression, too, is a terribly inadequate term. It makes despair sound like an unfortunate weather pattern or a small dent in an otherwise smooth and firm fuselage. It implies exceptionality rather than the broad, horizon-to-horizon condition of a life. I have no doubt there’s medication for how I feel, and also that taking such drugs would be the pharmaceutical equivalent to a frontal lobotomy, which is, it seems to me, nothing more than medically approved, low-grade suicide.
I like my job. I like where I live. I love my family, though I’m afraid of how all this will sit with them. I’ve got nothing but a plethora of things for which I am grateful.
So why the but?
It’s not me, in fact. I lied. It’s you other people.
Lately, it seems, everywhere I turn for artistic or personal inspiration, many of those I’ve admired or looked up to have taken their most hasty exit.
Wallace… Plath… Hemingway… Rothko… Ian Curtis… Kurt Cobain… Spalding Gray… John Berryman… Phil Ochs… Diane Arbus… Hunter S. Thompson… Elliott Smith… Virginia Woolf… Robin Williams…
And then all the people you don’t know who I’m not going to name out of respect. Or worse, the ones you know who tried but didn’t—it seems so wrong to say it—succeed.
I can’t go on.
I’ll go on.
It’s probably reckless, but when I run, I don’t carry a phone. Not on short runs. Especially not on long runs. It’s selfish, I know, but I chalk it up to self-preservation. It is literally the only space I have found where I’m not constantly worrying about other people. About losing them. About losing themselves.
Even still, they find me.
Just across from the Minnesota State Fairgrounds is a bus-, bike-, and police-only transitway connecting the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses. I bike and run there almost daily, drawn by the lack of traffic, the solitude. The fairgrounds, when the fair’s not there, is also among my favorite places to go. Like Giacometti’s Palace at 4 a.m., what walls there are are rendered almost abstract. The buildings, the roads—all of it—more suggestions or thoughts I can take or leave. Both the fairgrounds and the transitway often feel as though they wait just for me—like the one stray cop with almost nothing but a single runner to police.
A couple of years ago, I was running on the transitway and found, at the apex of a bridge that crosses some defunct railroad tracks, a ragged bunch of plastic flowers wired to the fence.
His name, I read later in a newspaper story, was John. Many days had passed before anybody reported him missing. His roommate found a note after he had been gone a week.
Every time I pass the crest of that hill, nearly every day, I swear I see the ghosts of his footprints—the last steps he ever took, nothing much more than two smears on a rail—and I can’t help but wonder if they’re not also just about my size.
Right there, within full view of the fair grounds, which also, because of his epic essay on the subject, reminds me of Wallace.
All these lives lost. Our heroes. Our friends. Our parents. Our children. Strangers. Ourselves.
If they couldn’t keep it together, how the fuck can I?
There are other places to run, yet I find myself here almost daily.
For me there is a rock and a hill. Sometimes that rock has been cycling, other times baking bread. At other times it was music, and skiing, and rock climbing, and always now, and for the foreseeable future, it is family life, raising a child, working, doing my best to love people who deserve to be loved by someone who is better at it than me. But alas, getting another is no easy proposition, either, and so I do my best, and then I run away, and then I come back.
Every time I run, dot-dot-dotting the trail, my footprints like so many ellipses in the dirt, I leave them all behind, and yet I carry them all with me. But because I can’t do anything about them when I’m five and ten and twenty miles away, they become abstractions I can manage and regard more platonically. Not in the superficial way, but the way in which each and every person in my life is a perfect thing if regarded with a pure heart and a clear head. And my head is only ever that clear, and my heart is only ever that pure, when I am far enough away from the people I love to not be able to do a single damn thing for them.
In that way, a run is a perfect space. The fairgrounds in winter. A house where everyone is sleeping. The palace at 4 a.m. A space that is ultimately unsustainable, but what’s available there is holy, and also terrible, too, because it is something that only really exists at the effervescent verge of the void—a moment that cannot be preserved.
But within each run there is the potential to find those moments in the plasma, the nanoseconds between footfalls—the moments when we are neither touching the ground, nor leaping from it, nor falling back onto it.
Though I’m apparently capable of running upwards of 100 miles a week and 50 miles in a single day, the one game I absolutely loathe is tag.
On a recent vacation to a bucolic spot just north of Grand Marais, Minnesota—our rented house with a huge lawn right on Lake Superior—tag was practically the only game my son wanted to play. Having to work a demanding job with regular hours, my wife is usually only able to play with him during the day on weekends, and so almost every time he demanded to play, she acquiesced, and round and round they would go, Frances, our spry Australian shepherd, frantic at their heels.
To me it looked like the perfect image of love—what more, after all, do any of us want than to be perpetually chased after? Perpetually wanted?
But at the same time, there’s just something about the game I can’t stand. Yeah, sure, it probably has to do with the fact that even though I’m a stout enough runner, I hate sprinting, but I think it also has mostly to do with the fact that when I start running, I hate to stop.
And to my family, I hope, they can see a kind of love—at the very least a kind of way toward absolution for my many sins—in the fact that I do stop.
To me that’s the essence of ultrarunning. Knowing that life is a point-to-point race, but family life, no matter what the course looks like, has to be a circuit, and that, whether it’s a material finish line or simply a decision to return home, that’s the essence of it.
Stopping. Turning around. Going home.
Even though to pay for all these races is silly, at the end of each comes just a little bit more ballast—a belt buckle, a medal around my neck—to help keep me down and tell me to bring them back home so that I can give them all away to my boy.
Each ribboned medal is proof, not that I ran, but that I stopped.
I sail a good ten feet, maybe more, out over the trail in a kind of diagonal pirouette, and I know before I land that I’m going down hard. My right shoulder takes the lead, followed by my left hip, and I rag-doll for a few rocky feet on my shoulder, hip, and back until I slide to a halt, my face about an inch from a rock that’s big enough to be someone’s memorial.
For about three breaths, I assess whether standing up will do more harm than good, running a systems check to make sure I haven’t injured my spine or my head. Satisfied, I stand and work quickly through the rest of the moving parts. Other than a bruise already blooming on my hip and a scrape on my shoulder and my arm that’s severe enough to draw a little blood, and what is almost certainly a broken big toe, I’m hunky-dory. Hell, I didn’t even spill any water. I take a drink from my handheld bottle and start off downhill again. One marathon down, I think, one to go. Now I know what’s going to hurt, and for today anyway that’s one mystery I no longer have to court. Others remain.
The pain comes in waves. But it is, again, mine, something that belongs to me, like a suitcase that I pack for a trip and take to the ticket counter at the airport, where I can carry it on or I can check it, place it on a belt and watch it vanish, only to reappear later, outside my window, with everyone else’s, where someone none of us has ever met will pick it up without even passing regard and fling it like a curse into the belly of the plane, where it will sit for some time, if not dormant, at least inert, until we arrive later—we know not when—and must of course claim it as our own, but it’s better than lugging it with us, constantly, clinging to it like the flotation devices they tell us will save our lives in the unlikely event of a water landing. The pain comes in waves, I think, I know, I love, as I start running again. The pain comes and waves, I say. And today, anyway, I wave back.
Matthew Batt is the author of Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home. He teaches creative writing at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota.