This one is for Marsh. Thanks for the inspiration to write this down.
I am too often asked, Why do I do this thing? Another frequent, more amusing (to me) question is, Why not do it in the winter? Wouldn't that be easier? I attempt to not bust up when I hear this -- occasionally I fail, which is too bad, because these folks are serious. To this second question, I usually answer with, "What is the point in making it easy?" That answer is not fair, because to ask the question means there is a basic lack of understanding of The Why? This thing I do, this challenge, this literal craziness, is not something most people can understand. What is the point of it all? Really?
Is the point to feel real physical pain? To experience heat, sickness, extreme exertion, mental pain, and whatever else happens out there? No. Certainly not. What happens when you go through these extremes to get somewhere that is still nowhere? Is finding out the point? Finding out who you are, what you are made of, that you can survive and thrive where others wilt and many will not even try. Is this The Why? No. The balance does not swing the right way. The pain and suffering are not worth that little bit of self discovery I just stated.
Marshall Ulrich weaves a tale of "Love, Loss, and Record Setting," in his fantastic new book, "Running on Empty." This look deep inside what makes this ultrarunner tick goes a long way in explaining The Why. But, when I really probe, needing to know what is deep inside this man to make him do the things he has done, I feel like Marsh works all around The Why, but never really gets to it. I know how it feels.
I too am going to leave you unsatisfied concerning The Why? Is it the same for mountain climbers? Is The Why? as simple as "Because it is there?" Maybe. Death Valley has a draw for me that is real, palpable, something in me and something that is me. The heat. I love the heat. The challenge. Indeed, I love the challenge. But, running twenty miles in Death Valley in the summer is challenge enough.
What is it that makes me so want to do this thing? I wanted to do it as soon as I discovered it via a documentary called "Running on the Sun." This is an early look at the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon and the diverse group of people who attempt it. It is a dramatic and beautiful depiction of a fringe event - fringe even in the already fringe world of ultrarunning. These people seemed just like me, or a least like something I could be. I did not understand The Why then, though the movie tries in vain to tell us. I was drawn in, perhaps obsessed. All of my running became focused toward that one solitary goal. But, I became broken. My bad back ended my running, and I doubted my goal. But, it never left me, never left my dreams. Death Valley was out there, calling me, telling me it beat me. My goals evolved into something I might be able to do. I could speed walk long distances. Should I try it that way? If I was going to give it a go, then I would do it right -- go for the double. Whatever The Why? is, it forced me to continue. I trained and I made it happen. I did not make the double on the first try, but I did not fail, either. I had made my dream come true by crossing the Badwater 135 finish line. It was more than I had hoped for in my dreams and thoughts. It meant everything to me. In that moment, I was more alive than I had ever been.
Why? Is it because I lost a brother to brain cancer twenty years ago. I feel a real connection with Marshall Ulrich when I think about this. The foundations of his ultrarunning come from losing his first wife to cancer at a young age. This must be part of it for me, too. I honor my brother with my runs. Am I doing it to make the memory of him proud of me? Am I doing it to live a life for him as well as my own? By going into the pit of Death Valley, am I defying Death - See if you can catch me, you son of a bitch!? Or, am I expressing life by risking danger. Yes. All of these things. But, no, this is not The Why. Not really. Part of it. Maybe much of it. But, this is not it.
Am I running away, or running toward. Both. I think it must be both. Am I screwed up by wanting to do this extreme thing again and again? That depends on whom you ask. Some have told me painful things about how I am suppressing something horrible, that I am running away from a horrible truth - a truth that would show real bravery if I just turned and faced it. While those are hurtful things, hurtful for the simple reason someone would think it of me, that is not it. I, at least, know that.
Maybe The Why? is too simple to see. Maybe I just like being alone in a world with no stress, no one asking something of me except myself, no one but me and the environment . What is so special about that? People seek these things out and find them without going to the extremes I feel I must do. During a discussion of The Why with my wife, Deborah, I once blurted out, "I must go there because it is the only way I can get my brain to quiet down!" For me, there is a lot of truth in that statement. I cannot explain it to you. You would have to join me in my head to understand. It has been so long I cannot remember it starting, I have asked questions, about me, about life, about everything. I became an astrophysicist because of a deep and desperate need to know. What do I need to know? That has changed through time as I know more. But, the questions never stop. I can only now say that I need to know why. Not The Why, but why. My physicist father got aggravated with me once when I kept probing him on why things worked the way they do. He finally announced, "Don't ask me why! Ask me how." My own studies of the Universe have taught me that his aggravation with that discussion was right and correct. Maybe there is no why. Why not?
Through effort, through suffering, I could find quiet, safety, silence everywhere and anywhere. There is no need for why. There just is.
There are three things that I can relate from my first Badwater Solo that might help to explain -- I went down. I went down hard from dehydration. That was not good. What was good was that I did not quit and I recovered (without medical intervention after an extended period of rest and constant fluid intake) and went on; There is the total and complete silence. Only the sound of my footsteps. I was truly the only thing in the Universe; There was Freddie the Fox. On my way down the long road through Owens Valley to Lone Pine late at night, a young Kitt fox came up to me in the road and sat looking curiously at me. As I again headed down the road, he trotted along side for maybe a tenth or a quarter mile before heading off into that dark again. I was suffering a lot at the time, full of self doubt. It was like he came to encourage me. Like we had a connection. Out there you can believe anything is possible. You become one with the Universe. Against all I usually believe, it crossed my mind that Freddie might have been my late brother telling me I would be OK, that I would get through this and finish. Was it? I don't know - do you?
After reading this, Deborah asked this question of me, "If you had to express how you felt when you finished the first crossing in a single adjective, what would it be?" Conflict. Conflict because I felt several intense emotions. There was bliss. Real bliss. It was over. There was joy. I did it. I lived a dream. But, there was also sorrow. Sorrow? Yes. It was over. That thing I needed out there - it was still there.
And I wanted it more than ever.
"The long and winding road
That leads me to your door
Will never disappear
I've seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to your door."
- The Beatles
The Why? I do not know. Sorry.