A Runner’s Quest for the Ache of Life

The Buddha of Sport from the article¬†A Runner’s Quest for the Ache of Life¬†in the New York Times. Some interesting ideas of the role of suffering and sport in modern life.

  • Dean Karnazes thinks that comfort, convenience and quick gratification – the Big Three of the middle-class American lifestyle – are not making us happy and that we should seek out more suffering.

    “Dostoyevsky had it right: ‘Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness,’ ” he writes in his new book, “Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner”
  • But in Mr. Karnazes’ world of super-distance ultramarathon running, many of the conventions of ordinary life do not apply.

    He has run 75 hours straight, 262 miles down the coast of California. He regularly runs all night, 70 miles or more, and in fact dictated much of his book into a tape recorder that he carried while he ran. He has completed many of the nation’s toughest 100-mile trail races in under 24 hours. He once ran a marathon at the South Pole, in running shoes.
  • “In an ordinary race, a 10K or something, you’re just running to race or to check your time,” said Mr. Karnazes, 42, a married father of two and the president of a San Francisco health food company, as we ran on a trail west of Denver one recent morning.

    But an ultramarathon – technically any distance longer than a 26.2-mile traditional marathon – is not really a race at all in the ordinary sense, Mr. Karnazes said. A day and a night of running, he said, is more like a melodrama than an athletic contest – full of euphoric highs and gloomy, dispiriting lows. The emotional climax – the Dostoyevskian moment of suffering – comes when exhaustion and despair loom up and smack you in the face and the finish line seems unattainable.

    “That’s exactly the moment I seek,” he said. “To me, life is in the struggle, and I never feel more alive than when I’m struggling.”
  • But he also writes about the earthier side of ultramarathons, like the giddy joys of food when the body – he says his own has less than 5 percent body fat, about one-fourth the average American’s – has become a raging furnace for the burning of calories. By his own estimate, he consumed nearly 28,000 calories while running for 46 straight hours in a race in California in 2000. The book even includes an appendix of what he gobbled, from a whole cheesecake to three large beef burritos.

    Other sorts of fuel are where you find them. In the deep places of the soul that ultramarathoners mine for the stuff of will power.