Last week when I was in San Francisco, I had the great pleasure of having a couple beers with Leo Babauta. Leo writes the blog Zen Habits, and over the past six months his ideas have shaped my thinking more than any others. So it was an absolute treat to hang out with him in person, and the beer wasn’t bad either.
Leo is both a vegan and a runner, like many of us. And recently (probably unlike many of us), he’s been experimenting with living without goals.
That’s right, none.
When he wakes up each day, Leo works on whatever he’s excited about, enjoying the moment instead of focusing on the future. If it’s painful now, it’s not worth it.
It’s a tough concept to grasp, but I can see how it might work: if you’ve taught yourself to enjoy — truly enjoy — activities that are productive, they can snowball and eventually add up to something larger than their sum, even if that something was never technically a goal in your mind.
So, for example, while training for a marathon might seem an awful lot like pursuing a goal, you could look at it as simply a series of runs. Do what it takes to enjoy each one, taking a break when you just don’t feel like running. If it’s fun and you like how you feel, you’ll run a little more each week as your body allows it. Then, bam, one day you’re a marathoner. A stretch, maybe, but feasible.
But what about when it doesn’t feel good?
We hit the snag when we started talking about ultramarathons. What I told Leo, who is thinking about running one, is that the difference between a marathon and an ultra (say, a 50-miler), is largely mental.
During a 50-miler, there’s a well-known “no-man’s land” between miles 30 and 40. You’ve run more than a marathon, perhaps more than you’ve done in your training. Your muscles and feet are sore, and you want nothing more than to sit down.
But you’ve still got a long way to go … 15, maybe 20 miles, too much to feel like you’re almost there. Add to that the loneliness of being out in the middle of the woods by yourself and the overwhelm of staring up hills that are too steep to even run, and you’ve got an experience that is, frankly, painful.
It’s learning to deal with the dark thoughts that creep into your mind here that makes the difference between a finish and a big fat DNF.
I have a friend, an ultrarunner who has completed several 100-milers, who says that he retires from running multiple times during the course of an ultra. This has been my experience as well, even in events as short as 50K.
For me, the monologue goes like this:
Why am I doing this? My friends are probably just waking up, brewing a pot of coffee and reading a book while their kids watch some Saturday morning cartoons. And here I am in the woods — by myself, uncomfortable, cold, tired. And I still have at least three hours before I can stop. This sucks. What am I doing? This is stupid, I’m going to stop. I need to rethink what’s important. Life is short; time is precious. This isn’t worth it. Even if I can finish this one, I’m sure as hell never doing this again. I’m done with running like this. Next time I want to sign up for one of these idiotic things, remember this exact moment and how awful it feels.
This or a variation thereof, often punctuated with curse words, gets repeated dozens of times.
Eventually, the thoughts shift only to the pain. The Vermont 50 stands out in my mind. By 35 miles, my legs were so fatigued and sore that every downhill and even every turn hurt, even more than the brutal uphills. All I wanted was flat, of which there was so little. (They even had a sign near the end that said “Vermont isn’t flat” and I wanted to punch it in the face.)
Every single step literally sent pain through my legs. I dealt with it by just focusing on getting to the next aid station, telling myself I’d have to get there anyway if I wanted to quit and get a ride back to my car. Eventually, I finished this way.
And yet, two weeks later, most of that pain would be forgotten. The accomplishment of finishing, of overcoming all of that to do what very few people ever will, was the lasting feeling.
“Why am I doing this?”
This is interesting, when you think about the no-goal idea. Forget about putting up with pain during the training to enjoy the thrill of race day — here, even the race itself isn’t fun until you are finished with it (for me, anyway).
Leo, whose focus is so much on the present, asked what the answer to this question was: When you ask yourself why you’re doing it, what reason do you come up with?
I was stumped. (My friend Johnny B. Truant has his own, masochistic explanation here.)
It’s not for fitness; you can get that with an exercise regimen far less painful than an ultra or even a marathon.
I don’t think it’s the sense of accomplishment, either. Maybe the first time, but not after that.
After some thought, here’s the best I can explain what keeps you going: the reason you don’t stop is because doing so would be more painful than the discomfort you feel by continuing. Not just later when people ask how the race went, or when you see the race shirt in your drawer and feel ashamed to wear it. But even in the moment when you stop, the physical pain you continue to endure is less than the emotional pain of making the conscious decision to fail at something you promised yourself you’d finish.
Essentially, the goal itself is all that keeps you from quitting.
My guess is Leo would argue that this is somehow artificial, held up by its own bootstraps. That if the fulfillment you get from finishing comes only from the goal itself and not from enriching your life, then it’s not worth spending time and so much effort on. That you’d be better off not having that goal to pull you along, because then you’d have stopped doing something you didn’t enjoy — and probably long before race day arrived.
I’m not so sure. To me, the most valuable part of training for races is this very choice between quitting and sticking it out. You’re faced with the decision, either to give up or to dig deeper than you realized was possible. And when you search inside yourself and find a determination that you never knew was there, to accomplish something that on some level you truly did believe was impossible, I think you can’t help but be changed by an experience so profound.
And without a goal, I’m not sure an experience like that could exist.
I’m really curious to know what you say to yourself when you want to stop. Not just what it is that keeps you going, but your answer to the question, “Why do I do this?” I hope you’ll chime in.