‘Belief will help create the fact’ – a slightly bastardised version of William James’ quote in “Is Life Worth Living?” The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897), that pinpoints the psychological tactic I used to survive my most recent ultramarathon.
100 km of running through mountaineous trails might not be everyone’s cup of tea – but I’m a chai latte addict. There is something sacrosanct, therapeutic and intrinsically raw about sacrificing oneself to the powers of nature and commencing a journey of 100 km, wearing only one’s clothes and carrying a backpack of supplies. One must respect the distance, acknowledge it, yet not become overwhelmed by the toll the endeavour will take. It ultimately comes down to putting one foot in front of the other, and repeating this sequence very many times. One has to accept, from the outset, that the process will be treacherous, challenging and issues will arise; pain is inevitable. Yet, to finish an ultramarathon, there must also be an accompanying degree of faith, a belief that the end WILL appear and that amidst the trials and tribulations, one will cross the finish line.
My Korean 100 km odyssey took place in Gyangeoung, a province of Korea on the Eastern border. The event was The North Face 100 and it entailed running the gorgeous mountaineous trails, with a total of 4020 m of elevation. My choice to run this particular event was two-fold – to complete the run itself and to visit my father who resides in South Korea. I’ll fast-forward to the actual event and the central point at which Mr. William James’ quintessential quote manifest.
Oftentimes, the ‘early days’ of an ultra are quite enjoyable; the legs are fresh, the scenery is spellbinding, digestion is uninhibited, food and water stocks are full etc. This was the case for me… it lasted a whole 3 km. Unfortunately, as I hit the first set of stairs, an excruciating pain attacked my thighs and they completely seized to function. I somehow managed to complete the ascent of the stairs (not aesthetically) and upon commencing the decline, virtually became stuck in place as my quads continued to seize. I fell onto the grassed verge beside the stairs and watched my legs persistently pulsate with cramps, as if dancing a frenetic tango. Eventually, I managed to collect myself and hobble into a very gradual jog. I could not bend me knees below a 100 degree angle as my quads felt like a volcano on the verge of erupting. The actual sensation was not foreign to me, I have felt the pain a number of times but the onset is usually at the 80 km mark of an ultra – this sudden sensation was unanticipated at such an early piece of the event.
It was at this point that I knew that a fresh mental strategy would be required. There were a number of options available to me and the most tempting was to throw in the proverbial towel. How could I possibly complete another 97 km on legs that were virtually shattered? More so, with 4020 m of total elevation, even if I managed to walk (or crawl) the course, would I have any chance of completing it within the cutoff time? (25 hours). Would I experience any enjoyment from walking the entire course? Would the course be so steep as to prevent me from even walking the course without shattering my legs? The contemplation continued, and interestingly, as it did, the kilometres passed by. I won’t bore you with the minute details of the run, but suffice to say, it was not the most ‘comfortable’ of those I’ve completed. The quad spasms never entirely abated, however the ATTENTION I gave to the persistent discomfort did. I am in no way suggesting that I have some ethereal ability to reach supreme states of consciousness where I can eliminate pain sensations; enlightenment definitely eludes me. However, I claim a degree of arrogance, a self-serving belief in my own ability to persist beyond the walls that external circumstances present me with.
This is a double-edged sword as this self-empowerment naturally relies on an inflated ego, or at least a notion of being greater than another. For example, the internal monologue during the harshest points of the run oftentimes become comparative in nature; “he’s running fast and he doesn’t seem too fit… surely that means I can keep up with him”, or “she was really speedy on that downhill but look at her slow down as the incline approaches, surely I can catch her now…” etc. There is nothing ‘noble’ nor selfless about these streams of thought, however their purpose is to motivate, to convince oneself that it is possible to overcome a difficulty and ultimately, to reach that finish line. The constant repetition of these ego-inflating arguments leads to a hypothesis, becoming a belief which, if repeated and acted on, becomes a fact as advocated by Mr. William James: “Belief will help create the fact”.
In this circumstance, the method worked and I crossed that finish line after about 16 and a half hours. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t at the pace I would have liked to have finished, but it was done. Somehow, I even managed to win second female and 8th overall which was an epic bonus. Once the body crossed that finish line, however, the legs conceded defeat and each step felt like a bear trap was clamping on my quads. I even contemplated asking my father to carry me to the car; however again, the ego took over and demanded I prove my self-sufficiency.
Isn’t the power of our thoughts just phenomenal? Although in this case, the mind was manipulated to elicit a positive outcome (..my body may consider otherwise), oftentimes we can use our own mental strength in a defeatist manner. Instead of creating a faith in the self, we establish a doubt in our being; ‘I’m too old to start this career’, ‘I’m too ugly to head out on that date’, ‘I’m too fat to sign up for that obstacle course challenge’ etc. Naturally, if repeated sufficiently, these destructive words become our beliefs, only to become our facts. So, my hope is that when those destructive thoughts creep in and the seeds of doubt are sown, don’t turn on the tap to water them. Dry them out, don’t add fertilizer and replace them with flora that will bear fruit.
Tell me, have you had a belief that became a fact; that became your life?