Lessons From the Ultra Athletes

We’ve been inspired watching Eco-Challenge 2019 – Fiji (released in August 14, 2020). I think that there are lessons writers can take from ultra-athletes and I encourage you to watch this show.

In any adventure race or ultrarun you see the same sorts of people. There are the leaders of the pack who know that they are the leaders. They know that they have a chance of coming in first. They know who their competition is and they keep an eye on them, while pretending to themselves that they are running the race alone and no one else matters. They move through the course with singular focus and breathtaking grace and beauty. When something goes wrong, they keep their heads on straight and they just focus harder.

In our writing world these folks are the Kevin J. Andersons, the Kristine Kathryn Ruschs, and so forth. They are legendary for their ability to write and produce. When we ask them, “How do you write through this great personal crisis,” they react the same way that the great athletes do. They shrug their shoulders and say, “What other choice is there? I’m just doing what I can do.” Critically they know themselves well enough to know how to focus through challenges and they take care of themselves so that they can continue the next day.

The second tier of competitors know that they are not going to stand on the podium in this race unless something miraculous happens. But they are determined to finish the race in good time. They are often looking for a personal best. They may be slowed by external circumstances, like the challenge of the current pandemic, but they move forward relentlessly, often without the ease of the first group, but still impressively. Some of my friends from Superstars are in this category as is Bill Webb from our Memphis Writers group.

In the muddy middle (the middle is nearly always muddy in an adventure race) the challengers are primarily competing against their own minds. And it is their minds that will defeat them. Either they look at the mud and decide that they can’t do it psychologically, or they decide to take it too fast and suffer injury, or they try for a short-cut, which never works out well. The cause of all these problems is the same. They’ve looked at the clock and they are thinking about the finish line. They are not focused on where they are. Some in this group will finish. Some will not. All could do better if they kept their focus.

Finally there are the teams that make up the back of the pack. They know that they will never finish any race on the podium or even in the middle of the pack, but they are determined to finish. The most impressive runner I’ve ever met was in this group at the Sweltering Summer Ultramarathon.

The course for that race is a looped 1/3 mile course in which the runners run until they finish their distance, hit the time limit, or can’t go on any longer. In some ways a looped course is easier because runners don’t have to deal with unexpected hazards and their crew is always at hand. But psychologically it is much tougher. It’s like running an eco race entirely through mud, meeting yourself at every turn, and knowing that you could stop at any moment. There is nothing to protect you from the moments of despair every runner feels at certain points in a race.

The most impressive person I’ve ever seen was a heavy woman who had just started running recently. Valerie Silensky knew she couldn’t finish her goal to run 50K in the time limit (8 hours) so she asked the race director if she could start early. He allowed it but said she would have to count her own laps since they wouldn’t be set up yet. Counting laps while running is a challenge right there.

The dawn rose muggy and so foggy you could barely see. Through the mist, the runners did their final stretches, the race director and crew set up the finish line, and me and the other supporters set up our tables for our runners. I set up my camera.

While all this was going on Valerie ran her own race. Around and around that track for two hours before the race officially started. I looked at her and thought, “This person is going to lose it mid-day. There is no way she can continue like this through the predicted August heat at noon. But she didn’t give up. She was still running when Steve stopped, having run his 50K. She went straight through: 10 hours of running in serious heat. That’s grit!

I aspire to be a writer like her, knowing that I am never going to be one of the top competitors, but also knowing that this race is for me and I don’t want to let myself down. Figuring out what I need to do to make it, not to the podium, but to the finish line. Sometimes I’ll have to give myself extra time. The important thing is that I don’t stop. That I don’t allow the muddy middle to defeat me. Persistent, forward progress is the ultrarunner’s motto and a good motto for writers as well.

Like ultra running and eco-challenges, there’s not one earthly reason why writing is better than not writing. In the case of ultra racing, contestants pay to participate. And sometimes writers do as well. At least in the beginning. So why do it? Writers claim that they “have to write.” Ultra athletes claim “it’s the only way to truly feel alive.”

I’m not sure why anyone writes or participates in ultra events. But I’m pretty sure that secret to getting what you want from both is to press through and focus in on what needs to happen next. Whether you stand on the podium or set a personal record doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you bring your grit to bear on the section challenging you right now.

I hope that the mud isn’t getting you down. If you continue on, you’ll find spectacular waterfalls, icy rivers, and pounding surf. Stay strong, friends!

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