100 Miles For 100 Years
6am – mile seventy-three, I message my wife, “Sian, you better keep people away from me” – after a night of joy and pain, terror and elation – all the emotions dashed together, shaken and poured into what felt like the broken vessel of a heart, pumped down a highway of veins to deliver confusion. That’s definitely hunger, isn’t it? Sure feels like hunger, yeah yeah, it’s hunger. You can run one hundred miles for a cause, for charity, but at some point, (usually at the darkest point of the night) when a higher power has stripped you bear, destroyed your ego and shown you things that fundamentally change your perspective on life; you forget all about cause and become overwhelmed by hunger, for meaning.
The great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why he wanted to climb it, he said “because it is there.” We seek to push ourselves through extreme experiences not because they are easy, but because they are hard, and in hardship we find intrinsic meaning, a purpose that can only be described as spiritual. God knows I’m not a religious man, but ultra-running satisfies a yearning to belong I’ve felt since childhood. It cannot help but bring you face-to-face with yourself where you either choose to jump into the abyss of pain or look for an escape hatch. In normal life, escape hatches from the way I feel are everywhere – a morning flood of caffeine into the bloodstream; searching to be liked on social media; email; shopping and alcohol’s pervasive British ubiquity. The hatches are open and they’re adorned with irresistible treasure – the temporary rush of discovering gold, but it’s for fools – followed by the crash of realising you’ve been had, again. Yet, during the course of a one hundred mile run escape hatches take the shape of landmines, without the temporary pleasure. Step on one, to end it all.
In many ways ultra-marathon running is an exploration of inner space, a rebooting of psyche and the rediscovery of connection; it’s a brutal way of getting there, but the rewards are not fleeting. You see and hear things with new clarity; colours are brighter, vivid even; the murderous scream of a vixen takes on cinematic sound and you can smell every sweet blossom as if it were a handmade soap right under your nose. In this way the abyss of pain becomes joyous, this is how I should be seeing life – as it is. Connection comes not just to the earth, but to people too. Yes, there’s a time to be alone and no better than when the reboot is on, do not switch off while you update. But to stay there is a mistake, no matter how convinced you are that you are better off alone.
7am – a tall athletic figure appeared in my peripheral vision at the aid station, eighty miles in, two laps to go. I looked up and saw a man I hardly knew, we’d held a couple of pleasant friendly conversations about endurance sport and summer holidays. His daughter was our new baby-sitter and his wife had grown to love running. He worked in the city. Beyond that, I knew little else. Dammit! How can I tell Russell I need to be alone, he’s gotten up early on a Sunday to come and pace me. Why isn’t it someone I can tell to leave me alone?! “Twenty miles to go, mate. Thanks so much for coming out. Sorry, I’m not going to be much company.” I’ve never crewed an ultra-runner, it’s something I want to do and I’ll take a leaf from Russell’s book when I do. He was the first human connection I had after the reboot and he couldn’t have been more perfect. Humorous, caring, swearing, patient and empathetic – all the things you need as a guide through ultras, and even more important through life. I bet Russell is a great Dad.
Then an angel, dressed in pink. The indomitable Mimi Anderson, having competed her own 100 mile challenge on a bike, came and found us. It’s hard to walk when a multiple world record breaking ultra-runner is with you. It’s hard not to feel blessed too. The reason returned. One hundred miles for one hundred years. We’re here to celebrate the extra-ordinary life of war hero, David Sloman by striving for the extra-ordinary. Clarity remained through all of the senses, but what was this? They’re heightening again, and the cause was crystal clear; I’m boosted by love for fellow humans – people who know what it means to suffer, to endure, to overcome. Also, by the primal feeling of connection to something bigger; to a life of one hundred years, a village of friends and my dance with consciousness overnight. I’m acutely aware that my days are numbered. I am running out of days. We are all running out of days. Awareness of my impending death is something I carry every day, not morbidly, but as a way of affirming the value of life. I recently heard the fifty-one year old entrepreneur, author and former rapper, Jesse Itzler talk about having twenty-four summers left if he gets to live the average lifespan of an American male; so he’s going to make every one count, every day count. If we live an average of around four thousand weeks of life, I’ve got about one thousand eight hundred left. Thirty-five summers. There’s no time to waste. Avoid the hatches. Avoid the landmines. Step into the abyss.
9:30am – ninety miles down, my renewed love for humanity overflowed. I don’t know how many people joined me to get this job done, but it felt like crowd surfing my way to the finish line. I remember two Williams – one on each side – one seven, the other twelve. Conquerors sent to the flanks. Protectors of this realm. People cared, this mattered. David, a Scotsman of kindred spirits took on the role of jester, a job that cannot be underestimated when supporting an ultra-runner; it provides hydration for the soul every bit as important as that of the body. Family and friends were everywhere. People who’d put in shifts with us the day before, were there. Double shifts, even. Is that Sam? Again? She’d covered twenty miles yesterday and here she was, with temperatures soaring. This must be a personal best. Running brings out our own personal best.
Thirty-five summers left. Five miles to go. Where’s my wife? We can finish this together. She glides across to run with me, as she does through life. There are currents underneath but her grace, beauty and power is astonishing. You can be told how mesmerising it is to stand next to or behind one of the great waterfalls of the world, but until you’re there, you’ll never know. We know, we stood there together at the heart of darkness in Zimbabwe: Victoria Falls. She’s pulled me from my own heart of darkness more times than I can remember. She carries us on, through it all.
Transported along by such love, I’m clocking my fastest mile. It’s the final mile. This is the end and there he is – a reflection of one hundred summers; of unspeakable horror in deserts and jungles, of heroism, love and presence. A life fully lived. He’s been to the abyss and learnt to sit there. I've gone one hundred miles for one hundred years. He's shown me how to live.