Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Art of Ultrarunning

"A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they're capable of understanding." - Steve Prefontaine

There's an artist in Queens named Shaun El C. Leonardo, whose work I like. His paintings, drawings and performances explore the masculine identity in his own life and his Latin culture, in many cases through sports imagery, particularly the hypermasculine (or combat) sports of wrestling, boxing, football and bullfighting. ("El C., or "El Conquistador" is his masked wrestling alter-ego.) Last September I saw him as one of 15 wrestlers in a blindfolded cage match, lasting until only one man was left. Cool as hell, by the way. Since he was set up as the hero, I was surprisingly surprised when (spoiler alert) he lost.

Fast-forward to May 2012 when I ran the 48-hour race at 3 Days at the Fair in Sussex County, NJ, trying to break the 48-hour American record I set in 2011.  After 14 hours and 100 laps of the course I suffered a mental letdown, a simple lack of motivation that's very tough to describe (and is not the point of this essay anyway), and I ended up dropping out just shy of 24 hours into the race, with less than 100 miles. I soon thought of Leonardo's wrestling match, and the theme that runs throughout his work of the defeated hero - does El Conquistador ever actually conquer? - feeling like a defeated hero myself. (I should mention of course that I don't mean hero in the literal sense of someone who sacrifices or takes significant risks for others, but more in the literary sense of the protagonist - or possibly in Leonardo's case, a more mythological sense.) I'm no art expert, and this I believe is not the main point of Leonardo's work, and running is not a hypermasculine sport anyway I wouldn't say, but it got me thinking, if he can incorporate athletic performances into his art, then why can't I incorporate art into my athletic performances?

That started me thinking about the Steve Prefontaine quote, and how I might possibly think of my own running as a work of art, and how that might influence my performance or at least enhance my personal experience. I don't strictly mean my own performances necessarily, but ultrarunning in general, all of us who undertake this activity. Just as a blindfolded cage match with 15 wrestlers might sound insane or extreme to some, so does running nonstop for 24 or 48 hours to some, or running across Death Valley in the middle of July. And for crying out loud, Pre ran 5K's! If his races were a work of art, a 24-hour race has gotta be the friggin' Sistine Chapel!

So why and how can ultrarunning be art? I don't know that it is, at least it would probably require some expansion of  many people's definition of the word art. And I'm generally not the envelope-pushing type. But if you think of art as a means of self-expression, putting yourself out there for the public to see, then just maybe it might just be something to think about. And I think ultras, especially the longer ultras of 100 miles or 24 hours or more, say a lot more about the athletes than other races do. It's beautiful to watch Tyson Gay sprint down the track, but the zombie-like shuffle of a runner in a 100-miler speaks a lot more to the soul.

And the races themselves can be performances worthy of comparison to the great symphonies or operas, even if it's not always apparent at first. Many people, even accomplished ultrarunners, can't comprehend the significance and beauty of a 24-hour race, for example. A group of runners of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and abilities collectively running in roughly mile-long circles (usually) feeding off each other, their supporters and event staff to accomplish goals and cover distances that are unimaginable for many, all in the course of one rotation of the earth. There is a definite arc of drama when you think about the excitement of the first few hours giving way to a more relaxed pace once the energy burns off, various ups and downs, pains and aggravations, a variety of adversities through the evening and night to which some people succumb and which others overcome, relationships of various types that develop with the other runners, whether spoken or unspoken, friendly or competitive, or both, all the while feeling those legs hurting just a little more with each passing hour, feeling those hot spots develop into blisters maybe, wondering what can be done to get the most out of your body, and finally the climactic final hours when the sun comes up, and resting or struggling runners rise from the dead miraculously revived, and you push yourself to the fullest, often in that zombie-like shuffle, until the 24 hours is up. This is not National Geographic, no beautiful scenery, it's more Finnegan's Wake, and a meaningful experience within each runner which is shared with the other runners and the observers.

This is not to dismiss the scenery entirely from the conversation. A beautiful environment - a high mountain trail or a secluded forest - can be personally fulfilling in many ways, and one of the rewards of your efforts, but for the most part it's not at the heart of what the sport is about. I also don't feel that more difficult courses necessarily enhance the experience. It brings to mind my college days as a piano major. My friends and I would sometimes discuss what the most difficult piano pieces or piano composers were, as college students tend to think that sort of thing really matters. My college piano teacher, the late great Norwegian pianist Audun Ravnan, pointed out that a lot of composers are difficult only because of things like a lot of jumping around, meaninglessly fast and awkward passages, even Beethoven and Mozart have their awkward moments, while a composer like Chopin is difficult, but is beautiful and satisfying to play, because, as he said, "it fits the hand." I've been seeing more and more race descriptions where the director or runners praise the course for its difficulty, almost as if a race's value is directly proportional to the elevation change and/or the percentage of the course that's not runnable. I say that while there is definite value in tackling tough challenges, there's no value in being tough for the sake of being tough. The more important question is, does the race "fit the feet"? In this question I suppose I'm not talking so much physically, but emotionally. For all the work you put into it, what does it give back to you? I do most of my racing on the roads, which always give back to me at least the satisfying sensations of running without worrying about footing, allowing me to some degree to transcend the immediate world around me. The bigger trail races I've done, Western States, Vermont 100, and JFK, give back as well and are immensely satisfying experiences. Others are just tough and awkward.

But Badwater is Chopin. No race gives back more. It's 135 miles from the lowest elevation in the U.S. up to the side of the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. For one thing, all of recorded human history is scattered with stories of people going to the desert or the mountains to seek solitude, wisdom, retreat, enlightenment, or sometimes sent there not of their own will but still coming through the experience changed in some major way. What could be more epic than a race combining the hottest desert with the highest mountain? It is very tough. The difficulties include running over 40 miles through heat that can reach 125 degrees or more, and three relentless climbs of 5000 feet, 3500 feet and another 5000 feet to finish the race. But as with a 24-hour race, it's the shared experience that makes the impression. You and your crew and 90 others and their crews and race staff are working together, feeding off each other, making yourselves greater than the sum of your parts in order to push you across the desert and up the mountainside. It has billed itself as "The World's Toughest Footrace", which it probably isn't, but it's got to be the toughest footrace that's worth the effort, that gives back every ounce, every drop of sweat that you put into it. It's elegant and it fits the feet. That's why it's Chopin.

So I think those are a couple of ways that an ultra could be thought of as art. Maybe someone should set up some sort of art exhibit on a football field, include sculpture, performance, and whatever else captures the imagination, and include a runner running on the track around it for 24 hours. It might or might not really work, but I'd be up for it! All this of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and someone watching an ultra might not notice anything that resembled art. But if it affects the way you as a runner think about your race, it just might provide the emotional motivation you need to get you through your rough patches and get more fulfillment from your experience. I admit that I intended to run Badwater this year thinking about it as a work of art, and occasionally during the race I told myself, "This race is a work of art." But in the end, I don't think it had any effect! Oh well, just rambling words for thought. But give it a shot - be your own artist, be your own hero. I'll try again at the 24-hour world championships next month, which happens to be taking place in Poland, homeland of...Frederic Chopin.


  1. Phil, I love this post! Last year, I went to the 10 day race and I was so moved that I left a quote on the List about how I felt like the entire event was an art installation... a 10 day living museum of motion and emotion. Ultrarunning, to me, as an art therapist, artist, and runner, is art. We runners participate creating the motion from within our hearts and souls that stirs up the emotions within the heart and souls of others evidenced by the growing number of new ultrarunners each year. True (or "Good") art moves people in some way. Some are shocked. Some feel disgust. Some are overwhelmed with a sense of awe. Paintings, scultptures, etc do this. Music does this. And extreme athletic performances does this as well. Often in my art therapy group, conversations start about art and end in a discussion about running (and not - always - at my suggestion). My art therapy participants who also have had some experience with running in a self-trascending way, are able to quickly point out the similarities experienced when creating art and when out for a "good run". Both allow us to lose ourselves in the flow of repetitive motions where stroke by stroke of the brush, or step by step of the foot, can seem so insignificant and meaningless... Yet, if allowed to accumulate we eventually find that what we have accomplished is more impressive (to ourselves) than we could have ever imagined... when others, not part of the step by step, stroke by stroke, experience only see the end result, they find it almost impossible to comprehend how one person something so overwhelming. That is what you did at Three Days when you set your new 48 AR. You created a masterpiece. You may have another version of a 48 hour masterpiece to reveal someday, but if not, you still created one for all of us. What you did sincerely is one of the most moving pieces of performance art I have been able to witnessed, and experience, in part. What a wonderful perspective you have shared on what we try to do as runners, and especially as ultra runners.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Shannon! It's not art in the same way as painting or music, but you get what I'm saying. And I hope I do have another good performance in me still! :)

  3. Of all the weapons in Chuck Taylor's arsenal, this is clearly the most lethal.

    More CHIKARA goodness: Chuck Taylor's Invisible Grenade