As I start my journey to learn about what I describe as “what the race does to you”, I try to figure out what these processes could be. Do they occur? Why? Are there any rules? What can philosophers, psychologists, fellow runners offer that may shed some light on this?. I started by asking: What’s the story of elite runners? What can I learn about their experience the emotions during running?
In the first phase of my learning I listened to many interviews with different runners. Naturally, most of them were elite runners, and have a record of exceptional successes and victories in the toughest races. I wondered if there were any similarities between their stories, what they experience during the run, the things that connect them to running, and the stories they choose to tell when they talk about it.
Anton Krupicka, who has won many races including the Leadville 100-mile race twice, is known for his minimalist approach to life. A boy who grew up in Nebraska and ran his first marathon at age 12. Interestingly, he did his bachelor’s degree in physics and philosophy, two abstract worlds. Anton grew up in a very agricultural part of Nebraska and he says it affected him greatly. This gave him the opportunity to be very active. His parents instilled in him and his brother the values of valuing the land, the proximity to it, and he remembers wanting to be a kind of mountain man. This story took me back to my childhood on the slopes of the Carmel mountain, where I dreamed of being a shepherd like the Druze shepherds who frequented the hills near my home.
He attests to himself as someone who for all his life running has been his focus and above many other things, starting at the age of 10. That goal, focus, and commitment to something on a daily basis is an integral part of his personality. And this is someone who moved very quickly to running long distances from a very, very young age. As someone who was not socially accepted in high school because he did not “flow” with the usual nonsense, running was his source of life – his source of confidence. He started running in fifth grade, and won most of the races. So he decided to practice, and since then has not actually stopped. He said: When you are in your early teens you really want to belong to something. He did not feel connected to the youth around him and so found his “thing” that slowly became an obsession. Although not being aware of that at first, Krupicka believes it affects every aspect of life: spiritual, social, emotional and mental. He talks about running as something that depends only on you, the autonomy of the individual and the fact that you rely only on yourself. For him this is the most rewarding part. In his opinion, of all sports in the mountains – in running, the main thing is to “be there” and enjoy the feeling of freedom that running gives you. He attests to himself that he is not a very social man and has very few friends. Something in running is very suitable for his personality, he is very introverted and therefore also runs a lot alone. He also believes that this is what will bring him success. When you are out in the mountains, all your emotions are below the surface. It keeps you very connected to what you feel right in your heart.
According to Krupicka curiosity is a critical part of a rich life. This way you do not stay fixated in the same place and at the same level. Being in the mountains answers his curiosity about his abilities and also about the feelings you can experience. He suggests not making assumptions and taking things for granted but exploring on your own, trying and learning. Get inspired by something and see if you can. A rich life in his opinion is the sense of purpose every day. Being there in the mountains and dealing with an experience that makes you “confirm the essence of your existence” when you challenge yourself, experience emotions, live. “It’s my motivation to spend more hours there in the mountains.”
A runner who declares himself to be a very competitive person says that in racing mountains it is the “relevance” of things. He loves the daily effort of going out to be liftimg more than any race, and most of all wants to get the best out of himself. It’s about “moving your body in the mountains” so he increasingly incorporates scrambling. You have to be “present” at every moment, and that is a very, very significant experience the moment it occurs.
Another runner I was very attached to is the redheaded Gary Robbins. Unlike Krupicka, Robbins says he only really started running at age 26… started from scratch. He grew up in Eastern Canada mostly playing hockey and moved to Alberta only at the age of 19. What really got him running was the inspiration from the Echo Challenge – which was the biggest race at the time. He says he was much fatter but realized that was what he wanted to do. And so he found that this was what he really liked – he sold the kayak and the bike – and focused on running.
It is interesting to learn that his first coach told him from the very beginning that he needed the stimulus in the mountains because the road is very boring for him. He describes the perseverance, the toughness, the tenacity – all these qualities he finds there, in the mountains. He explains that it gets along very well with the things he experienced as a child in the nature of the environment in which he grew up – in Newfoundland. His grandfather was a fisherman and the East Coast can be very tough. Stubbornness does not stop striving forward which is what really helps him when others start to slow down.
Robbins finds that in such races one constantly needs to get inspired by them in order to keep going. Impressive to see such a high quality runner is excited that most of his competitors have done so most of their lives – and he did not run more than 100 miles in his entire life before starting to run seriously at age 26. He says the Newfoundland mentality is reflected in a story that happened after arriving home from FKT on the West Coast try to achieve FKT in the east within 14 days. Gary tells that he told his mother he was not sure he had the strength, and she told him it did not matter – that his window of opportunity was closed and he should just get up and do it anyway. In his opinion, this statement very much reflects the mentality within which he grew up.
Robbins attests to himself that he likes the amateur mid-runners – he says they are in general the reason it all happens. He thinks that a lot of people come to this sport at a very late stage in their lives and he very much appreciates those who combine a “normal” life with this sport. Gary says that the race he remembers most is not necessarily a race that he succeeded in. Precisely the Western Stated race where he did not prepare for the heat, and he had to go the last 20 miles almost without fluids. Robbins quotes Walter Peyton “Tomorrow is a promise to no one”.
The third runner up for this episode is the Belgian Karel Sabbe. Sabbe held the FKT of the PCT before Timothy Olson, talking about the sense of flow after a certain time of running. His description is that at long distances he is in a pure state, thinking of nothing, feeling happy and strong, and he experiences extraordinary things as a human being. Karel remembers that at university he disliked the guys, so after school he went to New Zealand without a phone or other means of communication. He secluded himself in the mountains, went out into nature with books, then chose running as a way of escape in a certain way.
Nature instills in him peace and he says it changes you as a person. It’s really basic and shows you that you do not need much to be happy. The main thing is that life will not pass with the thought that the future will be better – to be here and now and not wait for the next day. Saba says he thinks a lot of people like him that have a hard time with the burdensome, frantic and stressful society. About having the time to rest, and it could also be even just a walk in the park. It is our duty to understand that there is more to life than work and traffic jams. It is important for us as human beings. We come from there, from nature, and can not forget our roots.
The interesting thing about these three great runners, who came from different backgrounds and different cultures, is that they all tell about elements in their childhood that have a very strong part in their personality. Everyone has a tremendous love for nature and a very strong mental connection to being in it. Everyone talks about the contribution of the long run in nature to his mental perfection, whether it is the flow and reset of Karel Sabbe, the presence in the moment of Krupicka, or the simple satisfaction of stubbornness and determination. It is evident in each one of them that he speaks from the depths of his soul as he describes the running experiences in a truly picturesque way. Admiration of the moment, of transcendence, of nature.