about grit

First draft posted on should one run a 100k race unprepared?’ on my previous blog

Whatever the answer, I did, would do it again, and do not see anything wrong with it. I have to warn you though: unless you are comfortable with the following two mirror image statements of the sentiment that underlies this, the rest of my argument will not make much sense to you.

  • There’s nothing wrong with DNFing
  • There is more to life than persistence and grit

Runners hold strong opinions about these things. As our species is strongly subject to confirmation bias, if you’re a no-pain-no-gain believer, my arguments are not going to change your mind. Even more probable: I am only going to convince you of my ultimate whimpishness – which would not be an invalid conclusion – and give you ammunition to believe ever more strongly in your own views.

Anyways, the attitude that I want to defend here is that persistence and grit are honourable qualities but elevated to absolute goals in let alone of life they turn into a very dumb way to die.

In case you wonder: I participated in the so-called Pharaonic race. And I dropped out at 80k. I’m not going to describe my personal experience, as cyberspace is littered enough with those. What I want to focus on is the quitting. Could I have gone the full distance? Yes, I think I could. The day after I felt fine, nothing much hurt, my feet were ok, one toe would have been somewhat messy had I continued for another 20k, but nothing dramatic. I felt vaguely nauseous at the time, but slowing down would have taken care of that. My monkey mind started giving in to the possibility of quitting around k 73-74, but I feel I could have resisted. But would that have made me a better runner, a better person? I’ve quit before in a 100k race that I was equally unprepared for (at 50k that time), but I’ve also finished one, although that wasn’t a race but a journey with a friend.

For me, the heart of the matter is that I didn’t feel like finishing….this time, and, also in hindsight I see nothing wrong with that. Yes, it certainly felt easier to quit than not, and yes, I had doubts, persist or not persist, wasn’t it too easy to just quit?  Who knows, I might indeed have quit too easily, but what I am not prepared to doubt is the wisdom of going easy on persistence. But persistence is a huge theme in the ultra-running scene, only becoming more prominent with each moving of the goal posts of what counts as “extreme”. By way of illustration, let me refer to a five-part series on inrunfar.com by educator and elite ultra(trail)runner Andy Jones-Wilkins of what this authoritative voice sees as five skills that are essential to success in ultramarathon running:

  • Persistence
  • Resilience
  • Patience
  • Courage
  • Grit

This list doesn’t bother as far as what it takes to perform well in races. But there is much more to running than races (and there is more to life than running – see below). Is this really the skills set you need to be a good runner? Mr. Jones-Wilkins seems to think it is.  He, and with him many others apparently, even think this is what kids need to be a constructive, functioning member of 21st-century society. So called meta-cognitive skills that US universities and employers seek in their students and workers. Without wanting to down talk the importance of the qualities on this little list, I would argue for extending the list a bit: what about imagination and creativity, what about humility, what about compassion, what about scepticism, what about open-mindedness, and I could go on for a while…mmm, employers might not like some of that? Well, have a go at Foucault and you’ll understand why they prioritize this limited list, but why accept such a dystopian vision for what makes for a good citizen?

Sorry, got carried away a bit there, back to running. I think Anna Frost is spot on: it’s just running, if it defines who you are you’re crossing a dangerous line.

She just completed two multi-stage runs in Nepal, the Everest Sky race organized by the chevaliers du vent and the Manaslu trail race organized by my friend Richard Bull. I believe they have helped this great runner back on her feet, by getting her out of her head.

Fair chance you don’t believe any of this rambling and consider me a spineless twat. You’re quite correct. However, having a spine is not all that counts in life. There is so much more to it. Although hanging in there is sometimes a good strategy, at other times going with the flow is the way to go. How otherwise could Mr. Hendrix have arrived at this most accurate version of the US national anthem ever played?



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