Crusted Salt comic strip

#61 "Ultra Evolution"


The Dark Side Of The Bliss

Having a Pink Floyd ultramarathon today. My brain started the day dense, cloudy, and with a chance of thunderstorms, but has evolved into a great expanse. It was as if I was beamed from the sidewalk of a busy, hilly city to floating ten feet off the ground across a flat, open landscape in an Arizona desert. This has me thinking differently today. It's time for a little ride:

Pain and exhaustion. If we go too long without them, do we start to feel dead inside? Perhaps, the routine of a healthy life, with maybe an hour of exercise a day, is really just a great lullaby. We fall asleep. Even when we're awake, we slumber. We sense a great emptiness inside. On occasion, a soul realizes this, and seeks an activity that will awaken the senses and the mind, hopefully filling the void. Some start running and get that runner's high for a few months, but it doesn't last. Then they race their first 5k, and feel that buzz again. Again, the peak feeling is temporary.

Time goes on. The only way to keep experiencing the high is to run further and longer. Soon, they finish their first marathon, then their second, and then a third. Again, they develop tolerance to the pleasure chemicals in their brains, and can get that same rush no longer. Thoughts of running distract their minds from work, driving, and sexual intercourse. They become less present in non-running hours.

It isn't long before they hear about a race that is longer and more punishing than a marathon: the ultramarathon.

They learn runners are completing races of 50 kilometers or more and decide to go for it. The cycle of training begins—more miles and more time running. Twenty hours training is much more fulfilling than ten.

The 50k goes well, and the high from overcoming the pain puts them in the stratosphere. For weeks following, their consciousness is alert and awake, but there is a growing disconnect from their usual circles. Their coworkers, family, and friends who don't run just can't seem to understand what it feels like to be an ultrarunner, showing no interest in what is considered to be an intense way of life. These runners begin to feel an isolation that is desolate.

Months later...another 50k...then another. The next year, the same cycle is repeated. The distance is no longer fulfilling, the yearning for a greater obstacle to overcome is nearly overwhelming. Fifty mile races are longer, but sound too much like fifty kilometers. The next logical step is to run one hundred miles. The mere thought of running nearly twenty four hours straight on mountain trails in light, darkness, rain, snow, cold and heat provides just the right jolt to the brain to make them commit to the distance.

Training begins—twenty or more hours per week is much better than twenty or less. An injury sidelines them for the six most miserable and cranky weeks of their lives. The ultramarathon in their plans is switched out for one being held ten weeks later. The emptiness inside brings them to the point of insanity. The only escape is television, eating, and beer.

The injury heals, and training starts up again. The day of the race finally comes. If there is a God, they come as close to feeling him or her as they ever have in their entire lives. The pain and exhaustion was the worst they'd ever experienced, but they persevered, and finished. Seemingly, they have reached heaven, or one of the seven at least. They look around at their fellow racers, and they all look alive and awake. There is a feeling of community that they've never experienced before. Unlike non-ultrarunning people, they understand. Everyone is sister and brother to everyone else, having bonded through a shared overcoming of the same painful ordeal.

Soon, they've run a dozen 100-milers, some tougher than others. The emptiness soon returns. What's next?

Running in the blistering heat of Death Valley, the great Sahara, or running 365 ultramarathons in 365 days in one pair of underwear, of course! What were once races are now super-stunts that need large support teams whose sole purpose is to make sure the runner doesn't die while performing. Completing these grand undertakings leaves the stunt-runner euphoric, for awhile.

Finally, short of actually beating themselves with whips or king mackerels, there is no level of pain and exhaustion any more deep or intense that they can inflict upon themselves with running. All that is left is a great emptiness. Sometimes, when this point is reached, the family and friends that could neither understand nor continue to follow and support the quest for greater and greater highs, have disappeared.

It's a crucial time, and the most challenging of their lives. Emptiness by its nature can't be filled, because there is nothing there to fill. It has no definition; it's boundless. This fork in the road leaves a soul with two choices: accept the emptiness, or continue the futile attempts to permanently extinguish it with temporary and fleeting highs.

What happens when the mind accepts emptiness? It's hard to describe, but one thing is for sure: the combined experience of sitting at the kitchen table listening to Pink Floyd, while working on comics, writing, eating dark chocolate covered almonds and drinking coffee, is equally as blissful as any marathon I've ever run.

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Crusted Salt comics by Jimmy Brunelle