Things are never as bad as they seem – Part 2

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Even the greatest hunger is cured with one meal.

So, was I still seriously entertaining the idea of giving up ultrarunning altogether? You bet! For some reason, though, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other; but why?

Another 5km went by with more walking and a few short spells of jogging, but now with the pleasant addition of multiple bouts of vomiting. I think I counted about 8 heartwarming barfs over the next few kilometres. Nice! Then, with about 15km to go, something magical happened. The noise inside my head suddenly subsided completely, as if the arguing parties had simply left the room, leaving only silence. The next sensation to hit me was so surprising that it actually scared me. It was like being completely enveloped in a kind of warm and comforting electric blanket. While this unexpected feeling had initially surprised me, I think I had a clue as to what might be going on. The remaining distance of 15km to the finish line is the length of my favourite weekly training run, one that takes me around a beautiful course around a bay close to where I live in Helsinki. It seems that the metaphysical debate that had raged for many hours had ended so abruptly simply because there was no longer anything left to argue about. I no longer had any doubts about whether I was going to finish or not. I was essentially already home.

My spirits lifted greatly in an almost instant and, amazingly, I was able to start running again with only the odd short walk, something I hadn’t really been able to do since just after the marathon mark. Now there were just three laps to go. Then two. As I started my final lap at just before one a.m. in the morning, I was hit with one last urge to hurl. I final purge of emotion if you will. This time, all that came out was a massive gush of sparkling mineral water, the only thing I had been able to ingest and keep down over the last 35km. I still remember it hissing and bubbling on the grass next to the pathway. A group of teenagers hanging around the adjacent sports hall carpark initially looked on in semi-shock before bursting out laughing and then proceeding to mock me. Strangely, I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I rather enjoyed the show I was involuntarily giving them. At this point, I think that I had finally surrendered fully. I was no longer fighting or arguing with my situation, but had made peace with it. I guess I was now truly experiencing what ultrarunning is all about, at least what it means to me. I had ceased to run with my physical or mental energy, both of which had all been pretty much totally expended by this point. As other ultrarunners have described the sensation, I was now running with heart. With this surrender came an incredible rush of energy, as if I’d just inserted a metal fork into an electrical socket. I literally started to sprint (well, relatively speaking : ) for the last 3km. The section going through the wooded areas of the course had been lined with large candle lanterns after nightfall to assist us ultrasnails make our way around the course. Earlier, I hadn’t paid much attention to them, but they were now the complete focus of my concentration. They seemed to be acting like airport runway lights guiding me home.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”  ~Winston Churchill

In just over 13 hours, I crossed the finishing line. I half expected that I would collapse or maybe experience something semi-profound, but actually nothing special at all happened. After I’d been handed my finisher’s medal, my only thought was to walk to the car for the ride home with Pedro and my wife, Elina, who had both followed and encouraged me all day. At this point, I just have to give Pedro a special mention for his support. He’d had accompanied me on quite a few of the latter laps providing encouragement. I don’t remember too much about what he had said, except for one specific thing, “Hey Jyri, could you sing me the Australian National Anthem?” Wtf?! Was that his idea of being a great motivator or just a great smart ass? Whatever … it helped : ) On the drive home, I was trying to recall how I’d felt during different parts of the race, especially the really low moments, but nothing came. Like Pink Floyd, I was comfortably numb. I just couldn’t seem to recall any of the pain I had so vividly experienced not so much earlier. While I’d certainly wanted to quit on countless occasions, and I’d genuinely felt a sense of impending doom at one point, my personal ‘death march’, which had seemed to be such a massive ordeal, was now anything but. I now asked myself whether I would have been able to continue if I had to, and my answer was a surprisingly a definite yes, although of course a lot easier to say since I was collapsed on the warm back seat of a car and I didn’t actually have to! It has been said that even the worst hunger is cured with just one meal. In other words, nothing is ever as bad as it seems and it is truly amazing how situations and thoughts can change from really bad to really good so rapidly.

Even the greatest hunger is cured with one meal.

I feel, despite my rather limited experiences in ultrarunning to date, very fortunate to have already experienced so much and gained some valuable insights that will help me in my quest to become not just a better ultrarunner, but also a better person. Through this latest personal experience, it is clearly evident to me that all of us possess massive reserves of untapped strength and endurance that are just waiting to be discovered. All we have to do is to simply make the effort to explore and persevere with enough passion. While I’m sure there are many ways to access these hidden reserves, the way of the ultrarunner, in my view, involves pushing beyond the physical and mental limits of one’s endurance and continuing the journey running on heart alone. It is very hard to explain what this feels like, but I can say that it only seems to happen with total surrender to an experience and when peace is made with one’s tormentor, which is probably nothing more than just our own beliefs about what we think we can and can’t do. If we are able to do that, the magic will begin to unfold. However, it is important to make clear that to get to this point almost always first requires experiencing a degree of suffering, which is something ultrarunners are all to familiar with. I absolutely believe that a certain degree of suffering is necessary in the pursuit of happiness. I mean, how else is it possible to truly know what happiness is if there is nothing to compare it to? In reference to this, a very relevant line from a song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers comes to mind – “I like pleasure spiked with pain and music is my aeroplane”. I guess I could say that ultrarunning is my own personal aeroplane. What’s yours? Whatever it is, I hope your 2012 is a really ‘hearty’ one and you get to fly high. Happy New Year!

Jyri Manninen

FAF Director of Education and Cofounder of Silo

My full professional profile is viewable here.

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