Friday, August 23, 2013

The everyman's desire for a frontier

I'll admit it. I've been watching a lot of Hell on Wheels lately. For those unfortunate souls that aren't familiar with Hell on Wheels, it's a TV show about the building of the railroads across the plains to the West. This also prompted a re-watching of my favorite movie of all time, the Last of the Mohicans. What isn't there to love about watching sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains (yes, it was filmed mostly in North Carolina... not upstate New York) and Daniel Day-Lewis running through lush forests and jumping off of waterfalls.

With my heart heavy with nostalgia for my favorite forest trails of Wisconsin (the Ice Age Trail) and Pennsylvania (the Laurel Highlands Trail) I started contemplating what it is that draws me to these movies and shows. Then I realized that it doesn't just stop with film. My favorite book list is full of titles like Dances With Wolves and The Holy Road, Call of the Wild and White Fang, The Horse and His Boy, The Alchemist, Till We Have Faces, and The Jungle Book. These stories don't all take place in the world as we know it, or even on this planet for that matter, but what do they all have in common?

Well, it took me a while to figure it out. There are surfacey things like a sense of exploration, a deep connection to nature, a grasping for a higher purpose, and an overall life of badassery on the main character's part. But I think the overwhelming feature that draws me to these stories is that each character chooses to push the known limit for their lives. They all come to a point of realization: "Who says I have to live this way?" Cora shouts it in Duncan's face in The Last of the Mohicans. "They [the colonials] do not live their lives 'by your leave'! They hack it out of the wilderness with their own two hands, bearing their children along the way!"

Can this theme be summed up by one word? Yes! Frontier. My favorite definition according to Merriam-Webster: The farthermost limits of knowledge or achievement in a particular subject. Whether or not phrases like "The American West" or "uncharted wilderness" evoke a sense of longing in your heart, I can guarantee that every human being on this planet has at one time desired to explore their own frontier. Maybe it's through a career or through higher education. Maybe it's through parenting or owning your own property. Maybe it's through creating a sustainable lifestyle.

Naturally, right now you are probably starting to question what your own frontier is. Frontier exploration is all-consuming and exhausting. You probably don't have the energy to push the boundaries of more than one or two frontiers in your life at any given time. The more mountain and ultra-runners I meet, the more I start to see our similarities. We have an overwhelming need to find our physical limit, the frontier of how far our bodies can be pushed. And I also start to see how the need to explore this frontier interferes with the rest of a person's life. Parents struggle over how to train but still have time for their kids. Professionals struggle over how to be a good employee/employer while still finding time for the trails.

The natural conclusion that most people come to is that running, especially ultra-running is a selfish endeavor. My heart aches when I hear that, though. That can't be the answer. Once when someone was trying to convince me to become more involved with a volunteer opportunity, they said, "I don't understand why you can't just run for a half-hour every day out your back door. Why do you have to go to the mountains and run for hours? Think about all of the extra time you would have to help people." It hurt. I didn't have an answer and I also stopped talking to that person. I have been thinking about it a lot, though.

I've been reading this book, Roof of the Rockies, that I would highly recommended to the explorers among you. It chronicles the history of the Colorado high peaks starting with the Native-Americans and progressing through the miners, the surveyors, the adventure enthusiasts, and the technical climbers. Reading these stories of exploration, you would never think to accuse these people of being selfish with their time. I wouldn't ask Mary Cronin, the first woman to summit all of Colorado's 14ers why she was so selfish to take time away from home-making, though you can bet many women in her time did.

It's hard to justify my own time exploring my chosen frontier. I'm no Mary Cronin, after all. Adventure history books might remember people like Kilian Jornet. There might be a few Americans listed in the ranks. The fact is that most of us are not going to be remembered for our contribution to exploration. The books might say something like, "And then there was a large trail- and ultra-running boom and many people challenged the conventional wisdom of efficient movement through wilderness territory." Someday your grandkids might pinch your sun-weathered skin and ask you about why you have had so many knee surgeries and you will be able to tell them that you were part of the boom. You pushed the boundaries and traveled distances that people once believed were not humanly possible carrying only the bare essentials on your back.

But that's not why we do it. History is being made here and we are certainly a part of it, but we do it for internal reasons. These reasons vary from person to person, but this breed of mountain and ultra-runners have a unified addiction to seeing the limits pursued. And here is a question that I have for you. What is so wrong about admitting that you run for selfish reasons? You run to explore yourself and to know yourself. What is so wrong with that?

Why do people feel this overwhelming need to veil their motivations by proclaiming that they do it to help other people. To that social worker that feels noble about helping people: if you aren't willing to admit that you personally gain from your work you will burn out. To that doctor that justifies the time away from their family because they are repairing people: If you don't admit that being needed and knowledgeable feeds your sense of self-worth, you will never be able to be able to live without guilt. To that business-owner who feels good about impacting their community: You will never be able to let go and retire unless you are willing to admit that you like being in control and in charge.

I see runners do it all of the time. They run for a cause, they raise money doing it, they coach others, they start races. These are good things, but you don't have to do these things just to excuse your "selfish" desire to run or you will never fully enjoy them.  Once you admit that you run for yourself you will start to see how your running influences others for the better. The additional benefit is that you won't give a shit about what other people think of you. At the end of the day your running is about what your body can bring physically and what your mind can handle mentally. Sounds a lot like living "by your own leave."

So here goes nothing. Running is my frontier. I do it for myself to see what I can do. Simple as that.

Here's a picture of Daniel Day-Lewis running...

...and another one...

... and another...

... and here he is running uphill while shooting guns.

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