Balance, it terrifies me. No other word is comparable in the deep dread it provokes, other than perhaps ‘contentment’ and ‘celery’ (a bitter aberration of the plant family). Work-life balance; emotional balance; personal balance – I’ve never wanted any of it, and the more time that passes, the more compelled I feel to run, stumble, and face-plant with ever-greater vigor in the opposite direction. Endurance running for me is a textbook illustration of that constant tension.
Life is at turns complex, confusing, over-whelming, mystifying. Running is the simple part. It helps to bring order to an inherently disordered world. But the trade-off with order is comfort, familiarity, that dreaded…balance. It is human nature, a biological imperative, to find the path of least resistance, to preserve body and flesh. But running into discomfort, unfamiliarity, feeling constantly unbalanced, that moment of total physical and mental exhausted-ness - that is the sweet-spot I keep chasing.
That is why I suspect I discovered an affinity (if no real talent) for ultra-running, but we all find it in different places. Years ago, my mum told me, out of maternal concern undoubtedly, that I would give up all this running malarkey when I found a proper job. I found a job and the malarkey continued, if anything it intensified, amplified by the passivity of a day spent sat a desk, staring into a screen. No matter how interesting the words on that page, or supportive my colleagues, or the satisfaction of nailing a sharp tie and suit combination, it can never be enough. So why not pack it all up, grab some trainers and depart for a life that is anything but ‘corporate’?
An old university rowing friend spent several years, shortly after graduating, as a semi-pro triathlete. Reflecting on his experience years later he spoke about how challenging he found it but not for the reasons he necessarily expected. The hard grind was the easy part, sweating came naturally. He spoke about life having four pillars: a hobby, a career/job, friends, and family. What he had not appreciated was how vulnerable he would feel when three of those pillars were stacked into one. As a paid athlete his hobby was his career and comprised of most of his friends as well. When results weren’t going his way, through injury or form or just sheer bad luck, everything was left teetering on one pillar – family. It was a precarious dynamic and one that many semi/pro athletes will struggle and persevere with daily.
Do I use that reflection as an excuse not to chase some aspirant dream? Not quite, I am about as talented as a disorientated snail and care too much for Ben n’ Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream than I do podium finishes. Instead, it’s always served to me as an instructive lesson in that elusive ‘work-life’ balance and how comforting, how desirous it seems.
But I don’t run for balance or contentment. I run for the discomfort, and the hurt, and the aches. I run for the magic of the memories and the incredible people you meet along the way. I run for the catharsis, and the simplicity of the moment. I run for the beauty of my surroundings but mostly the peanut-butter pretzels at the next aid station.
I don’t crave a balanced life. I desire a life bursting at the seams with extraordinary moments and I intend to be exhausted by the end of it all.
Chris McCarthy was a fellow TransRockies Runner in 2015, completed the Grand to Grand Ultra in 2017, is a fantastic runner, great friend and is very modest about his achievements!
thoughts, feelings and tribulations about running by runners.