It’s dark, soon to be 5am. After a 5 hour sleep, after three days of carpooling from Nelson, after some 300km of training, the WAM 50k stretches out before me like a serpent in the dark. There is no gun to run from, there is no destination to run to. Only an arbitrary line drawn at the base of a mountain and another drawn near the top of another. And the same orange-bearded man counting down from 10, one morning per year, for the past 6 years of racing.
Then, it’s run run little pink flag, run run little pink flag, run run little pink flag. And it’s never so much about reaching the next one, as it is about leaving the last one far behind; never so much reaching the finish, as it is leaving the start as far behind as I can before my legs run out of legs.
What comes next, wherever, whenever the legs run out, is this: Why?
Some answers are harder than others to find. Fifty kilometres with 3500m of up, for most, is too hard a search for meaning. Especially when these 50k will almost inevitably fail to provide any answer. Especially when they never have. And, most especially of all, when you can’t help hoping that the next time, they will.
So, run run little pink flag, run run little pink flag, never looking back, because however many you put behind you, it never seems enough. Also because run run little pink flag is too close, too accurate a summing up of life, for comfort. How many races lay behind me now, waving back at me like little pink flags? How long has it been now? How many years of life life little pink 50k? Or 50mile? Or 100k? And the thing is, while I almost certainly run more than most, I run much less than most UltraRunners.
All these races are little pink flags, milestones. They mark a unique path, it’s true. My path, as I discover the limits of myself. And yet, zoom out on life, even just a little, and you might miss them altogether. Zoom out enough, in fact, and almost everything disappears.
No start line at the edge of a parking lot, no finish line on the top of a mountain. And much much less the little pink flags planted along the trail so you don’t get lost, so you can always focus on the next one and the next and the next, and zone out the space in between.
Run run little pink flag; maybe the next little pink flag will provide an answer.
Lining up in the dark at 5am, we are, all of us, question marks, waiting for a sleep-depraved orange-bearded man to execute a countdown; 10… Five races in 3 days for this man. 9… The deep shadows under his eyes. 8… The croak in his voice. 7… You can tell, this start line, for him, is also a little pink flag. 6… And every finish line hug, he gives, is a little pink flag. 5… Just as he’s a little pink flag for us. 4… And when he says: 3… You can almost hear it. 2… We’re all thinking it. 1… Why?
And we’re off, each in search of an answer.
Run run little pink flag.
Mostly, what happens out there is a very unique experience, just as every question is unique entering a race, and every method of searching for an answer is unique, and every answer itself is unique. And often not quite the expected answer.
And by race’s end, you’ve inherited an experience of which you are the sole custodian. An experience, the truth of which is both almost impossible to grasp and certainly impossible to convey. It belongs only to you. It also falls on you to make your peace with it and debrief yourself on the dense, complex, confusing experience it can sometimes be. It takes a lot of honesty and humility to perform this task, and so, a lot of time.
Somehow, it all makes sense. For me, at least, it’s a familiar song. Run run little pink flag sounds a whole lot like the Walk Walk Little Blue Flag of Tree-Planting. Every single tree of the million and some I’ve planted, marked by a little strip of flag.
So, it just makes sense, somehow. I do it because it’s what I do. It is the story I believe about myself. The story I tell to others. And yet, zoom out on those little blue flags…
Zoom out enough, and all you’ll ever see is the space in between.
With patience, however, with a few more years of walk walk little blue flag, if you zoom out, you might be surprised at what you see. That space in between has become a tree. And, with more patience, with a few more years of walk walk little blue flag; the space in between has become a forest.
Walk walk little blue flag. Walk walk little blue flag, and in the space in between, a forest is born.
Run run little pink flag. Run run little pink flag, and in the space in between… Why?
Still why. Stick with me, though. These odd little symmetries of life always offer some insight, I’m sure.
Perhaps the answer is simply this: The answer is beside the point.
If I look back from the finish line—or look back on my life, for that matter—maybe I’ll see one or perhaps two of the millions of lonesome pink flags waving in the distance. From this vantage, would it not seem silly to have ever attributed so much significance to these little pink flags, so easily lost in the space in between of life?
Perhaps the answer is simply this, then: Seeking meaning in the little pink flags of life is a mistake. But, perhaps the answer is also this: Asking the question ‘why?’ is the very process through which meaning is allowed to arise.
Because, by filling life with little pink flags, we highlight the space in between. We highlight those moments of flow, when we forget to check for little pink flags. We highlight those moments when, having forgotten to check for little pink flags, we accidentally get lost. And what about that superstitious sip of pickle juice at the FarSide Aid Station? Or when you take a dollop of Vaseline with you to apply to your privates, in private, a few meters down the trail? Or when your gels get your fingers all sticky and you’re suddenly 2 years old again? Or when you get a good sit-down for the first time in 5, 10, 15, 20 hours… Yep, those moments too. Those moments most of all.
And are you guaranteed to find meaning in those moments? Absolutely not. That being said, are you likely to find it? Nope.
So, 5am, 5hours of sleep, 5 times 10 kilometres, 5 different audiobooks to choose from, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Why would anyone do this?
Six hours later: Not sure.
Crossing the finish line, I change quickly, get on a gondola, get on a bus, get on a subway, sleep, get up, walk, get in a car, wait hours in wildfire highway-closure traffic, reach home 10 hours later at 11pm, 5 whole days after leaving for the race, just in time to hop back into bushwork again.
And, was it worth it? Nope. Not the little pink flags of it anyway.
But, I’ve since zoomed out, see? I’ve debriefed and made my peace. And this is what I see: The space in between has blossomed into something more. Something special.
The community of family and friends that has supported, transported and housed me in the 5 days it took to get to the race and back. The laughs, the asking why, the philosophizing, the sharing of meals, the catching up; seeing friends and family become wonderful parents, each in their unique way, watching the slow/fast process of their kids growing up, eating mushroom risotto and coffee tiramisu cake the night before the race…
All of which, tiny unexpected spaces in between of the trip to WAM.
So, 5am, 5hours of sleep, 5 times 10 kilometres, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, run run little pink flag, finish line hug: Why?
Well, let’s see. What does it take to turn a regular trail into a race course? What does it take to gather all these question marks at 5am in the middle of nowhere? What does it take to generate something sufficiently meaningful to gather hundreds of people at 5am on a Sunday morning, in the middle of nowhere? Very little, as it turns out.
Little pink flags, and the question: ‘Why?’
WAM was my little pink flag, marking my path through life. Blink and you missed it. And that’s how it’s meant to be. Only there to till the land, to make space for meaning to sprout, in between the little pink flags of life. In between the question and the answer. In between the start and finish lines of life.
UltraMarathons are just one more example of those little symmetries that life grants us. Little lives within a life. Little journeys to help define the destination. Little destinations to help define the journey. Occasions to bravely ask ‘Why?’, and nothing more.
Not satisfied? Here, then, are two of my best attempts at answering: ‘Why?’
1) Meaning is the meaning of life.
2) Ultramarathons are a bit of a running joke, between me and me. Little pranks I pull on myself to make sure I’m not sleeping at the wheel. Little pranks I pull on that part of myself that forgets it’s a game. That sports are only useful as symbols of life, for us to learn life-lessons on a smaller stage and with reduced consequences.
Huge thanks to everyone who helped make this journey meaningful for me!
And thanks for reading.
Photos: @tyholtanphoto & @markbatesphotography