Back to Fitness: Get Alive This Year

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John Andersen

I have a simple New Year’s Resolution for you: get uncomfortable this year. I want you to experience some physical and emotional suffering, simultaneously, by your own making.  

I’m not simply talking about pushing it hard at the gym or going all out on a run. I’m talking about getting yourself into a place where you become physically stripped down and emotionally exposed. Get frustrated. Feel despair. Want to quit.  

Here in the United States, we live an incredibly safe and comfortable life. There is a downside to this. During a recent power outage this fall, I caught myself getting concerned about my refrigerator contents becoming warm and not having coffee available in the morning. I thought about this as I was taking a hot shower and then considered the thought, “What if I didn’t have hot water? What if we only had cold showers! OMG!”  

I often contemplate a point that I heard former Charlottesville mayor and city planner Satyendra Huja make when I was at a city council meeting about the Ragged Mountain Reservoir trail system.  Discussing the benefits of an expanded trail system around the reservoir he said, “Humans are not apart from nature. We are a part of nature.” That is a profound statement if you consider it.  

Sadly, most people look at nature as something to observe, often from afar, as we live our lives in our homes, cars, and work places. This isn’t quite our fault; we’re just growing up in the world as it is. But it’s very true. Do we consider ourselves part of nature? Do we consider our lives fully intertwined and dependent on that of the trees, the bear, and the hawk? Experiencing nature has become optional. This could not be said of our ancestors just 500 years ago. Weather and the seasons mattered to them. Their fate hung on the patterns of the natural world surrounding them.  

It is wonderful that technology and infrastructure have made life easier. However, we cannot deny that we come from the natural world and the further removed we are from its influence, the more difficult it is to be human.  

I firmly believe that discomfort is an important part of our natural selves. I’m not saying that in a sadistic way, like, “Hey, let’s cut ourselves with knives to feel more human!” Rather, our connection with discomfort and suffering ties all the way back to humanity’s earliest days. Discomfort and uncertainty were a way of life for us, as it still is for most every wild animal today. This kept us alert and honed our ability to stay alive.  

Today, with our hot water and cold milk, it is easy to become numb. No wonder so many people are searching for something. As we become increasingly independent from nature and increasingly unfamiliar with discomfort, we are not as alive as our ancestors were.

A few years ago, I realized that this is exactly why I love to race trail ultramarathons. Note: I am NOT trying to recommend this or even defend it as reasonable exercise for most people. I’m using it as an example of my own reconnect with discomfort.  

I live a comfortable life like anyone else. Our house is air-conditioned, my milk is cold, my showers are hot, and I’ve got plenty of warm clothes for the winter weather. I drive to work and buy my groceries at the store or go out to eat and have someone else cook and serve me! But for me, ultrarunning is my reconnect. These races are hard. Running through the mountains for 30, 50, or 100 miles is not only physically difficult, but mentally exhausting. If you are not having a good day and you realize you have 12 more hours to go, you will come up close and personal with despair.

During a race this past summer, the Old Dominion 100-miler (located in the Shenandoah Valley and now on its 41st year), I felt overwhelming discomfort. I was having a great day until mile 65. It had been hot and humid all day and suddenly my energy just faded away. As I hiked up yet another long mountain climb (I was way too tired to run), an incredible swarm of mosquitoes descended upon me. I was too tired to run away from them and my constant swatting was futile. So, there I was, hiking up a mountain being eaten alive by mosquitoes, and knowing that I had 35 more miles to go.  I entered a true place of discomfort and despair. I didn’t care about running anymore. In fact, I swore off all future races and I meant it. I came face-to-face with the tough questions of “who am I,” “why am I doing this,” and “how am I going to get out of this?” Since I was about 10 mountain miles from the next aid station, I was forced to answer those questions then and there.  

I finished the race, but I was a bit scarred and stung from the experience. However, I was very much alive. Yes, it felt good to overcome that low point, but, more importantly, it was significant to experience such a low point. You don’t do that every day.  

I don’t expect for any of you to choose an ultramarathon as the theatre for your discomfort, but I want you to find a theatre. For some of you that may be day 10 of a 60-day weight loss plan. Or lacing up your shoes at 5 a.m. after a hectic week. Or getting dropped by your faster cycling friends, again. However you get there, I want you to suffer this year so that your 2019 will be alive.   

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