There is a principle in quantum mechanics known as superposition. Superposition is a term used to define a subatomic particle in two different states. If a particle is in superposition, then it can be observed in two places at once. Curiously, though, upon measurement, a particle previously observed in superposition is always defined in a single state. It’s a puzzling scenario. It’s as though the act of measurement materially changes the behavior of the particle.
On October 28th, I ran my last competitive ultramarathon. I won’t say that I’ll never run an ultramarathon again–never say never, they say–but I can say with certainty that I’ll never again race an ultramarathon competitively.
To race an ultramarathon competitively is to demand a very high level of focus and commitment for days, then weeks, then months in training, and then all at once for hours and hours on race day. It has been, far and away, the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, every time.
In trying to be your best at running really far, your entire life is structured around running. Each morning you wake up with a grueling number of miles on the schedule. You limber up, caffeinate, consume calories and, above all else, mentally prepare for the ensuing physical challenge. The training runs are physically exhausting, though the level of exhaustion ranges based on the exact duration and intensity that day. The mental exhaustion is perhaps more pronounced: You must temper the pre-run anxiety, hone the in-run focus, and digest and assess the degree of execution post-run. Then you need to eat well and hydrate and rest as much as possible before getting to bed early so that you can do it all over again.
Race day finally arrives and you pour everything you have–the mental fortitude, the physical strength–from training into a finite amount of time, accessing and emptying every last drop of energy within yourself. The demands are so extreme and the timeline so elongated–even a short ultramarathon requires three hours of continuous focus and exertion–that, if you’re like me, you’ll awake in the middle of the night, for several consecutive nights after the race, shivering in a cold sweat as your adrenal glands try to coax your body back into equilibrium.
You take a few days or a week or, on rare occasions, a few weeks to rest and recover from the effort. Then, you forget about that race and focus on the next one and go through the same cycle again. With few exceptions, that was my life for twelve years as I tried to compete to the best of my ability at ultramarathons.
Sport in general, and ultrarunning in particular, is one of the few arenas in which life becomes simple, linear, and fair.
When your entire existence is built around running as fast as you can from a start line to a finish line, life becomes very simple. There is beauty in that simplicity.
The evolution of a training block is often linear: You run a certain workout first so that you can build toward another workout, and that second workout puts you in a position to complete an even more difficult third workout, and so on. You complete an 18-mile training run so that you can then cover 20 miles the next week, and that 20-mile run prepares you for a 24-mile run the following week, and so on. There is reassurance in that linear trajectory.
You reap what you sow and eat what you kill and the harder you work, the better you get. The arena of sport–with its clear rules and guaranteed outcomes–is as close to a meritocracy as possible. The first person across the line will win and that person is therefore the best runner in that moment and place in time. The final person across the line is last and that person is therefore the worst in that moment and place in time. There is comfort in that symmetry and objectivity.
But a life devoted to a single objective is beautiful only insofar as your motivations and desires to pursue that objective remain steadfast. When you begin to consciously consider and question that objective–dare I say, measure it, in a sense–the gig is up.
What I’m saying is that I’ll never again run ultramarathons competitively because I’ve lost the ability to doggedly, stubbornly and blindly pursue success in running. Rather, I find myself appreciating and celebrating what I have accomplished.
But to race competitively you can’t ever rest on your laurels. Instead, you have to devote your life to a single cause without consciously considering the results of your labor. You have to pour everything you have into achieving an end without being affected–positively or negatively–by that end. You have to want a result so fervently that you’re willing to do anything to get it while at the same time not thinking about the outcome at all. It means that you have to sacrifice practically everything in your life to succeed in a race and then, if you’ve won, but especially if you’ve lost, you have to forget that it ever happened. Although you might briefly celebrate the success or lament the failure, you have to proceed as if nothing has changed. You need to have a what-have-you-done-lately mentality, where “lately” is right now in this present moment. That allows you to retain the simple, linear, and fair worldview that keeps you hungry and gets you back to work.
For the sake of trying to explain the same thing in a different way for the fifth time, I’ll simply say that to succeed in practically anything, and especially ultrarunning, you have to be in a state of superposition. Should you ever measure the success of your results, you’ll find yourself in a single state: Complacency. If you become satisfied with what you’ve achieved, it becomes harder to achieve again.
At the highest level of competition, or even to just get the most out of yourself–wherever that puts you in a competition–there is simply no place for contentment.
And yet I find myself content. It’s as though I’ve been materially changed.
There was a time when I thought I would never cease to race competitively. Superposition has that kind of hold: When you’re singularly committed to an outcome while operating independently of that outcome, you’re unable to envision a world where you don’t continue on that same course.
Yet every athlete in the history of existence will eventually retire from her post, due to physical limitations or poor performance or even death. What you do in the face of that, you have to decide for yourself. I’ve decided to retire from racing ultramarathons.
Whatever you do, never give up your dreams, as long as they remain your dreams. Anything worth committing to at all is worth committing to fully.