Welcome to the eighth installment ofThe Story Goes, a monthly column of stories told by Eric Senseman about someone, somewhere in the sport of running. You can find every installment of the columnhere.
Ten miles southwest of downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the outskirts of town, just before the rural desert prevails, dilapidated grandstands tower several stories above interstate twenty-five. Below the grandstands, and in the valley of the looming mountains, a mile-long oval of dirt, strewn with weeds, sits vacant. Tall, overgrown grasses obscure the rusted, rickety guardrail lining the outermost edge of the dirt circle. It’s a rather unassuming and unnoticed parcel of land.
In its former glory, this horse track would welcome tens of thousands of concert goers to its infield by night, and thousands of gambling spectators to its grandstands by day. This past weekend, it welcomed just a few dozen runners and a handful of artists.
Six Hours of Santa Fe was a first-time event and the brainchild ofRickey Gates. It’s a six-hour endurance event that recognizes endurance in the broadest possible sense. After all, endurance is not limited to a physically demanding activity. To enter the event, you simply had to pick a discipline and stick to it for six hours. There was Ryan on a stationary bike for six hours. Liz cartooned for six hours. A disc jockey mixed music for six hours. Christian ran for six hours, drawing in a notebook for most of the time. Most people just ran.
Those that were running ran around the untended dirt oval. Running in a circle for six hours demands the sort of monotony that’s found in most all of life. It’s a form of activity that seems absurd only when it’s made conscious. Much like the typical American work day from nine to five, it’s repetitive and tedious but only annoyingly or absurdly so when it’s reflected on. Performing a job doesn’t seem absurd when it’s being performed, but when you reflect on a lifetime of doing a particular task--eight hours a day, forty hours a week, two thousand and eighty hours a year, some eighty-three-plus thousand hours over a career--it begins to seem just as absurd as running around a mile loop for six hours.
Pedestrianism, or competitive walking, has an illustrious history that dates back almost as far as horse racing. It’s a sport with origins as far back as the 17th century, and a sport which briefly gained considerable prominence and American interest in the 19th century. This competitive form of walking took place at fairs and drew tens of thousands of spectators. Spectators placed bets on competitors and the events spanned days. Competitors ambled around ovals for hours on end with the goal of completing as many laps as possible in a finite amount of time--one day, or six days, or an entire week. Ultrarunning owes its roots to this form of competition and I was reminded of it during the Six Hours of Santa Fe event.
There’s something unsettlingly mesmerizing about timed events on finite courses. When all of the relevant variables are fixed, it exposes a single, clear and unpretentious objective. In the case of walkers in pedestrianism events in the 1800s, or runners participating in the Six Hours of Santa Fe event, that objective is to circumnavigate a loop as many times as possible. There’s a reason such events gained fanfare centuries ago, and there’s a reason they remain notorious, in small circles around the globe, today.
In 1942, Albert Camus, a French philosopher, penned a lasting essay titledLe Mythe de Sisyphe, orThe Myth of Sisyphus. I doubt that Camus was privy to the sports of pedestrianism or ultrarunning, but his story of Sisyphus, and the implications of Sisyphus’s condition, would echo loudly to any student of endurance sports, particularly the monotonous type.
As the story goes, Sisyphus was condemned to eternal damnation after defying the Greek gods. The gods sought not to end Sisyphus’s life, for that would be too generous. They believed instead that no punishment could be greater than a never-ending life of pointlessness labor. So, they banished Sisyphus to an eternity of ceaseless toil in the underworld. Sisyphus would spend the rest of his days, and every day, engaged in a seemingly meaningless task: he would roll a rock to the top of a mountain and, upon reaching the top, the rock would be set free to roll back to the bottom, leaving Sisyphus to return again to the base of the mountain and start over.
But the gods had misjudged both Sisyphus and the human condition. They had failed to understand that being engaged in a task allows a person to overcome the ostensible meaninglessness of the task. One’s perspective is more important than the task she performs. Camus explains:
"It is during that return [to the bottom of the mountain], that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end."
Sisyphus’s condition is one that we all face. I find the activity of washing, drying, folding and placing laundry to be an evergreen example. It is endless and it is laborious and it can be seen as a ceaseless burden. When it is brought into consciousness and assessed critically, it can be viewed as a trivial activity that wastes hours of one’s waking life. But it might also be viewed differently. One can begin to accept this perpetual fate as a challenge to be engaged in; a way to accomplish something and find meaning in that accomplishment; a task that must be pushed through, and a means of discovery in virtue of persistence and despite the apparent meaninglessness.
This is what I learned, or was reminded of, while running in circles this past weekend. It’s a lesson that can be learned, and re-learned, and remembered and taught any number of times throughout the waking day. Our lives are filled with mundane moments that begin to feel absurd unless we engage in them and thereby bring meaning to them. These moments are filled with laundry, and dishes, and taking out the trash, and making the bed, and buying groceries, and making meals. They are no different, in kind, than rolling a rock up a mountain only to return and do the same thing all over again, or circling the same one-mile stretch of dirt again and again with no end in sight.
Everything I learned about running in circles is everything I’ve learned about finding meaning in activities that seem to have no meaning at all. Although life is full of mundane activities, it’s our own perspective that provides or disavows us with feelings of enjoyment or fulfillment during those activities. We should go forward in life with a heavy yet measured, and meaningful, step.
Camus concludes that one must imagine Sisyphus happy because he has accepted the conditions of his existence. I conclude that doing anything intentionally can make you happy because once you commit to doing something--whether it’s running around a horse track for six hours or folding laundry for a half hour--you’ve accepted the task before you and made a decision to pursue it doggedly.
While I circled the track rhythmically, I thought of Sisyphus. Much like him, I had to accept the conditions I found myself in and, monotonous as they were, I had to find a sense of acceptance and gratitude for it. The alternative would be to have no conditions at all.
As the day progressed, the shadows from the easterly mountains cast across the track’s infield gave way to shadows cast from the track’s westerly grandstands. The light moved from one side of the oval to the other. On the dirt track, the runners continued to run and the cartoonist kept cartooning and the stationary cyclist kept cycling in place and the drawer kept drawing. Another day had passed and the world kept moving even though no one much moved from where he started. Even though we weren’t going anywhere, we found peace in our pursuit, which is to say that we accepted our fate and sought to fulfill it to the fullest extent. Perhaps that’s why walkers used to amble around tracks for days and runners now cover extreme distances for leisure: it’s the simplest way to find peace and happiness.
In those moments, and in all moments, I hope we find that the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill our hearts. I hope we keep rolling rocks to the highest heights, and find meaning in so doing.