Stage 5 Part 1 – “Didn’t we all run as kids?”

Stage 5 Part 1 – “Didn’t we all run as kids?”

The morning we were to embark on the 94km Stage 5 of the Sahara Race, the sun rose punctually, without any sympathy for a handful of sleep-deprived runners stuck in a desert.

At this point, you would expect everyone to be scrambling around, planning the last of our provisions and double and triple-checking our gear before the start. After all, on such a long stage every mistake is magnified and every gram on your back weighs that much more. Yet, as we prepared for our Long March I found myself turning increasingly inward, focused on the mental and spiritual aspects of the race instead.

On the surface, the Sahara Race is a logistics-driven expedition: bring enough food and electrolytes, choose the right gear and you should be able to complete the distance. In other words, do your research, test your gear, train thoroughly, and you will be fine. But the last few days out in the desert had taught me so much about the one component of the race that cannot be acquired with any amount of gold or research: heart.

To pick up virtually every other sport on earth, you would first need some instructions. You need a coach or mentor before you can golf, swim, pitch, or ski. 

Yet running is singular in its intuitiveness. As long as you know how to walk, you know how to run. And while we may have been taught how to walk by our parents, we all began running on our own accord. As toddlers, we had one day walked enough to became confident in picking up our pace. One foot in front of the other, faster, faster, faster – and all of a sudden, we were running. 

In other words, we run because the body remembers, because the body knows.

sahara race 250km-131 [Photo credit: RacingThePlanet]

The Sahara Race began for me as a rebellion against time. Late last year, as a freshly minted graduate, I was thrown into the working world and shocked at how quickly the days would fly. Blink and entire weeks would slip by, leaving no trace of their passing except for the faint but disturbing notion that they hadn’t been all that eventful, just like the week before it and the week before that one. Where on earth did all the time go?!

Of course, if I wanted to be absolutely honest with myself, I did know where most of the time went. I was pretty adept at slacking, you see. And who wouldn’t be?

We live in the era of an incredible time crunch. Everything needs to be done pronto – our hyperactive, tech-savvy world demands it. We are surfing the net, checking our mail and listening to music on our phones all at once while on the train to work; at lunch, we are checking our stock portfolio, scanning headlines and planning our weekends between each hasty bite of cold sandwiches, and when we do work, we work so hard that in the rare morsel of down time on the weekends, it becomes easy to justify our slacking, “I deserve this break. I’ve been going non-stop all week.”

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to be lazy.

Youtube was a particularly convenient avenue for slacking off – and I was a champion at it. I was the sort that could handily spend 3 hours at a stretch watching Youtube clips. A friend could send me a link, and after watching it I would click through to other clips, or I’d catch a second wind of, “oh! And now I absolutely have to Youtube this completed unrelated topic too!” Minutes and hours would melt away this way.

It wasn’t that I particularly enjoyed YouTubing. But I did it for the same reason that others did it – it was so accessible and it was good enough entertainment. Youtubing required no more commitment than a click of your mouse and TADA!! Instant gratification and the illusion of connecting with the millions of people who have also seen this video. How much easier can it get?

And yet, because all that mindless internet surfing asked so little of effort and commitment, the entire experience was also rather shallow. I didn’t feel particularly fulfilled because I just watched a cute doggie wag its toosh across a room or seen the popping of the world’s biggest zit. In fact, the whole thing had the distinct taste of eating fastfood or flipping through a gossip magazine – delightfully indulgent at the time but with a lingering bad aftertaste.

Shopping and movies had the same effect. The thrill from accumulating material wealth was so fleeting, so short-lived that the light was hardly worth the candle. And while I love a good movie as much as the next person and would happily re-watch the best ones several times, I still find the concept of “the cinema as a regular venue for social interaction” confounding. Because, you know, spending a few hours facing the same direction in the dark without exchanging a single word and listening to scripted dialogue is such an exemplary way of bonding with friends.

It was easy to lose track of time and meaning in the milieu of modern conveniences.

如此虛度光陰可謂一種自我折磨。 為何老是眼睜睜地讓寶貴的時間在眼前化為烏有?明明是有能力去改變自己, 卻因習惰成疾而荒廢了一生。 瞬間,聯想到60歲的自己將是一個一無所成的老婆婆。到時,後悔莫及!

Loosely translated, this kind of slacking was tantamount to self-inflicted torture. In those moments of regretting lost time, I suddenly saw what the future held: a weary 60-year old waking up one day to find herself not quite able to happily answer the question, “did I spend my life well?”

Besides, there had to be better ways to spend one’s time, right? After all, I was given a brain and a pair of perfectly healthy legs – so was I really just going to lose my days to Youtube, shopping, movies, and more shopping? I wasn’t sure what laid ahead but if I had a tombstone at the end of it all, I knew that I did not want it to read, “She watched a lot of YouTube and shopped even more”.

But laziness comes naturally to everyone. And once we get used to it, it becomes so hard to extricate yourself from that comfortable stupor. Before you know it, you’re on a downward spiral where laziness begets laziness.

There’s a Chinese idiom that succinctly captures the heart of this problem: 逆水行舟, 不進則退. That is, you live life as if you’re paddling upstream; unless you’re moving forward, you’re losing ground. In those moments, I saw that if I wasn’t going to do something about it, life really was just going to pass me by.

So I started to run.

Because when I ran, the world around me would start to zip by in a blur, and the harder I pushed the faster it flew. Trees would melt into an indistinguishable blur of green and brown, rocks on the ground would rush into vision like a camera on perpetual zoom. It was like discovering the fast forward button on a time machine.

The best were the weekend morning runs, when I’d be out the door before 7. By the time I had done two loops of the trail, pumping with endorphins and a runner’s high, most of the country was still in bed. It was satisfyingly productive – as if I had managed to steal a piece of time from Chronos when he wasn’t looking.

And from then on, there was no looking back. I would run and run until the strength of each kick in my legs surged through the rest of the body. I would run until every stride felt like a whipping lash singeing the silence of the morning air. I ran until the ticking seconds seemed to come to a complete standstill, as if the sheer force of that forward momentum would propel me into another dimension… I ran until time and distance lost all meaning.

There is no adequate way to explain the euphoria of wholeheartedly pursuing a singular goal, of flirting with the edge of your limits then charging right past them and discovering that you are capable of so much more.

I thought of all the training I had been through the past few months, of all the endless rounds of planning and deliberation, of the long journey that led me to Cairo and how, even after all of that, I still felt wholly unprepared for today’s 5th stage of the Sahara Race.

But then again, if we only pursued things that offered an assured and certain outcome, we wouldn’t achieve a whole lot in life, would we? And so, with that surge of bravado, I found myself at the starting line once again, ready for whatever was in store in the next 94km.

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