The Fine Art of Voluntary Adversity

 The runner I am pacing finds a second wind at mile 92 of the Kodiak 100.

The runner I am pacing finds a second wind at mile 92 of the Kodiak 100.

 A race ends prematurely, in the dead of night, at Red Box Aid Station during the Angeles Crest 100. 

A race ends prematurely, in the dead of night, at Red Box Aid Station during the Angeles Crest 100. 

Every one of us that toes the line at an ultramarathon gets asked at some point why we do what we do. We all have our own reasons, but there is a seemingly common thread: this sport, more than most, makes us feel alive. We feel alive in the triumphs and tragedies that are a requisite part of covering what seems like inconceivable distances on foot. While the adversity we face is voluntary, indeed manufactured in a sense, it is adversity nonetheless as we set out with a drive to complete what may seem to be an impossible physical test.

I had the honor recently of being a pacer for two friends at two different 100 mile races that were two weeks apart. As is tradition for these things, I will leave the specific stories of how their individual races unfolded to tell on their own. I was reminded once again, however, that no runner is guaranteed a good day; an experienced and properly trained runner can still be defeated by the course on any given day, no matter how strong the drive is to succeed; and a runner can also spend most of a race just shuffling along slowly, seemingly physically beaten with only the drive to finish allowing him or her to keep going, then suddenly and miraculously spring to life and run as if the race just started at mile 92. There are deep, deep emotions; Tears of pain, tears of suffering, and tears of joy. The physical and emotional responses are similar, I think, to what many go through when experiencing real-life adversity with potential real-life tragic consequences. Since real-life tragedy is not a likely outcome, there is a beauty in it. It is one of the myriad things that keeps us coming back.


My good friend Howie Stern is a long-time runner with ten finishes at the Hardrock 100, nine at the Angeles Crest 100, and finishes at numerous other races. He is also an amazing race photographer, frequently published in the running magazines because of his expertise in capturing what I've described above. Check out his work here.