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The Long, Dark Run of the Soul


In a week and a half,  I am planning to run the JFK50 Mile ultramarathon.

I am frightened–not of the running, not of the distance, not of the pain–sure, a little of the possibility of injury to be certain–but mostly of the unknown, namely, where it will take me internally in that uncharted territory of mind. Why fear that, you say? Isn’t long-distance running good at taking the mind to wonderfully positive places, to euphoric states? Often it is, perhaps, at least in my experience.

When I put the mileage and details into my running log, the chart showed just how much farther it is than most of my runs–even the 30 milers. It is daunting. I have a profound respect for the distance. Like with sound, where volume, measured in decibels, increases exponentially, the level of difficulty of a long run increases with the distance exponentially.  A fifty-mile run is not just a little less than twice a marathon. I do not have the faintest idea how long it will take me or even if I will finish. I have walked and hiked that far, and yes, I have run 30 miles on more than one occasion and I’ve reminded myself that that is more than half of it. But certainly fifty is a new experience, a horse of a different hue, a venture into uncharted territory.

I have talked with some friends who have gone this distance or much farther, and they are excited for me. They seem unworried. They show every confidence in me.  I don’t really know how it was for them, but to me, undergoing such an experience is something of a spiritual journey I can’t quite put into words. It is for me, somehow emblematic of my dark night of the soul, my Wheel of Suffering, my Buddhist Samsara. My greatest hope in participating in this undertaking is only that it leads me to some greater understanding of the world and of the self.

The fear stems from the fact that the experience is closely hinged to another that I am currently undergoing, one which I find to be not unlike treading water in open seas.  And I am a terrible swimmer.

More recently than the beginning of this training for the 50, I dived head-long into the task of writing a proposal for a book of memoirs on childhood depression.  The writing is taking me through many fine details of once-forgotten past experiences, and in the process, to a place deep, deep within my own psyche in order to access them.  What’s more, it is not something I easily leave at the end of writing, so this head space where I exist presently is most unnatural. It is a weird netherworld of suspended time, where I am reliving the past in fits and starts, at times so clearly, it is as if I were experiencing it again in realtime–only with the added gift of hindsight. And it seems to be most concentrated when I run, as this is when I tend to mentally prepare my writing.

In truth, in this process I have only grazed the surface.  In it, I sometimes feel as Vassilissa the Brave,  confronting the many perils of the Russian winter on her way to the witch for fire, to what she can only believe will be her own untimely end. I pray that what I gain instead is the fire of wisdom, strength and courage available only through braving the impossible tasks set before me. I have yet to venture even close to my darkest days and relive states of mind I have tried so hard for so long to forget. I know that I will soon have to, though, not just for the sake of the book, and for others’ understanding, but also for my own, in order to make some sort of sense of the past, and shine light into that darkness.

Running has given me the ability to probe these depths with the added strength and support of a clearer sense of purpose, a more determined will, the wisdom of experience, and a strong desire to help others.  But the initial plunge into those depths will undoubtedly come about during the long run, and I pray for the strength and courage to make it through, be it fifty miles or 200+ pages of personal history and insight.

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