“Why can’t you do anything normally?” I lost count of the number of times my parents said that to me before I’d started senior school. “Why do you always have to take it to extremes?”
I didn’t understand the question at the time. I mean, these were the same parents who spent much of the rest of the time telling me to do my best. Or not to be like everyone else. It made no sense. Sometimes now, well into my fifth decade, I think I understand a little bit of what they were getting at. But I try really hard not to. Not to get to the point where I understand that you should follow your dreams, but only if you anchor yourself firmly to the centre of the bell curve. Not to understand that it’s socially good etiquette to have interests, but only to the point where you can pepper them into conversation with people you have no desire to be in conversation with. The older we get, the more life is a battle not to accept that it’s a good thing to be normal.
Which is why, when I called my father to tell him I’d decided to take up running and by the way, next summer I was going to do a 100 kilometre ultra, the Race to the Stones, and he said with a familiar exasperation, “Why do you always have to take things to extremes?” I knew I was still doing something right.
A lot of people will try to answer the question “Why do you run?” and go through various shades of existential distress in the process. For me, the answer is absolutely straightforward. It’s a pursuit you can take up with very little cash, wherever you happen to live, and pursue to whatever extreme you can imagine. When I start something, my interest tends to live or die by a simple question – “What would it look like if I did this till it broke?” If the answer I get intrigues me, I go for it. So the real question is not “Why do I run?” but “Why do I look for things that I can do to extremes?”
And that answer is simple too. I look for the things I can do to extremes because they are the things that take me to extremes. Not pushing our minds and our bodies to their limits is a bit like getting the whole store’s worth of gadgets and never taking any of them out of the wrapper.
Now, anyone who both runs and writes is capable of boring to distraction with the myriad ways in which “running is a metaphor for life.” And pretty much any book you read on running will at some stage give you some cod, hake or haddock schlock about zen or mindfulness or emptiness or flow. Sometimes it’s done well (Kilian Jornet’s Run or Die, Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). Sometimes, well . . . . The point is, it’s been done before and I don’t want to add to it. If you want to know why pushing yourself to your limits through sport is a transcendental and transferable way of discovering who you are, go and watch Big Wednesday, or The Big Blue.
What I want to talk about is what extremes are all about, what defines them as extreme – being broken. Think about how science works. When you have a hypothesis, you don’t carry out experiments to confirm that hypothesis. You carry out the experiments that would prove that hypothesis wrong. In the same way, you don’t find out what you can do by looking for things you can do. You find out what you can do by looking for the things you can’t. By chasing the impossible. Every time you try to break yourself and fail you add a little more weight to the hypothesis that you’re incredible.
That’s why I run. It’s why I’ve always been driven to do things. It holds out the possibility of impossibility. This time, it says, this time you might break. And if you don’t, that’s when you’ve truly learned something about yourself. Something that aiming for the possible will never, ever tell you.
Dan Holloway (http://danholloway.wordpress.com) is a spoken word artist, novelist and journalist. In his latest project (http://wearepetrichor.wordpress.com), he sets out to combine mental and physical challenges by setting his sights on the world’s toughest ultramarathons and the World Mental Calculation championships.