Meaning In Repetition

Much of the time, life seems kind of meaningless. The day by day, hour by hour routines flow by in a trickle of disconnected minutiae. The trickle coalesces into the streams of our days, rivers of years, and if we’re lucky out into that ocean of a lifetime. Occasionally a storm unleashes a torrent of grief and fatigue. But just as often the sun comes out and we stop noticing the drip drip dripping of our passing minutes. As we age the flotsam and jetsam floating along forms patterns. We repeat ourselves, or the universe does. Christmas, birthdays, Halloween, debris we see again and again in the stream of time whether we choose to or not.

In July, I finished High Lonesome 100 for the third time. I recall the first time I ran it. At the finish I told my wife that I wanted to come back and do it again, that I wanted to make this a tradition. I’ve run other 100 mile races over the years, but I only come back to High Lonesome. Like Christmas, it’s become a high point in the year, a thing I look forward to for 364 days, give or take a week or two.

I’m lucky to have finished the race 3 times, let alone start. Running 100 miles is only one part physical. There’s risk management, problem solving, and mental toughness. That’s just on race day. A lot can go wrong in the year leading to the race. Parts failure (Injury). Illness. Work and family stress. More flotsam and jetsam in the stream intent on setting you back or taking you out. So you try to order the chaos. Get up at 5:00 am. Run 6 days a week. Meticulous 16 week running plans. Deadlifts on Friday. Yoga. Whatever you need to inject stability. A sea of hours spent training, resting, eating and preparing for the race. On any given day, you may skip a workout, sleep in or decide to read a book instead of lifting weights. No matter. No individual workout or random donut is going to make or break you in the months leading up to race day.

But its paradoxical. Taken individually, no individual workout, or food, or nap matters. Taken as a whole, they all do. Finishing a 100 mile run is like the sudden appearance of a pimple in one way: you’ll never know what single thing you did to make it happen, because it was all of it. It all mattered, and it all means something. Right down to the hour you spent at the coffee shop with your daughter on Sunday instead of picking up a few miles.

The day before High Lonesome, five minutes before the pre-race meeting, I learned that a close member of our running fraternity had passed away. I wasn’t given a cause. I suspected that he may have taken his own life, and in even suspecting my conscience regretted that I didn’t do more. As I sat half-listening to the race briefing, I thought about what makes a man take his own life. What facing those monsters must be like. He had run 50k’s, 100 mile races and every distance between. He toughed out minutes and hours and days on the trails training, day in and day out to make big runs happen. Didn’t this give him the weapons to battle his internal demons? Hadn’t he sweated out the daily frustrations on the trail? Hadn’t he tamed the chaos of life with the order and repetition of hard training?

I realized that I was ignorant on the subject of suicide. I didn’t have a mental model for what happens to a person that would make them take their own life. I still don’t, but I’m trying to better understand what and why so I can be better prepared when I see it in the future. But even in my ignorance I can try to find meaning.

I’d been under the illusion that running vast distances, losing sleep and fighting back the mental urge to quit prepared you for anything. It doesn’t. Another member of our running brotherhood once commented that “running doesn’t prepare me for life, life prepares me for running.” That’s closer. The two are inseparable. Your running is as embedded in your life as work, or play or school or whatever it is you’re doing. You may roll your eyes before you mow the lawn, groaning at how meaningless it is. But it’s not. Every minute of your day is as meaningful as the next. Every single thing you do matters, just as every training run matters to finishing a 100 mile race. Even the runs you skip.

We spend most of our time looking forward, watching the minutes rush by. Only occasionally do we look back and see that a sea of time and experience has accumulated behind us, a sea of training runs, dips in the pool, boring meetings, donuts, naps, books, work, and play and song. All the minutiae of our lives passing by, dripping into that ocean. An often misused Nietzschean trope goes something like “When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Maybe. I say when you stare long into the abyss, you get to choose what is staring back. You get to choose whether all those passing minutes were boring or worthless. No matter where you are, look at where you are right now, and you will know they were not. If you’ve learned anything you will give each passing moment the attention it deserves and know that all of it is for something.

I plan to return to High Lonesome 100 again next year because I love it and it’s beautiful. But also because there is meaning in the repetition of it, just as there is meaning in the repetition of doing the dishes or a Saturday training run. Like Christmas or my daughter’s birthday, its a thing I get to look forward to for a year. Another thing that gives the passing minutes importance.