Ultrarunning, As Competition, Is Unethical And Defeats Communion With Nature  


I run all by myself, thus I think better. Or how an ultrarunning tragedy makes one think:

May 21, 2021:  172 Lycra-clad runners launched in a one hundred kilometers mountain race race at Yellow River Stone Forest Park in Gansu Province, China. There was wind from the start. Whipping rain turned to hail and temperatures plummeted hours into the ultramarathon on a Saturday in May 2021. A group of survivors were rescued when more than 1,200 rescuers were dispatched to find bodies in the storm. Twenty-one runners died, most of them from hypothermia. One fell unconscious and woke up in a cave, and woke up in a cave, wrapped in a quilt next to a fire built by a shepherd who had found him and carried him to safety. “I owe him my life,” Mr. Zhang wrote.

Mr. Zhang had overtaken Huang Guanjun, the champion of the men’s marathon for hearing-impaired runners at the 2019 Chinese National Paralympic Games. As Mr. Zhang was passing, Mr. Huang pointed to his ear and waved to indicate he could not hear Mr. Zhang.

Later I found out that he was deaf and mute,” Mr. Zhang wrote. Mr. Huang died on the same mountain pass not long after the encounter.

Ultrarunning and trail racing became fashionable during the past two decades. Professionals of the sport are upping the ante, with increasingly difficult and longer races, sometimes for several days and hundreds of miles and including both high-altitude climbs and extreme temperatures. They are also cheating a bit, with enormous support, some even taking cold baths in ice to cool down while being fed sweets by their attendants. The funny thing is that one knows what happens:; professional military runners in Greece, twenty-five centuries ago, would cover comparable distance, in astounding times, with no support… but would also drop dead, quite often. 

The genus Homo runs naturally. Running enables to see, and experience more landscape than crawling one one’s belly while sunbathing, say. Getting immersed in nature is the point. Only then can the human mind interconnect if full with the whole of what is out there. Natural beauty is part of it.

Now I am in no position to criticize recklessness… I have made a philosophy out of it: since life ends up pretty badly always, we may as well live it to the full. That doesn’t mean being a drunk, like Socrates, but being a general, like Xenophon (who successfully extracted a Greek army from the middle of the Achaemenid empire). As I have been reckless hundreds of times in my life, and even quite recently… Involving precisely this sort of activity. When I started mountain running, a very long time ago, I was viewed as a lunatic… who was damaging the snow (I was once beaten up for “damaging snow”… As I said, long ago…)

There are several things ethically very wrong about this sort of long distance competition in nature the way they are presently organized. First, they don’t respect nature, they are “sponsored” events organized by wealthy companies. Second, they teach people not to respect nature, by focusing on the lycra rather than nature. Indeed, why do these competitors run? Greed for money and greed for fame. And that’s why those who succeed best are most admired. So, instead of a communion with the cathedral of nature, competitors extoll the rat race of common life, and violate the former with the second, by insisting that competition matters, and nature doesn’t. 

Once I was engaged in one of my ultra runs around Lake Tahoe. Unbeknownst to me, the trail had been taken over by an ultramarathon. Participants had paid to participate and were wearing advertising and numbers. All along the “race” there were personnel, food stations, some involving several trucks serving hot food which had come through fire roads usually closed to the public. There were also aid stations, and roaming pairs of security personnel on mountain bikes. Although I was obviously not a competitor, they kindly insisted on serving me food and drinks. I usually run with nearly no water and food (I drink water from snow and streams). Running on a non-empty stomach with spectators and helpers every few miles changed the nature of the run completely from something done within nature to cityscape. 

When I run, it’s me and nature. I always carry warm clothing in a backpack (also useful if I fall on my back). Last big run I did in the mountain I got caught in a thunderstorm with dangerous hail. I went into a cave. After that I met no one for the next 15 miles, and three passes up to 10,000 feet… 

Running hard for hours in the total wilderness, solo among peaks, snakes, lions, bears, dank cathedral forests, hunger, thirst, exhaustion and thunderstorms, high on courage, smarts and willpower, I didn’t meet god, but myself, certainly.

***

We live in a systemic world. Major issues are systemic. The devils are in the systems. Most systems are not so innocuous looking, such as the USA, Russia, or the People Republic of China (love China, love “We The People”, but then be careful with emperor Xi!)… An innocent looking system such as single housing zoning in the USA is key to systemic racism (OK, I don’t live in one). Many supposedly innocuous activities  are conducive to fascism and exploitation. Spectator sports are a particular strong example: Roman critiques, two millennia old, pointed out that fascism ruled with “Panem et circenses” (Juvenal). Modern circus is when young, naive but greedy idiots climb without a rope, but with a dozen cameras focused on him, on a giant climb they have fallen on dozens of times before… with a rope (including in very easy sections). Or Ueli Steck, running up the Eiger, but nearly falling in the summit snowfield (I saw it; that’s how he seems to have died on Nuptse, strangely surprising Messner…)

This all starts with a perverse relationship with nature, as Native Americans pointed out long ago.

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” [Chief Seattle.]

*** 

I run in the wilderness alone, to make nature real; running with a herd would defeat much of the purpose. But I run with a hefty well tied-down backpack, full of fluffy clothes, lamps. One cannot always go down, especially in unknown canyons (been there, done that, not keen to do it again, and I am a sometimes solo climber). Generally it’s way better to stick on the trail, even if it means going up, and always keep on moving (falling asleep in warm and cuddly snow is the signal of fatal hypothermia… I knew about it, from books, so when it happened to me, I knew what it was, and woke up… in a timely manner…) Ah, did I mention matches? More than once to save lives, I had to make a fire in a national park in the wilderness…

So can I make an effort to say something positive? After all, I launched the sport… As I said, my activity was per force, different: I practiced alone, being first. And I always ran. When my left foot got caught in a little arc of metal used by the French to limit public lawns, I shattered my left elbow. I was six. Once, facing the Matterhorn/Cervin, in Switzerland, running down the Gornergrat, I didn’t see a wire which caught me in the throat. I was nine years old. The same exact adventure happened to me in Africa two years later. Very disagreeable…  

Ah, yes the positive… The more people go to nature, the better… But all these competitions with professionals flying around the world to flaunt their drug and recklessness propelled careers of fame and greed, I am against… OK, don’t I love to read adventures of mountaineers and be mesmerized by sailors on video feed among 50 foot waves in the Antarctic? Sure. And, as I said above, I saved my life from culturally knowing what to expect in some situations. Not just hypothermia (don’t fall asleep), but also deadly snakes (jump above if no time to brake), or even wasps and bees swarms (run like hell), or wind slabs (learn to recognize them, and take a wide berth), or avalanches (stay calm and move laterally to higher ground).

So it’s good to have professional heroes, a few of them, to find out and spread the word.  

***

ALN, USA commented:

@Patrice Ayme: thank you for sharing your story. I sign up and pay for these races run by small companies because I want someone to know where to come look for me if I get lost. I completely hear you about big race companies not respecting the nature.

Thanks ALN! For what it is worth, and it’s far from perfect, I look at the site “Alltrails” (the free part) Reading lots of comments one can get pretty good ideas…

For ultra runs, the old fashion way is just to look at maps. I run sections of multi day backpacking, in one day, like on the Pacific Crest Trail. In mountain running, one has to be careful of the early season, because one can come across lots of old snow suddenly, which can be very dangerous in several ways (suddenly losing trails completely unexpectedly, a severe problem if in a forest, miles from roads; subjacent torrents and deep holes; old slippery ice making mini-mountains between trees). I fear spring snow more than winter snow, although it can also provide great running and glissading… but never above where the torrent runs…

In the late season, the problem is short days, partly solved with several lamps… There are also now alert systems by satellites. I don’t have one (yet)… although I had several close calls, including one with an enormous rattlesnake last summer, above 8,000’… Dangerous, but the danger (controlled!) is part of the vacation away from an all too restrictive notion of the human condition which ultrarunning can provide like nothing else can (including climbing)…

***

Patrick Cavanaugh, Silver Spring, MD, USA added:

This tragedy might not have been so bad if the race really had turned into a “cityscape”! The competitors were hit by extreme weather in a region that there were no race support personnel. Respect to your desire to run the trails solo, but a properly run event could also be a way for individuals to enjoy the wilderness with more support and help available in case something goes wrong.

@Patrick Cavanaugh Personally, I have been hit by atrocious weather, more than once, and had to do (not so) intelligent things like clinging to a cliff, or standing below a tree, with rivers of water around, dangerous hail, and lightning bolts all around. Bad weather is characteristic of mountains, even in the middle of the Sahara (sudden storms with flash floods, rarely, but often lethally, from distant flooding).

Once I was on a climb in the Alps in the middle of summer. I started to lead a pitch in lycra and tank top, under a scorching sun, clear blue sky, with plenty of chalk on my hands to ward off the sweat. I was climbing fast, all the more as suddenly there was a discombobulating blow of icy wind. I finished the pitch in a snowstorm and lightning: the storm came from behind the peak. We rapped like lightning, leaving all the gear behind. Still my partner passed out from hypothermia when we reached timberline (and we had storm gear). This has happened to me several times (during which time one has the impression one is going to die, or one is already half dead, one does not even remember normal life, it’s pretty disagreeable, but it makes all and any life pleasant afterwards…) This happened although I always check on the weather very carefully…

I do agree that, if one organizes a run, there should be a minimum of security.

Nature doesn’t just define being and nothingness. It also teaches what superior thinking is, the type which enables surviving… But for nature to teach us well, we have to experience it in full, not assisted by people or machinery. We have an advantage on other forms of intelligences, such as cetaceans: we have hands, arms, legs and feet, so we can actually manipulate the world (manipulate: man comes from the PIE root for “hand” and pele, for “fill”; in Greek hand is mane, and it’s manus in Latin… So “man” itself, as in gentleman, is defined by the hand…)

Some may sneer that running does not need hands… But actually feet are quite a bit like hands, especially when running, see chimps, and of course arms are used for balance, hands for climbing, landing on when falling (rare but important)… And then, most of all, hands make weapons platforms easily recognized by a variety of beasts out there, so that they do not have in general to be used… And, in any case are reassuring to have: the mountain runner, or coureur des bois, is not just another beast, running, but a creature the beasts recognize as a predator, master of the universe [1]. And that has to do with arms… which animals recognize carry arms, thanks to the hands.

Last but not least, the brain gets better oxygenated when steps and heartbeat go up to 120 per minute, studies have shown. Anyone exercising intensely knows that the brain acquires different perspectives on old problems: because it gets activated differently and also because it has no time for anything but barebone logic, thus eliminating superfluous logical traditional traps…

Human beings were made to be super brainy endurance athletes dominating the landscape and nature by understanding them. Solo running in the wilderness provides this, rat races don’t. Notice also that many philosophical influencers of modern times, in particular the influencers of so-called “French Theory”, whose influence is right now quite dominant in the pseudo-left, were absolutely not endurance athletes (although my frenemy Simone De beauvoir did a lot of extended solo hiking in the Provence wilderness before she became famous, so she says). When one looks at history one sees that many of the most influential minds, mythological or not, were highly athletic and, or, adventurous: they clearly loved to live dangerously, starting with the women bullfighters of Crete, the likes of Nefertiti (who may have died from her attempt to sort out Egyptian religion), the heroes of the Trojan war, Solon, Themistocles, Pericles, Socrates, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotles, Demosthenes, Archimedes, Caesar, Hypatia, Boetius, Abelard, Buridan, Villon, Dolet, Rabelais, etc. Of course all thinkers under Islam lived below the threat of summary execution, if one of their fellow believers determined they did not “believe” anymore.

Human life is a serious thing, and serious thinking is how it is best managed. Full immersion, thus loving confrontation, with nature requires us to fully use the owner’s manual (notice the concept of “man”, hand, resurfacing again…)… and thus to get reacquainted with full humanity!

Nature teaches us that it is wiser to turn tragedies into philosophies.

Patrice Ayme

***

[1] I have been attacked by all sorts of animals, though, from bears to wasps (animal attacks are rare but always serious). I am the only person I know who charged mountain lions several times (twice by accident) and hit a charging bear with a (large) stone… I am not trying to hurt the animals, BTW, and I am not a hunter.

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One Response to “Ultrarunning, As Competition, Is Unethical And Defeats Communion With Nature  ”

  1. De Brunet d'Ambiallet Says:

    Lovely. There used to be peripapetician philosophers now we have running philosophers?

    Like

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