By Susie Crossland-Dwyer
Recently, I read one of my favorite books of all time, Robin Harvie’s, The Lure of Long Distances: Why We Run. For several years, since taking over 15 hours to complete my last major race (IRONMAN Louisville), I’ve been struggling to put language to the way I feel about long-distance running and endurance sport. This book nailed my exact sentiments and confirmed that I’m not crazy--a word I hear almost daily to describe the types of races for which I enjoy training.
In September I will attempt to complete my first ultra-marathon. Technically, an ultra is anything over the 26.2 miles (a typical marathon) but most ultra runners consider 30 miles to be the point of demarcation between regular and ultra-marathoning. To make my North Face Endurance Challenge race official, I will have to finish 50 miles of running/walking in 13 hours. Although, as Harvie states, “there will always be a gap between what it sounds like and what it feels like,” I’ve been asked the question of why so many times that I’ve decided to finally answer it completely.
|Ault Park, Cincinnati running 2011|
If you want the short version, read no further: I run long distances primarily to be a better person and to get more out of life. It gives me the space to process and to imaginatively manifest my future. So, if you see me out running, just assume I’m loving myself, you or the world a little more because of it. “Running…is simply about becoming a more sentient person living…an authentic life.”
The longer version of why is more nuanced.
I started running because of a failure. After a single year of play, I had been cut from my high school soccer team. It was blow to the ego--a big blow. From age five, I had spent my childhood preparing/ dreaming of becoming a pro in women’s soccer. I clung tightly to that image of my future even though all along I knew I wasn’t “good enough.”
|Ursuline Lions Cross-Country 1999|
So I started running cross-country instead. Honestly, I was pretty bad (slow!) at that too, but it didn’t matter. I was moving on and moving forward. Even before cross-country I was oddly passionate about fitness. I would rush to the Cincinnati Sports Club directly after school to workout for hours on end. I would run around my block over and over late at night when the rest of the world was already asleep. I would get up early on beach vacations to run the sand. I would read books like The Complete Book of Women’s Running and The Ultimate Sports Nutrition Handbook. I would look forward to hill climbing in Mt. Adams or kickboxing with my high school health class. Senior year, I was even voted as most likely to make a fitness video.
Back then, I’m not sure I even loved the act of running that much. But I now know I’m an introvert and very sensitive to my surroundings. During those years, I believe I was creating a guaranteed escape from my day that allowed my introverted nature to reset itself. “A means of escaping the perpetual noise of everyday life and finding a space to think.” Even more obvious than that, I was getting nudges from the cosmos on which direction I should head in life.
In subsequent years, running would carry me through a lot of life lows. It would see me through temporarily loosing the love of my life to the seminary, through feeling very alone about my sensitivities and place in the world, through a college experience that isolated me even further, through questions about what I was supposed to do with my life and, once finding my purpose, through many hard days of reconfirming my commitment to it. It would provide me with glimpses of truth about my universe; that I would have true love again, that feeling different would ultimately serve as blessing and that I would find my stride in life. Running during those low, tough periods gave me slivers of confidence, consistency, and focus.
|Chicago Marathon, 2001|
In 2001, long before I knew anyone who had completed a marathon, I would finish my first in Chicago. Although I had no idea what I was getting into or the future home it would provide for me, Chicago Marathon whispered it’s magic in my ear and told me to keep down the running path. For the first time, even though I wasn’t sure what it meant, I recognized that “the legs are much easier to train…the mind is more complicated.”
Fast forward, many miles and races later to 2008. Having never completed a triathlon of any distance, I signed up for IRONMAN. 2.4 Miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and 26.2 miles of running—the pinnacle race of the triathlon world. It wasn’t because I was already in love with the sport or even that I knew anyone racing at this level. It was my gut. It was a stronger version of the whisper I had heard years earlier in Chicago. It was telling me to go for it. For one of the first (of what would become many) times, I listened to that voice without reason or second thought.
IRONMAN gave me many gifts. First, the training expanded my view of what is possible. During the height of training I fought through weeks of waking up each day feeling as if I had mono. I would get out of bed everyday at 4:30AM and say out loud the words “you can do this.” I was personal training my clients up to 13 hours a day and triathlon training myself up to 4 hours a day. You do the math. But, despite my fatigue, I was making progress in both my training and my career like never before. I didn’t just have goals; I had immense passion for my goals.
|Louisville, KY training for IRONMAN, 2009|
This phase was a building block in my life that helped me know--on a cellular level--that I could do anything I had passion for and set my mind on. In the years to come, I would have to call on this knowledge many, many times over as Chris and I made the transition to building, owning and operating his business emotiv & mine studio s.
As ultra-running legend, Scott Jurek, points out in his memoir Eat & Run, “Overcoming the difficulties of an ultra-marathon remind me that I could overcome the difficulties in life, that overcoming difficulties was life.”
The racing of IRONMAN also taught me about a region of human functioning, best found through repetitive motion and physical exertion, which I had never experienced before. A zone that to this day remains somewhat indescribable. I’ve begun to call it “the truth zone.” It is a place in time and space where all of the crap in life is wiped away and you can see what you need to see clearly. It gives you truths about yourself, others and the universe. “Motion has a meditative quality, an ability to slow down the rhythm of our lives, enabling us to regain an elemental foundation of self knowledge and acceptance.”
It was IRONMAN that first introduced me to the truth zone. After 14+ hours of swimming, cycling and running at high heart rates, there came a section of my race where I was reaching the “out” section of the “out and back” run course. It was almost 11PM, most of the competitors were already celebrating their finishes, and I was counting on one more citing of my family before I headed toward the finish line. I looked around in the darkness (the only light was a race-mandated glow necklace for safety) and I realized I was really alone. There were no course officials, no other athletes and no family. I was completely alone.
And then, it hit me…I was alone…as an individual. No one in my life had entered into this world with me, no one would go through my final moments with me (whenever they might be) and so why had I been so concerned all these years about what others might think or do in between the beginning and the end. The journey was all mine. Any fears or doubts I had about owning this path would be okay. “To become true long-distance runners, we must accept that we are completely on our own. Only after we have unshackled ourselves from that place of safety can we say that out there, in whatever state we end up, is where we belong.”
Some call this phenomenon “satori—the sudden Zen-like clarity that comes when you least expect it, often when your body is pushed to the limit.” Call that moment (and many others like it) fatigue, lack of calories, darkness, satori or whatever else. It doesn’t matter what you call it. What does matter is that it was a moment that continues to influence how I live. I had found “the part of me that…[was] bigger than the pain [of IRONMAN].” Less than hour later, after 140.6 miles, I would cross the finish line and instead of tears, as I anticipated, I had a smile that couldn’t be wiped away for weeks. “Susie Crossland-Dwyer, YOU are an IRONMAN.”
|IRONMAN Louisville 2009, Not my official finish time but the official finish line!|
My reasons for running continue to evolve and intrigue me. “There is no ascetic state in which we can remain for all time, forever transcended out of our everyday lives.” But at this stage of evolution my primary motivation is to inhabit “the truth zone” as often as possible. And, I do, more and more easily (not just with long distance) the more I run. As Harvie writes in Why We Run, it is in these moments I feel the most alive, the closest to what Emerson in his work Nature calls “the universal eye.” I run the miles to be in moment and discover what awaits me.
Is it addiction, is it meditation or is it a realm humans are meant to spend time in (and most likely have for the majority of human history)? For me, it’s an awareness that “the most obvious good is an increased knowledge of our own capacities. By trying with all our might and with all our mind…we are getting to know better what we can really do…if…we reach the…[end], we shall know that we are capable of more than we had supposed.” The more I know my own capabilities the more I can see the potential in others.
With the clear lens of retrospective time, I see that human potential has always captivated me. At 13, I started self-studying world religions by gobbling up as many books as I could on the topic. I would go on to make Comparative Religion my degree because I wanted to know how religion influenced and motivated individuals as well as cultures. I started a life coaching company, ikigai (a Japanese word defined as “that which makes life most worth living”) with my mom to help others seek out their potential through their passions. And, studio s would become the manifestation of both my internal and external workings of potential—as well as a hopeful breeding ground for others to discover their own.
|Nike Women's Marathon, SanFrancisco, 2011|
It was with all of these insights that I set out to make 2012 the year of running. The goal was simple: get lost in the art of running. So, although I hope running my 50 mile ultra brings me a finish, I also hope it continues to bring me new challenges and insights for the head, heart and spirit. “Becoming an ultra distance runner involves a merging of consciousness and landscape, while offering up the possibility of going beyond limits of our knowledge. The transformation is in the act of running itself, which turns from a mode of travel—in it’s most limited form, of getting across the finish line—to a mode of being.”
Jurek ends his book with the words I’d like to leave you with. “You can be transformed. Not overnight, but over time. Life is not a race. Neither is an ultramarathon, not really, even though it looks like one. There is no finish line. We strive toward a goal, and whether we achieve it or not is important, but it’s not what’s most important. What matters is how we move toward that goal. What’s crucial is the step we’re taking now, the step you’re taking now.”