Written by MTD Athlete: Paul Christian
Running hurts...it’s painful, it’s exhausting, it makes you vomit. Running injures your body, makes your feet look like you’ve been tortured and causes your bones to literally eat themselves in order to repair the damage done. Running forces you out into weather that even a North Sea Fisherperson would baulk at. Running provokes a conflict between body and mind that rivals a battle between the Titans and the Gods. So WHY on earth do we put ourselves through it?
Approximately 8 minutes and 38 seconds into a run, our bodies release endorphins into the brain which makes us feel happier, energised and alert. These natural ‘highs’ create a euphoric feeling and elevate our general well-being. But is that really enough? Surely that’s not really why we keep on running ... even on a twisted ankle.
Running is an integral part of who I am and is woven deep into the very fabric of my identity. But why did it stick? How did it get there? I know there is more to it than; endorphin release, physical fitness, general health and access to competition. Running and my reasons for running are incredibly personal, so let’s start at the beginning.
I can still remember the feeling of overwhelming excitement and happiness that running gave me as a 5-year-old. I can still feel that sense of absolute freedom that came with the ability to escape from; adults, teachers, bullies and psychotic human eating dogs. I recall running the length of the playing field at break times with no purpose other than to just run because it felt great.
I can also remember the sense of achievement I got when I ran around the outside of our house ten times at age 6. I felt like I had run 200 miles or had climbed Everest. At that time there was no measurement of performance and therefore enjoyment didn’t come from being ‘successful’ but from the activity of ‘just running’ in itself. Fundamentally that feeling is still there 35 years later with the simplistic enjoyment of ’just running’ forming the foundation on which my love for ultra-running, trail running, ALL running, is built.
I ran middle distance track at school - as well as Cross Country -, became County champion at 3,000m and then proceeded to get completely destroyed at the English Schools meet. Running was a huge part of who I was, but after running the London Marathon in 2006 I stopped running altogether. In order to understand why I run now I need to remember what happened in those ‘Wilderness years’ when I didn’t run at all...
The Wilderness Years...
I stopped running the year after I moved to London. Whilst being on an exciting new career path I also fast-tracked myself into depression characterised by overwhelming feelings of discontent and detachment that I couldn’t rationalise or explain. Whilst my career was progressing with success my environment was anchored to the flawed modern concept that pursuing pleasure leads to happiness...so pursue pleasure I did.
The Pursuit of Comfort and Pleasure...
My soul wasn’t happy but I was caught in a cyclic trap. To try to ‘fix’ my depression I went out too much, ate too much, drank too much, bought too much, owned too much and slept too much. I was materialistic, which as a result made me angry, rude and even aggressive at times. Nothing I did gave me any long-lasting satisfaction or sense of purpose.
Pleasure is not happiness it leads to self-loathing and an endless search for the next ‘fix’. Thankfully I found my way back to running. Instead of pursuing comfort and pleasure, I began to pursue discomfort and pain, which perversely made me happy.
The Pursuit of Discomfort and Pain...
Modern life is convenient. It is often warm, comfortable and plentiful. As humans, we have come through times of extreme hardship where only those who could adapt survived. Now we moan about being ‘freezing’ if the room temperature is less than 20 degrees. We have instinctive reflexes to either fight or flight. If these aren’t exercised regularly we become docile and despondent. Running has unlocked these reflexes for me.
Running fulfils a primal need for exertion, exhaustion and exploration. Pursuing an activity that causes discomfort connects with the very essence of being human. My body and mind need to feel that exhaustion. With running serving to engage them both, yet ultimately for me, the benefits for running are more mental than physical.
Running allows me to disconnect from stress and reconnect with the core values that make my ‘self’. My mind is like a whiteboard and throughout the course of the day, every stimulus I receive is written down in multi-coloured pens. Eventually, there’s no more space and nothing makes sense, leading to stress, anxiety and frustration. Running is the board rubber that cleans it off leaving only the important bits.
Running is the mechanism which enables me to gain perspective, unplug, problem solve, make good decisions and get that whiteboard ready for another day. A good run strips out everything else and allows my mind to detach from the world, my work, my issues and my insecurities. Like transcendental meditation, just without the ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’.
It makes sense to pursue activities that result in positive changes to your life. When I started running again it was for me. I wasn’t healthy or happy and wasn’t making good choices. My brother had completed the Marathon du Mont Blanc and I was inspired by his achievements. I remember meeting him for a run and trying to complete one lap of Richmond Park and dying on my feet. I was a mess.
After slow progress and a lot of pain, I entered my first trail race - The Original Maverick Oxfordshire - ...it blew my mind. Trail running had unlocked something and I knew I wanted to run on trails and in mountains as much as I could. I had found a sense of purpose. The overly competitive, cliquey, elbows out, selfish, sexist, win at all costs, and the unfriendly world of road running gave way to the non-judgemental, inclusive, supportive and friendly world of trail running. I started to meet incredible people within a very special and unique community at Maverick events. I went to that first Maverick event on my own and came away with the beginnings of friendships that will last a lifetime.
The trail running community is now one of the most important reasons I run. There is not a better group of people anywhere on the planet. They support me, look after me and inspire/push me to be the best runner and person I can be. I’ve raced everywhere, in numerous countries and over many distances - 1 mile to 103 miles. I cannot imagine what it would be like without those people in my life. I’ve met some of the most phenomenal people whilst running and it’s no coincidence that I’ve seen them all at Maverick events... with the exception of Kilian Jornet... we live in hope!
Connecting with Nature...
Getting onto trails amplified all the benefits of running by allowing me to connect with nature and some of the most beautiful environments on the planet. I am a rural wild man at heart, trapped in an urban environment. Silvanus stuck in Rome. I will always be grateful that I ran with Maverick in Oxfordshire all those years ago and the experience in the Chiltern Hills that day unlocked everything.
I’ve vomited in incredible areas of outstanding natural beauty. I’ve seen the sunrise mid-race in the Dolomites, cut my hands falling on the ancient trails of the South Downs Way, faced pure fear ‘running’ across Crib Goch in Snowdon, vomited on ancient silk roads in Cappadocia. I’ve seen scenes in the mountains surrounding Chamonix that are essentially spiritual and would make the most vehement atheist believe.
I’ve had an emergency poop in the wonderful Surrey Hills and busted my ass in a different way up ridiculously steep ascents in Zermatt with the Matterhorn as a backdrop. I’ve been in never-ending purgatory on Ben Nevis and only just made it back in time and alive. I’ve lost my soul in a bog somewhere in Snowdonia and cursed Maverick Race with horrendous language, only to emerge from that sticky, putrid and bottomless bog with the biggest smile on my face.
I’ve snapped an ankle coming off Pen y Fan and sat in a heap, miles from help, saying out loud, ‘this is one of the most incredible places on earth’. I’ve ‘discovered’ some incredible urban trails in London and got to know places such as Paris, Stockholm, Berlin, Amsterdam, Loch Ness and Bruges thanks to running. I know every, tiny, microscopic inch of The Ridgeway, from Lewknor to Avebury Stones, thanks to running. I’ve also seen a Pelican eat a Pigeon whole, thanks to running.
Challenge and Push...
Masochist; a person who takes pleasure in pain and suffering that is self-imposed.
I am a masochist. I have the ability to suffer and accept suffering. It would appear that I actively seek suffering. What really drives me is challenging myself to try something that seems impossible and then working hard to achieve it. I’m not afraid to fail, it motivates me to work harder and succeed next time. That is the drive and what keeps me running hard every week. There is no greater feeling than pushing yourself into the unknown and achieving something that last year was out of the question.
I have always had an uncontrollable desire to know what is around the next corner or over the next hill and what I can achieve if I refuse to give up. To know what I am capable of as a human being. That is probably the reason that egged on by my brother, I threw myself down the Blue Whale slide into the swimming pool before I could even swim.
The manifestation of this is having a sense of fear on the start line! If I have a voice in my head saying ‘what the hell are you doing here, you have no place doing this, you are going to fail or seriously hurt yourself, you can’t do this and shouldn’t be here’, then I know I’m challenging myself to be better. Having had that feeling and then having pushed myself into the unknown, the euphoria crossing the finish line is incredible. There is no greater feeling of accomplishment. I’m drawn to keep pushing myself and my ‘limits’ just a little bit further each time. Every run, from an A-Race to a dark and wet Wednesday night training run, allows us to get out of our comfort zone and push our limits. But there is one race that has got me in its grip more than any other.
Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc...
UTMB is THE reason.
It is the greatest and hardest 100-mile race in the world. During UTMB week I’ve been lucky enough to cross the finish line in CCC and MCC. But everything I do, everywhere I go, every race I run and every running-related decision that I make is with the single goal of getting on the start line of UTMB. Each time I push myself, hurt myself, sweat, bleed, suffer and drive myself forward, it is with the single goal of getting to the finish line of UTMB.
Lavaredo Ultra Trail, Race to the Stones, North Downs Way 100, Snowdon Skyline, Ben Nevis Ultra, Scafell Skyrace, Maverick Snowdon, Maverick Peak District, Maverick Exmoor, the absolutely incredible Maverick Dorset Ultra and many other mental races are all pushing me towards UTMB.
When I’m suffering in Dragons Back this year (hopefully), it’s because of UTMB.
When I’m hungover and force myself to run.
When I haven’t slept and run.
When I have food poisoning and run.
When I’m running Swains Lane for the 10th time in a row.
When it’s horizontal rain and I’m out there.
When I get up at 2 am to run 90km on my own.
It’s all because of UTMB.
I recognise that it is an obsession, but I will not rest until I have crossed the finish line of UTMB. It's what drives me more than anything else.
... Actually, running a sub 3 marathon, MDS, Boston and New York Marathons are quite important too, along with some others. Oh, and an Ironman. Climbing Ama Dablam in Nepal. Possibly some little Antarctica adventure. Rowing the Atlantic. Swimming the Channel...
All people are, thankfully, wonderfully different. Everyone’s biggest competition is themselves. Whether your goal is 5km or 200 miles, we all suffer the same to reach our goals and everything is relative. The important thing is to keep moving that bar forward. Keep pushing because it can all be taken away from us in an instant. Every day has to count because we never know what is around the corner. But what will keep you going is knowing your why. Thinking back to the person you are, the person you want to be and how you are going to journey in between those two.
That can be a scary thing or an exciting thing. The outdoors awaits!