The great reckoning

Written by      

The science of human endurance is fascinating because it is so little understood, so variable, and because excelling at a monumental task isn’t simply a matter of physical strength.

“If races were really just plumbing contests—tests of whose pipes could deliver the most oxygen and pump the most blood—they would be boringly deterministic,” writes Alex Hutchinson in Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. “You race once, and you know your limits. But that’s not how it works.”

After 24 hours of physical exertion, it isn’t baseline strength that matters as much as mental fortitude, and grit is equally available to both sexes. The same weekend as the Revenant ultra run featured in this issue took place, a British woman, Jasmine Paris, won a 431-kilometre mountain race along the Pennine Way between England and Scotland. (Her time of 83 hours, 12 minutes set a new course record.)

Viewing the Revenant in person involved a lot of waiting on tussock-clad hillsides, but I was enthralled, fully invested in the success or failure of 21 people I’d only just met.

An ultra runner requires the qualities we most admire about the New Zealand psyche—they are proto-New Zealanders.

We value effort when no one’s watching. We value persistence over talent, and across extremely long distances, sheer stubbornness—call it bloody-mindedness—is what prevails. We value toughness, the kind that can’t be built in gyms or isolated by sports scientists. We value capability and self-sufficiency. In the Revenant, runners figure out a route across trackless land, face up to the elements, judge the time from the setting of the moon or the rising of the sun. They cannot receive any help.

“It comes down to the ability to keep going at any pace,” says Dave Viitakangas, who is on the cover of this issue. (He completed a full loop of the course, despite an injury.)

Ultra running prompts us to ask the question: how would we fare if it was only our mental strength on the line? The pursuit of that great reckoning of psychological fortitude is what draws people in increasing numbers to marathons, to long missions in the hills.

“When you are by yourself and you know that you are the only one that you can rely on, I feel like that’s when you are the sharpest as a human being,” said one of the Revenant runners, United States Navy SEAL Chadd Wright, in a Trail Runner Nation podcast after the race. “When you can’t look to someone else to have that courage in a moment of weakness and you’re by yourself and you know your only option is to rely on yourself—at times you can be sharper at that point than you would be within a group.”

Wright raced in a team of two, but the pair of them experienced a moment of intense isolation. Emerging after nearly 30 hours from a psychologically difficult section of the course, his teammate wondered about contacting the race organisers to let them know where they were. The realisation dawned on Wright: “No one cares where we are.”

Acknowledging it was a form of liberation: returning to home base was entirely up to him, and when he finally arrived back, the achievement would be entirely his. That’s the whole purpose of the Revenant. Here, the only race takes place within.

Sure, the Revenant has its critics—too long, too hard, inspires people to do dangerous things. And why create an event where you expect everyone to lose, anyway?

“If you’re going to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge,” said Gary Cantrell, the founder of the Barkley Marathons, a difficult ultra race in Tennessee. The Barkley has become legendary, attracting documentary crews, as well as news coverage every time it’s run, even though most years, no one finishes.

Cantrell started the Barkley for one reason entirely: “You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.”

More by