Devin Kelly | Longreads | September, 2020 | 16 minutes (4,304 words)
I started to come apart sometime after midnight. I was cold, shiver-sweating, and shuffling alone on my 35th two-mile lap around a farm 40 miles west of Savannah, Georgia. I’ll back up in a second, and offer some context. But, for now, let’s remember the loneliness, and the absurdity. Let’s remember the darkness and how the stars looked like light shining through a thousand pinpricks in the vast blueblack tapestry of the night sky. And let’s remember how, when I shifted my head-lamped gaze from the few feet right in front of me to the big sky above, hoping to have a moment with the stars and witness something beautiful, the headlamp erased them, and I became a single low beam of light caught in the act of disappearing. Let’s remember how that felt: to expect something so great and be faced with its opposite.
Beginning on October 20, 2018, ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter took on Johan Steene at Big’s Backyard Ultra, a wildly conceived race where runners must complete a four-mile loop every hour on the hour. Runners can complete the loop as quickly or slowly as they desire, but they must be on the start line when the gun goes off each hour. Dauwalter and Steene battled over three days, running 279 miles each until Dauwalter, after 67 hours, shook Steene’s hand and let him finish his last loop alone. Steene later wrote, of that moment: “As I jogged away alone into the Tennessee night I didn’t feel joy. I felt empty and without purpose.” Steene had won, and yet there was no sense of accomplishment, purpose, or positive emotion. What do you make of that? The hole where something should be but nothing is?
What do you make of that? The hole where something should be but nothing is?
For a long time, I thought I ran, and competed in sport, as a way to use the metaphor of sport to understand life. Life is a marathon, I was often told. I remember watching and re-watching Chariots of Fire, particularly that moment in the rain when Eric Liddell, just minutes after winning a race, states: “I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires energy of will.” I loved that moment as a child, especially as someone who had, at one point, a deep amount of faith. But I always paused the clip before he stated what later became to me more obvious: “So who am I to say believe, have faith, in the face of life’s realities…I have no formula for winning a race. Everyone runs in their own way.” It’s true, that everyone runs in their own way, which is a fact I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve grown older. Patience, both with my own peculiar movements through life and with those of others, is a skill I actively try to cultivate and maintain. And yet, even Liddell’s quote has to do with winning. And that — the idea of winning, or finishing, or accomplishing — has become its own universal signifier. It’s not about what you do. It’s about what you have done.
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For the past three years, my college running friends and I have, despite whatever physical distance separates us, met up each February at a farm in Brooklet, Georgia to run a 24-hour ultramarathon. Known as Farmdaze, the race is a small, weekend-long festival of lots of things, running being only one of them. Other things include, but are not limited to: pig roasts, folk music, beer, beer miles, campfires, hot dogs, friends, occasional nakedness, cute puppies, scary roosters, goats, family-friendliness, non-family-friendliness, karaoke, ecstatic experiences, tears, blood, trippy lights in the middle of the woods, emotional connection, the phrase “what the fuck,” and a lack of sleep.
Each year, Victor and Andrew, the two founders of this “thing,” sneak off in the middle of the night to hang neon lights in the forest and set up speakers that play beautiful, discordant, wonky music. There’s one hill on the course. It’s called Space Mountain. It’s five feet tall.
The race begins at 9 AM on Saturday and ends at 9 AM on Sunday. Serious is not the best word to describe it, but people are serious about having fun, about testing limits, about being “out there,” wherever there is. Past winners have logged upward of 110 miles over the course of a single day. The race follows one lap that is repeated again and again. The lap is approximately two miles. The lap takes you along cow paths and through wooded trails and on plowed fields stretching long and wide beneath the sky. The lap takes you back to where you began, and then you begin again. Not everyone runs for the whole 24 hours. Some people do the six-hour race. Some do the 12. Some are there mostly to have fun, see friends, commune with one another around a fire. Some are there to find their limit. Some are there to run the coveted distance that defines an ultramarathon: 100 miles.
My friends and I go there for almost all of those reasons. Last year, I ran 100 miles for the first time in my life at Farmdaze. I finished it in 19 hours, had a shot of whiskey given to me by Victor and Andrew, and waited for my friend Nick to finish not far behind me. At some point, Nick had run a lap naked. At some point, I had cried a waterfall of tears while listening to the entire discography of The National and stumble-walk-running through the night. We tried to drink beer and sit in the glow of our achievement, but we wound up asleep under the same blanket and awoke bleary-eyed and sore a few hours later, drunk from dehydration and exhaustion. I loved every second of that. I loved what it meant to share in that with somebody. To be joined in my present moment by someone else in theirs, and to not have to question what joined us, or why, or what we owed one another. To do it a little bit on my own, and a lotta bit with the help of my friends.
This year, though, my friends and I had no plan, which is a kind of lie. We had the energy that comes with being unsure of what we were capable of. We weren’t sure about completing the full 100 miles, or just enjoying each other’s company. One of the many knowable things about an ultramarathon is how so much of it feels unknowable, even when you are in it. The early hours of a 24-hour race are like the early hours of any morning: a little achy, a little stretchy, a little chompy-at-the-bit. You want the hours to giddy themselves up into a faster pace so you can find out, more honestly, just how much you hurt, and just how much you are potentially capable of. It’s an impatient dance with patience. You want to get to the part where the dwelling happens. That place where you live, for an extended present, in the narrowed focus of exhaustion, where each small thing grows luminous with pain and light. My friends and I spent the first few hours loping around the farm, telling stories, catching up, playing music on a portable speaker we passed to one another.
This year, we orchestrated our own rendition of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” around 30 miles into the race. It made me fucking weepy. This year was the year my friends realized I had never seen Shrek, and it was the year Nick spent an hour trying to explain it to me, and all I can remember was something about an onion. We did all of this while running, in the early stages of the day, but this essay isn’t about running.
The day grew messy as the running went on. It had rained for days before, and most of the course was a slog: muddy, slippery, and cold. And, at about 12 hours in, every one of my friends, except for me, had stopped running, and I found myself where this essay begins: alone, in the dark, wrestling with meaning, unable to stop. I am scared of this impulse in myself. Once, during a high school cross country race, I fell and hit my head on a rock, suffering a minor concussion. I got up, and finished the race in what must have been last place. It was not brave, or courageous. It was dumb. But I did it, because I felt like I had to, because I was worried about what other people might think if I didn’t. The truth is, those who loved me would have loved me regardless. How hard was that for me to understand? It’s still hard. It’s really fucking hard.
What happens if what you once used to make sense of things no longer helps you make sense of things? What happens if the patterns and habits and metaphors we lean on do not serve us in the moments we need them? What happens if the stories we tell ourselves about our lives leave us lonely, wrestling with meaning? What then?
I grappled with these questions for hours on that farm in Georgia. Under the stars and all alone, I did not know what I was doing. Each lap, I shuffled past the bonfire, past my friends singing karaoke, past the laughter of strangers, and each lap I shuffled away from them, until they became the soft patchwork of voices traversing a distance, the kind of sound that hollows you to your core and fills you with a deep sense of missingness, a longing to be there and not wherever you are. At that point, the race had ceased to be a race for so many people, but it hadn’t for me.
What happens if the patterns and habits and metaphors we lean on do not serve us in the moments we need them? What happens if the stories we tell ourselves about our lives leave us lonely, wrestling with meaning? What then?
Two weeks after Farmdaze, I sat in my therapist’s office wondering why I hadn’t been able to stop when all my friends had. We talked about how I have a desire to tell a specific story: a story of perseverance, a story I have been telling myself for so long as a way to make sense of my own life, as a way to prove, to myself, that I could love myself, and deserve the love of others. For a long time I have believed that love and joy come after. They come after accomplishment. They come after pursuit. They don’t live in the present. They have to be earned. But there is a kind of grace that comes at a place like Farmdaze, a place that calls itself a race but is really everything that a race isn’t, an event that lets men give up if they want, that doesn’t shame them for it, that lets them become present in the story that is, simply, all of us trying to love all of us, the story that Galway Kinnell calls, simply, “tenderness toward existence.”
Each time I made it through another lap and then shuffled into the next one, the voices of my friends got a little quieter, until one lap, when I came around, they had gone to sleep. I felt suddenly selfish, and sad, that I had abandoned spending time with people I loved so that I could search for meaning by myself. One lap, I was alone under a field of stars, soaking wet, skin steaming. I tried to see the stars, to see all of them, but my headlamp’s glare made it impossible. So I turned off my head lamp and offered myself to the dark. It was freezing, my lips trembled. What is the point of all of this, I asked myself, what is the fucking point.
I was thinking of my own story: the story I would tell after I had done the thing, a story of hardship, of relentless pursuit through struggle, of accomplishment. But while I was telling myself that story, I missed out on the story I was living in and choosing not to see: the story of my friend Nick belting what must have been a hits-of-the-80s-90s-and-today playlist next to a raging fire while my friends Andrew, Ben, and Matt all tried to sing along.
For so many hours, shuffling around that farm, I didn’t want to be doing, I wanted to be done, so that when I was done, I could say I did a thing. This is the opposite of the spirit of ultramarathoning, of distance running in general, which is in many ways about being “Out There,” caught up in a moment that divorces you from the world, from society, from anything other than self. Accomplishment happens in an instant. Accomplishment is awarded the moment the finishing is done. But being out there takes a long time, and if it is only done for the sake of accomplishment, then it feels like an even longer, more painful time. Our society offers up so much as reward, and yet rewards so little for the so-much of life.
In one of Lisel Mueller’s poems, “There Are Mornings,” she writes: “the plot / calls for me to live, / be ordinary.” It’s a moment of trascendental mundanity in a poem punctuated by a blazing sun, mirrors burning. So often, the plot of our lives seems like a clarion call for the extraordinary. It is, nearly always, how the world is marketed to us as consumers, and speaking specifically, how the world is marketed to me as a man. Think of how young you were when you first thought you had to be the hero of your own story. I must have been barely older than a baby. My father called me maverick. It made me feel like a rebel. I wanted to be a star. I had to win at all costs. And yet: when was the last time anyone ever told a man to be ordinary? Think of the difference that would make, to begin to dismantle our need to be heroes, to finish things, to consider ourselves defined by accomplishment, particularly in a world where women make less money on the dollar and yet are defined, in settings both casual or professional, by what they have done or failed to do. Living, as Mueller writes, is so often, and so deeply, an ordinary thing. And yet the extraordinary sits there like a burning sun on the horizon.
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The thing about horizons is that, upon reaching one, you always encounter another. It’s the in-between where life lives. In another poem, “On Duration,” the poet Suzanne Buffam writes: “To cross an ocean / You must love the ocean / Before you love the far shore.” This is a beautiful explanation of what it means, as so many endurance runners say, to be “out there.” Out there is a place, but it is also a feeling. It is a series of moments stretched out across hours, or even days, that feel like one long moment. It is the act of building the bridge between two points and being the bridge at the same time. Out there is distance turned into feeling. It is metaphor actualized.
Our society offers up so much as reward, and yet rewards so little for the so-much of life.
Our world does not like “out there.” It likes here, or there, but not what is in between. Here is what you are before. There is what you are after. For a long time, as I mentioned, I have been self-obsessed with my body, and with my perceived fatness. I have hated how I do not look like a runner, but I have wanted to be respected as one. I have wanted to be done with enough things so that I would have an answer for anyone who doubted me. Oh you’re a runner, I imagined someone saying, prove it, and I would hand them my medals, my countless marathons, my hundred miles and 24-hour races, and say see for yourself. The problem with that, however, is that such a conversation lives on two distinct poles: here and there, or before and after. I am not letting that person love the ocean with me. And I am not loving the ocean of myself. In that scenario, we are throwing ourselves across it together, trying to get from the here of doubt to the there of certainty without love, kindness, or compassion. We are being nasty, brutish, and judgemental, so much like men, so much like society.
How, then, can we learn to love the ocean that signifies duration, the ocean that takes time? How can we acknowledge the plot when it calls for us to be ordinary? It takes a certain kind of grace to give yourself permission to do this, a certain kind of grace to say to yourself I’ve done enough, and sit down for a second, a minute, a day, a long time. Love does not always have to come after. It can be right here.
There was a time in my life when running served a clear and definable purpose. After my parents divorced, when I was not even a teenager, I ran a two-mile loop in my neighborhood as often as I could, endowed with reckless abandon, feeling like I was racing out of my own story, or racing into a story that I could control. When I became a competitive runner, I ran to make myself proud. Later, I ran to show my father how far I had come in loving him, recognizing how far he would go, the lengths he would travel, just to see me and my brother run. He never missed a race, even if it meant waking before dawn four hours away to see us race at dawn in another city, another state. Through all of that, I grew to love running, because it always meant something.
But I understand that no matter how much I love running, it still exists within a system that has said, essentially, if you want something better, here is what you have to accomplish. There is something about finishing that our culture is obsessed with. I even think of finishing school, that age-old culture-training course for women to enter into society. For them, finishing manifested itself as a right-to-enter. Which is the case so often, isn’t it? The act of finishing allows someone in society to enter into another realm of society. Finish high school, college, graduate school. Finish a marathon to put that 26.2 bumper sticker on your car. Finish the race to get the beer at the end. Finish your meal to eat dessert. Finish what you are doing so that you might find joy. So you might cease to care. So you might find something new to finish before you finish your life. This kind of reduction — of linking personal growth to accomplishment — does not honor the inconsistencies of life, the in betweens, the moments when finishing something doesn’t feel good enough, or when achieving something just makes you long for the next achievement. This is why tense matters. If we are defined by what we have done or what we will do, then we, each day, seem to forget the present tense: what we do. This tense is shifty. It elides. It loses itself in the past and drives off a cliff into the future. It is full of insecurity, of difference. But it is where we live.
When I think of a moment when the present was where I lived, I think of a Monday in Boston in 2015. It was raining, and the wind was in my face on a course that went in one direction. I was with my friend Matt, who was guiding me, gently setting the pace a little faster or slower when needed, sometimes touching my hip just to let me know he was there. We had settled into a pack with a bunch of strangers, and, when we passed a fan handing out water bottles, one fellow runner grabbed one, drank from it, and passed it to each of us, who took sips in turn. Soon, one of the elite women caught up with us, and the few of us around her took turns blocking the wind. We did this for miles, barely talking. It was the sound of muffled footsteps and rain dropping from the lids of hats and spectators thumping gloved hands together. At some point, nearing the finish, we separated. Matt took off, and I chased him. Others came with me and others fell behind. But because we shared something, because we were out there together, because, for a few hours, our stories were inexorably linked, I remember waiting at the finish, turning my head to see if these strangers would arrive at this one place where we all stopped and existed together again. And they did, and we recognized each other, and embraced.
In one of her seminal works, The Years, Annie Ernaux writes “The world is suffering from lack of faith in a transcendental truth.” I think that transcendental truth is simple. I think that truth has to do with solidarity. I think it has to do with existing in service of others existing, and not in spite of, or despite them. With putting your own personal pursuit aside sometimes. With understanding, or attempting to understand, the various inconsistencies of others, the way we are made and unmade in a world that tells us, every day, a different way to be made and unmade. Sometimes the transcendental truth involves giving up the race and just sitting with your friends. It involves forgetting the phrase I just said: giving up, and other phrases, like quitting, or losing. It involves remembering that the word last doesn’t just refer to last place, but also refers to lasting for a long time. Life gives me glimpses of those moments. I have run to find those moments. But I am also learning to live to find them. And learning to love to find them. And learning to miss them when they are gone.
I think that transcendental truth is simple. I think that truth has to do with solidarity. I think it has to do with existing in service of others existing, and not in spite of, or despite them.
I wish I had thought of those moments while I was in Georgia, but I was caught up in the idea of accomplishing. I was obsessed with having done something. I wish I had said: not finishing does not mean giving up. I wish I had said: it is alright to love your friends instead of trying so hard to love yourself. I wish loving myself did not always feel, each day, like an extraordinary task that took extraordinary lengths and impossible distances to achieve. I am still living in the consequence of a lifetime spent telling myself all the ways in which I did not have value, and all the ways I was supposed to. A lifetime spent telling myself I was not fast enough, fit enough, smart enough, driven enough, insert anything enough. Enough, enough, enough with that.
The truth is: when I finished whatever lap took me over 100 miles on that farm in Georgia, I don’t know how I felt. Like Johan Steene, I felt partly empty, without purpose. It was twenty-something hours into the race. An hour before that, I had seen dawn rise. It glistened all pink and hazy and melted the stars away and revealed a thin layer of frost atop the grass. I was, at that point, wearing two pairs of tights under a pair of pants. I hadn’t really done anything resembling running for hours. Most everyone except for Victor and Andrew and the few others still running the race was asleep in their tents or RVs or cars. The truth is: I wanted to feel more. But I was mostly tired. I had a glass of champagne. I went to sleep. There was so much distance between what I felt and what I was supposed to feel. It made me sad. I was alone. Meaning unshared is barely meaning at all. My reasons for finishing, whatever finishing meant, were defined wholly extrinsically. I had believed in what society told me would happen: that I would push through a challenge and emerge, new and strong, on the other side, where love was. But I was left instead with the deep, profound emptiness that comes with knowing entirely for certain that what you were told by society was wrong.
When I woke up, I went looking for my friends. I slept so long that I missed the awards ceremony. But that wasn’t the point. I saw them sitting by a pond. They had gotten my award for me, for third place: a silly hat with fire streaked across the brim. (Just kidding. It wasn’t silly. It was fucking awesome. Am I wearing it now? Maybe.) But the award wasn’t the point. I missed my friends. They had spent a morning walking along the farm, befriending horses. They showed me pictures, videos of what I missed the night before. I missed so much. They hugged me and said they were proud. And they were. But I know now that they would have been proud no matter what.
Today, I can still hear the echo of my friend Andrew singing Kenny Rogers from a mile away, somewhere on a farm in Georgia. You gotta know when to hold them, know when to fold them. How apt. I think you hold for as long as you can the moments that don’t feel like you have to choose between holding and folding. I wish I had been there, right next to him, instead of where I was. But it’s alright now. Because even though I’m no longer out there, in the middle of some unimaginable distance, I’m still here, which is a kind of out there, which is where all of you are. Each of you, in each of your out theres, trying to love the ocean you’re in.
Devin Kelly is the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen, (published by Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series. He is the winner of a Best of the Net Prize, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, LitHub, Catapult, DIAGRAM, Redivider, and more. He lives and teaches high school in New York City.
Editor: Krista Stevens