What kind of mad­ness?

Be­hind the prick­li­ness of the long-dis­tance run­ner are a group of men and women putting one foot in front of the other for weeks on end, chas­ing ad­ven­ture even as they cre­ate it

Sunday Times - - Contents | Up Front - WORDS BY As­pa­sia Kar­ras

Tell peo­ple that you are in­ter­view­ing a bunch of run­ners who are em­bark­ing on the equiv­a­lent of 20 Com­rades marathons in 20 days and the re­sponse is an in­cred­u­lous “What?!”. Even sea­soned Com­rades run­ners in the fi­nal throes of prepa­ra­tion for this year’s marathon re­spond in kind. I sus­pect this may have some­thing to do with the fact that they know what 90km by foot ac­tu­ally feels like and so can ex­trap­o­late what 19 more of those very same ul­tra­ma­rathons run on con­sec­u­tive days might do to the body and the soul. Why would any­one wil­fully choose to pur­sue such a feat of en­durance?

Dave Cham­ber­lain (pic­tured) is the in­sti­ga­tor or “chief crazy” (as some of his run­ning mates call him) of the Ufudu project. Ufudu means “tor­toise” in isiZulu. Ap­par­ently there is a cy­cling group that an­nu­ally un­der­takes the same dis­tance and then runs the Com­rades; that chal­lenge is called Unog­waja, the hare. Cham­ber­lain de­murs when asked to be in­ter­viewed un­less I as­sure him that I will not fo­cus un­nec­es­sar­ily on pedantry — you know, ir­rel­e­vant stuff like the dis­tance: 1 800km in this in­stance.

“I do these sorts of things be­cause I’m try­ing to live the best pos­si­ble life that I can, but I’ve found that in­ter­view­ers in the past have tended to sen­sa­tion­alise their fi­nal drafts. I com­pletely un­der­stand why peo­ple fo­cus on dis­tances, times and epic en­coun­ters, but none of these things are ac­tu­ally im­por­tant to me. I gen­uinely just want to wake up ex­cited about the day ahead, ev­ery day, ” he writes rather strictly on e-mail.

I im­me­di­ately agree to his terms. Ob­vi­ously there is a temp­ta­tion to try to un­der­stand this sort of thing from a tech­no­cratic per­spec­tive — how do you get your body to bend to your will in or­der to ex­e­cute this her­culean task? If you view the body like a machine and each phys­i­cal feat like an equa­tion that can be mas­tered — put in so many hours of train­ing, so much prepa­ra­tion, so much food, and voilà, off you go — then the facts of the mat­ter might be your main pre­oc­cu­pa­tion. How many hours are they train­ing per day? (Four) What are they eat­ing? (Lots). Etcetera.

“Why do you do it, Dave, why?” I ask once I get him on the phone. He sounds ebul­lient, light of spirit and amused — not a bad com­bi­na­tion of per­son­al­ity traits if you are about to set out on an ad­ven­ture of this kind, which ap­pears to be a small blip in the con­tin­uum of his greater life’s run, which in turn can be viewed as a se­ries of projects, like the Hug Run con­ceived as a nine-year, 90 000km jour­ney around the world, which started in May 2016 in Nor­way. He has cov­ered 21 000km across 10 coun­tries and run across the US al­most four times, in a chap­ter of the project in­spired by For­rest Gump, natch. He has in­ter­rupted all that for the Ufudu.

“Peo­ple get so hung up on the run­ning and as­sume I am some kind of ul­tra­ma­rathon pro­fes­sional or a fit­ness freak. Or they think I am a hippy pur­su­ing an al­ter­na­tive life­style. I am none of these things, in fact I am rather bor­ing. The best way to ex­plain it is I have only one life to live, and I want to spend what time I have on this planet liv­ing and trav­el­ling around the world and the best way I can think of do­ing it at the mo­ment is run­ning. I want an ex­cit­ing and pas­sion­ate life, but I am liv­ing my life like any­one else.”

Well, not quite — there is some­thing ex­cep­tional and per­haps ex­cep­tion­ally crazy about liv­ing a life like this. Why doesn’t he just do it on a mo­tor­bike if it is not nec­es­sar­ily about the phys­i­cal act of run­ning? “Run­ning is just part of the pack­age,” he says, as if he him­self is slightly mys­ti­fied by the par­tic­u­lar turn his life took, and is on the out­side look­ing in.

He started run­ning these sorts of dis­tances when his late mother, who seems to have been a bit of a run­ning snake her­self, pro­posed that he join the fam­ily on an Antarc­tic marathon they had all signed up for, by way of run­ning all the way down Ar­gentina. It sounded like a good idea at the time as he had lost his pass­port and could not fly back to a scuba in­struct­ing job in the Caribbean in time to take it up. And one long run led to an­other.

It is this kind of cool de­tach­ment about the phys­i­cal part of the chal­lenge that each of the run­ners I in­ter­view evinces. De­spite the fact that they have hash­tagged their en­deav­our #Lon­groad­to­com­rades, you would think they had signed up for a walk in the park. They all ap­pear to be in the midst of much longer and more epic life run­ning chal­lenges. The dis­tance and the ac­tual run­ning seem to be sec­ondary to some other driv­ing force that is pro­pel­ling the team of six to run from Cape Town to Pi­eter­mar­itzburg in time to join the Com­rades on June 10.

Take Mike Sewell, who re­cently ran 1 200km across Patag­o­nia with Roger Cameron (both have signed up for the Ufudu). Why do it? “It’s so in­cred­i­ble to be in such a raw form of be­ing — us­ing my own phys­i­cal body to get from place to place. It is about get­ting out of the or­di­nary. We are brought up in these brack­ets and pi­geon holes, work­ing in cor­po­rate be­cause that is what so­ci­ety tells you to do. Why sit be­hind a desk?”

Carla Moli­naro views the Ufudu as a warm-up run for her nine-month jour­ney from Lon­don to South Africa in the sec­ond half of the year. She ex­plains: “I like the idea of a jour­ney, and the ad­ven­ture.” She will fol­low the east coast down Africa. She is do­ing it un­sup­ported, with her run­ning pram, and tells a funny story of how the chap in the pram store in­sisted she would need safety straps for the baby, and she had to con­fess that there was no baby. Cue con­fu­sion.

Read any­thing about en­durance run­ning and you will come across the the­ory that we are born to run. The book Born to Run by Christo­pher McDougall be­came a bit of a foun­da­tional text of the en­durance-run­ning move­ment — knock­ing The Lore of Run­ning by Tim Noakes straight off its pedestal. Here is the ex­pla­na­tion for run­ning as a way of life: McDougall vis­its the an­cient tribe in Mex­ico who by chance es­caped the Con­quis­ta­dors and avoided later waves of ur­ban­i­sa­tion. The Tarahu­mara run in­cred­i­bly long dis­tances ev­ery day, from early child­hood till their dotage. Men, women, chil­dren all run and when pit­ted against some of the world’s most feted en­durance ath­letes come out tops or at least equal — run­ning in white cloth and san­dals for the men, and flow­ing full skirts and san­dals for the women.

McDougall goes down the bare­foot-run­ning rab­bit hole, but essen­tially ar­gues that our hu­man phys­i­ol­ogy is such that we are built to out­run our prey in the hunt, and so we can run a very long dis­tance ev­ery day for sev­eral days un­til the prey ex­pires while we blithely go on to feast. And the sto­ries the run­ners tell me kind of bear this idea out. Sewell started the six-week Patag­o­nian jour­ney with an in­jury. He was re­duced to walk­ing for much of the first two weeks, un­til some­thing gave and the in­jury self-healed. The last three weeks he sailed along, run­ning be­tween 42 and 50km a day.

The other run­ning tribe you might en­counter in the en­durance lit­er­a­ture are the Tendai Bud­dhist monks, or the marathon monks. Their as­cetic prac­tice in­volves much long-dis­tance run­ning around Mount Hiei where their head­quar­ters are based. The ul­ti­mate feat of kai­h­ogyo (their prac­tice) is to live an aus­tere and iso­lated life in the moun­tains and run 1 000 marathons in as many days. If you man­age to com­plete the cy­cle (only 46 monks have done this since 1885) then you achieve en­light­en­ment in this life and a form of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Bud­dha known as Fudo Myoo.

There ap­pears to be a phys­i­o­log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion for this al­tered state of con­scious­ness brought on by the phys­i­o­log­i­cal act of en­durance run­ning. Dr Arne Dietrich, a pro­fes­sor of cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut, calls it the “tran­sient hy­pofrontal­ity


hy­poth­e­sis.” He ar­gues that all al­tered states of con­scious­ness — whether brought on by LSD or en­durance run­ning — share the same mech­a­nis­tic ex­pe­ri­ences, like a sense of time­less­ness and a com­plete col­lapse of the men­tal space time con­tin­uum.

Could this be the drug the Ufudu folk are af­ter — the sin­gu­lar­ity? They are all dis­ap­point­ingly unBud­dhist monk-like and laugh at the thought. They are not af­ter some spir­i­tual en­light­en­ment fix. Which ac­tu­ally jibes quite well with Dietrich’s tran­sient hy­pofrontal­ity the­ory. “When­ever the brain is un­der as­sault it needs to hun­ker down and con­cen­trate on the ba­sics . The mys­ti­cal one­ness . . . the calm and seren­ity that comes from be­ing in the here and now is sim­ply be­cause you can no longer do the fancy foot­work re­quired to ex­tract your­self from the here and now. That re­quires a lot of brain­power . . . All al­tered states of con­scious­ness are lower states of con­scious­ness — you con­nect to noth­ing but your own re­duced mind.”

“En­durance is the strug­gle to con­tinue against a mount­ing de­sire to stop,” writes Alex Hutchin­son in his new book En­dure: Mind, Body, and the Cu­ri­ously Elas­tic Lim­its of Hu­man Per­for­mance.

He ex­am­ines all kinds of hu­man quests, the subtwo-hour marathon, the chap who crosses the An­tar­tic sin­gle and un­sup­ported and at­tempts to un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing here. I am still not en­tirely sure.

Sewell says: “The hu­man body adapts to en­durance. Peo­ple are re­al­is­ing we are ca­pa­ble of more than we thought we were. A hand­ful of peo­ple are push­ing boundaries. For me it’s not spir­i­tual, it’s just about get­ting out of the or­di­nary. ”

Cham­ber­lain says: “I am not some kind of an­ar­chist, I am just try­ing to find ex­cite­ment and pas­sion in my life. This is just a se­ries of ex­pe­ri­ences I am en­joy­ing. I want to know how I will re­spond on Day 1 at 60ks when I am strong and happy and on day 7 at 5 ks when I might be feel­ing bro­ken . . . I just want to live the best life I can.”

The Ufudu chal­lenge, rais­ing money for chil­drenofthed­awn.org.za, starts this week and ends on June 10 at the Com­rades fin­ish line. Fol­low @Lon­groad­to­com­rades.


PIC­TURES Rhys Mor­gan Eva Beronus

Wait­ing for wa­ter in Namibia.


Dave Cham­ber­lain push­ing his pram in Namibia.

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