“Physical pain?” my shrink says.
“None,” I answer.
It’s a standard inventory that she goes through every week, with all her patients, not just me. (Well, I don’t think it’s just me. Oh my god. Do you think it’s just me?) A list of life elements to which I answer lots, some, a little, or none. Depression, anxiety, physical pain, fatigue.
Anger, grief, competence, pleasure? A little, a little, some, some. Would I know I was grieving if someone didn’t ask me? I’m not sure. Try it: set an alarm once a week and ask yourself what you’re mourning.
“None.” Never. I grew up in a suicide threat-rich environment. It inoculated me against any personal interest.
“That’s good,” she says, writing something down.
“I mean, futility, yes,” I say. She looks up from her legal pad. “But in like, a Sisyphus sense. I wouldn’t call it hopeless per se.” My shrink tilts her head to one side. “Hopelessness is a very specific word,” I explain.
“Well,” she says. “Maybe we should come back to this.”
A few days later I drive to a park outside Seattle to watch people run a 200-mile trail race. Well, to be fair, only the crazy people are doing 200; the normal folks are only running 100 or 150. On a 10-mile loop course. The first time I ran a half-marathon, at the end of Mile 1 I thought See? That was easy! And you only have to do it 12 more times — a thought I immediately wished I had suppressed. I wonder now if any of the runners finished that first loop, said Only 19 more! to themselves, and then, I don’t know, tore all their clothes off and started spinning in circles crying and screaming.
I’m here to steal details for an ultra-marathon that takes place in my novel. Also, my husband is pacing a friend for one loop, though I may not even see them while I’m here. And then of course there’s my middle-distance runner’s curiosity for just how far this so-called hobby can be pushed, not to mention…
Oh, fuck it. All of the above is true, but really? I’m here to see what futility looks like. I’m a futility tourist.
Big races can feel like county fairs, with massage tents and shoe showcases and kids’ 1K runs and all the free sports drink and glucose gel you can stand. This is not that. This is a few rented tents, a whiteboard for tracking time (no shoe-tag sensors here), and a half-dozen people grilling hot dogs and tofu pups. The only way I know the organizers even have a permit is because I hear one guy ask “Should we get out the beer?” and another guy say “Well, I told King County we wouldn’t have any beer.”They agree to wait for cover of darkness.
It’s gray, chilly, and drizzling — ideal running weather, actually, but not so great for spectating. My Raynaud’s finger turned shock-white in minutes. It’s been doing that for 20 years with no pain or progression, but I still take a moment to worry every time it happens. With that task checked off, I plant myself midway between trail and tents and settle in to wait for some human suffering.
The first sufferer to emerge from the forest trail is a 40-something, robustly healthy-looking black woman. Huh, I think, having expected a tall, wiry, bearded white man like the ones in the tent. “Hey girl!” the woman calls out to the tent guys as she approaches. “Hey girl!” the tent guys call back. She eats a couple of hot dogs, chats for a bit about the Subaru one of the tent guys just bought, then heads back out — smiling — while we all clap. I think she must just be getting started. But no: “Just three to go!” the keeper of the whiteboard says. That means that even if she’s only (‘only’) doing the 100-mile distance, she’s already run 70. I don’t know about you, but I would have stopped grinning and “Hey girling!” by mile 65, 66 at most.
A few minutes later another woman comes trotting out of the woods. Here is my second chance to see a human being struggling not to come apart in the face of nothingness. This woman is less chatty than the first. She grabs some potato chips, visits the Port-a-John, and goes right back out. “Hey, you forgot to ask my number!” she calls over her shoulder.
“Oh yeah, what’s your number?” the timekeeper asks, though he’s already marked down her time.
“867–5309,” she says, and disappears around the bend.
What is wrong with these people? I think. Do they not understand that this is a desperate situation?
“Tell me more about the futility,” my shrink says.
I pick up a throw pillow and clutch it on my lap. “Okay, let’s say I actually manage to find a publisher for my book,” I tell her. “And let’s say it earns out the advance, or close enough.”
“You publish a successful book,” she says.
I cringe. “’Successful’ is a complicated word. Let’s say it does well enough that the publisher wants another one.” She nods in assent, or acceptance. “Then I’ll have to write another one.”
“I thought you wanted to write another one,” she says.
“I do. That’s not the point,” I say. “And then there’s work. Things are going well there. I feel valued, like genuinely valued.”
She smiles. “Certainly has been sounding that way for a while now.”
“But what happens when you do well at work?” I ask her. “They ask you to do more work. That’s the best case scenario. Doing more work. Like the best case scenario for writing a book is writing another book. Even with running, the best case scenario is you don’t get hurt and you can keep doing it.”
She leans forward a little. “But unless something has drastically changed and I don’t know, you love all these things.”
“I do,” I tell her. “But still, isn’t it kind of horrific that they just go on and on and on? And then, you know, after that I’m going to die.”
Finally! A man who fits my vision of an ultra runner ambles out of the woods. Well over six feet tall, with brown dreadlocks almost to his knees. Minimalist shoes. Tattoos on painful-looking parts of his legs — calves, the backs of his thighs. At the aid tent, they ask what he’d like to eat and I wait for him to say something like I am nourished by the spirits in the trees and pull a chewed-up root out of his shorts.
“How about something to make me run faster, not feel pain, and be in a better mood,” the man says. “A steroid smoothie, maybe?”
“We have pizza,” someone says.
I notice then that he’s carrying retractable hiking poles and limping a bit. While he’s loading up on pizza, a woman comes in, also limping, and ducks into a tent to sleep for an hour. Shortly after she zips herself in, another man appears. Unlike every other racer I’ve seen so far, he’s full-on running, not shuffling or walking. Also unlike the others, he doesn’t stop to eat or pee.
“RUNNING SUCKS BALLS!!!” he yells as he flies past us. The dreadlocked man watches him go and says, “Hard to argue with that.”
Over the next hour I start to see things I didn’t before. That almost every runner is walking kind of funny, for instance. That their approaches and departures are slow even by my standards. That though their aid tent breaks are downright leisurely compared to the water stops at a normal-person race, no one sits down. (I ask about this and am told it’s for fear of never getting back up.) That the trekking poles many runners are carrying are for walking the steep uphills, because if you’re going to travel 200 miles you’d better have some plan for pulling your heart out of the red zone.
They are adapting to conditions, in other words, instead of just barreling through. And maybe it’s because anyone who would run this far is preternaturally in tune with his body and mind. But I suspect it’s more that they each learned the hard way at some point that barreling through an 80-hour race just doesn’t work. So if you want to win — never mind that, if you just want to finish — you do what works.
I think about my first year sober, how clear it became about six months in that the new conditions of my life required that its major components not, as the man said, suck balls. I realized I would need a better job, more practice saying no, more sleep. More time outside. More time in general, for walking the uphills.
And did it feel futile, the prospect of stacking up sober day after sober day until the occasion of my glamorous funeral? Uh, yeah. It absolutely felt futile. For a little while. Until I felt steady enough to start noticing all of my surroundings, not just the path in front of me, and realized that time has astonishing density.
My shrink can’t really argue with the fact that I’m going to die, though she looks like she might like to. “Well, we all are,” she says.
I shrug. I have decided to prioritize worrying about my own death over the deaths of Everyone Else (the exceptions being close family members, my dogs, and, for reasons I cannot explain, Michael Stipe).
“Do you think you’re going to die young?”
“Not really, but I guess it depends on what ‘young’ means,” I say. It’s just not my day for coping with commonly understood English words.
She stares ahead at her bookshelf for a moment. I think she might be looking for a dictionary to hurl at me, but when she speaks again, she speaks softly.
“You’re perilously close to finally having the life you’ve always wanted,” she says. “It’s not surprising to me that you would panic.”
I loosen my death grip on the throw pillow. “I know,” I tell her. “I know.”
It’s really raining now, and I’m hungry, and at home the dogs are getting hungry too. I decide I’ll leave, though a big part of me wants to stay and watch the whole calm, plodding spectacle play out in real time, like that Warhol film where a man sleeps for eight hours. As I’m heading to the car I spot my husband John sucking down some Gu at the aid tent — he must have finished his pacer loop while I wasn’t looking. He seems pretty chipper for someone who just ran ten miles. “It was great,” he says. “I could have done another one. I mean literally another one.” His friend is already back on the trail alone, with 30 miles to go.
John walks me to my car and sees the bag I keep there with a set of running clothes and my second-best pair of shoes, for times I want to go out for a few miles and haven’t planned ahead. “Never too late to join,” he jokes. And for a moment, my body wants to do exactly that. I can already feel the tightness of my ponytail, the damp air on my mostly bare legs, the subtle pooling of blood in my fingertips — even the ache in my upper back that sets in when I go long and my rhomboids decide to do some of the work. How good it would feel, I think, to be out there, with those people, in the weather and the tedium and the pain, trying and doing on the hamster wheel where I belong.