The Single Biggest Reason Why Everyone Should Run a Challenging Race

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The first thing I notice about him is his calves. The hefty, solid pieces of meat are probably the size of my thighs. The rest of him is of medium build, albeit with a bit of a bigger midsection. But those calves are in a league of their own. Like he was a dedicated weightlifter at some point in his life but only the calves refused to give it up.

He is one of three other runners in my starting group. Being a bit of an introvert I don’t usually talk to other runners before I race. I am head down (hence the calf observation), nervously awaiting our cue to get the show on the road. It is my first Otter African Trail Run and my stomach is in a tight, nervous knot. Finally, we get moving. 

Our little group sets out at a comfortable pace across the first flat section of beach. With my head still down, eyes glued to the two mighty meat bombs in front of me, I hear him confess that this is his second Otter. He DNF’ed the year before after missing a time cut-off. “Well”, I think to myself, “seeing that you are here with me in one of the last starting groups after a slow qualifier, you probably didn’t put in much effort to ensure a better outcome  this year…”

His inexperience further shows by fact that he stuffed the entire plastic jar of free GU’s he got at registration in his race pack. Notwithstanding the fact that GU’s need some getting used to as is, we know from experience that freebies usually fall into one of only two categories: They are either new-never-before-tested samples or nobody-can-stomach-this-flavor rejects. And neither of these categories should comprise one’s fueling on race day. Calf-man was either brutally gung-ho or entirely oblivious to the possible consequences. Nonetheless, within the first hour, I lose sight of him up ahead, which forces me to focus less on his fitness or inexperience and more on my own wanting abilities.

Tribal Introduction

Some 30 km in and 8 hours later I see him at the top of a steep section of stairs. He’s half-bent over, clinging to a tree like his life depends on it. With his eyes shut tight he breathes hard and rapid like a rundown deer. As I approach he seems to recover enough to take two or three steps before he stops again, slamming his hands down on his knees as he hurls his torso forward. The man is clearly in pain.

An effort at humor on another tough ascent on the Otter.

The Otter, with its +/-7000 ascending stairs and a total altitude gain of 2600m, is a beautiful but very tough South African trail marathon. With a cap at 440 entries one is lucky to get a spot, and then most likely to take training seriously. But, in spite of this, there is still a minimum of 10% DNFs each year.   

Once I reach him I learn that he is cramping severely. The numerous steep ascents and descents have taken their toll on his legs. And, like predicted, he is not fueling correctly. Having just come across the same grueling course I feel shattered myself. And moments ago I couldn’t fathom completing the final quarter of the race. But now, aware of my fellow runner’s pain, my attention immediately shifts from my own suffering to his needs and how I can help. I offer him some of my cramp meds and I am happy when he accepts them. We stick together for another 30 minutes or so, chatting comfortably before I up my pace for the push to the finish.

The final section of the reverse Otter route is a sapping, never-ending, tremendously technical scramble that takes every last ounce of effort and determination from a tired runner’s body. I muster up all the energy that I have left and finish within a mere 10 minutes to the 11-hour final cutoff. And no sooner do I cross beneath the Salomon arc than I turn to see if Calf-man will make it. Sadly, he doesn’t. He finishes half an hour too late. After enduring all that he has to go home without a medal. Again.

A Reunion

Fast forward to a year later, and I am lined up for my second Otter. I spot him in a group well in front of me. Calf-man is back and he ran a better qualifier than I did! He trained! A warm fuzz of happy spread over my face. I am rooting for someone whose name I don’t even know. But he is one of my Otter tribesmen. Now even more so the second time around. Three kilometres before the finish I catch up with him the first time. We exchange a few excited words like long lost friends. He is taking a lot of strain, but now with ample time to finish the race comfortably. And he does exactly that. The rest of the tribe and I can’t be more proud and happy for him.  

This is the story of how Calf-man became one of my Otter people. There were others too. More stories and more races. Each one with its own people.

The Value of a Comrade

Another day, another race and the foot was on the other shoe. I was sitting next to the course, facing the way I had just come. The Zermatt Marathon finish was a mere 3 km away but perched atop a hill with a gradient straight from the record books of Hell. I was broken and done with. And my entire being spoke of misery. Along came a woman, probably on a finish-in-sight euphoric high. Either that or a massive sugar rush, but she was on a roll. Battered as she looked herself, she stopped and offered me the only thing she had: A sip from the luke-warm electrolyte she carried. Against the protests of my weary stomach, I accepted her kindness. And minutes later, as I stood hunched over, expelling said kindness and everything else I consumed during the day, I remained grateful. She didn’t have to engage with me, but she did. And the gesture was enough to get me going again and finish the race.

No App can Replace People

We live in a world where we have become so self-sufficient and independent that we rarely need something from someone else. And if we do, we want to pay or repay them. It is hard to accept something from someone else for free. It is even harder to have to ask for it if we know we have nothing to offer in return. We have access to specialists in every field and, proud as we are, we’d much rather pay someone for their assistance than to phone a friend. Because showing vulnerability is something we don’t like to do.

And yet, one of our primary drives in life is our own need to feel needed. Showing vulnerability and feeling needed are two crucial parts of a healthy human and functioning society. For us to function optimally and live happily we need to strike a balance between expressing our needs for other people, gracefully accepting help and showing up when others need us. But many of our social needs have been superficially replaced with an electronic application. Being ‘needy’ has become a curse word, and accepting assistance something completely outdated. It was replaced by a modern-day drive to be super-independent. Which is also the way we raise our children. But the sad reality of this is that they say loneliness, not obesity, is becoming the biggest killer of our time.

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What Tough Races Can Teach Us About Life

The allure of running ultras and other tough, long races aren’t always apparent to bystanders and even some participants. But runners’ fondest race tales will usually bear one common thread: The magnificent people they encounter. Race camaraderie and the effect of volunteer assistance is probably the closest thing most of us will experience outside a war zone. Because just like at war, runners suffer in unison. They assist fallen runners even if it means jeopardizing their own positions. They gracefully accept assistance from volunteers. And they know the powerful effect of a smile and a cheer received in their darkest hour.

There are no apps on a tough, long race to lull you into a false sense of security. No specialists to call on. It is you and you alone. But with an entire troop of fellow runners that will have your back. Just like you’ll have theirs. But, unfortunately, this takes a while to become apparent. Only after sufficient time, blood, sweat, and tears have faded all pretense can vulnerability start to surface. And right there lies The Single Biggest Reason Why You Should Run a Challenging Race: It will make of you a better, richer,  happier and more fulfilled person.

Rockay Calf Sleeves
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