Saturday Blueprint on Infirmity

On the infirmity of life through the lens of an ultra race.

Saturday Blueprint on Infirmity
Photo by Rod Long / Unsplash

Hi 👋. Here is this week's Saturday Blueprint.

🤔 Quote I’m thinking about

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.

— From the beautiful and heartbreaking book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

This quote, and indeed the entire book, is an affirmation of life in the face of death due to cancer. We all know we’re going to die, but we don’t often think about it (unless we follow the Stoic practice of memento mori). Yet a tragedy, like for example being diagnosed with cancer, changes everything. In the book it forced Paul to really ponder what it all means, and how to live. And of course there are no answers, only the everlasting question of how to live. This is philosophy - the endless practice of how to live. As Seneca said:

As long as you live, keep learning how to live — Seneca

🦶 Before the challenge

This Blueprint I will cover my 12 hour through-the-night running race that I ran last weekend. The race was simple - 12 hours, starting at 9pm, running through the night, and finishing at 9am, doing as many 5-mile laps you can. It is a trail race - so is an off-road course through the woods. Hope12 trail race.

I arrived at around 6pm, having had a quick dinner with the family at home. This was to be a solo endeavour for me. Very much a personal challenge.

I’m most anxious about the lack of sleep. It’s not something I’ve done before. That’ll be a new test. I’ve come prepared with various forms of caffeine - cold brew coffee, a flask of green tea, even some caffeine pills.

As I waited for the start time I sat and watched the sun go down, reflecting. Why am I here? What set of circumstances has led me to think that this is a good idea?

I’m one for taking action, and I’m one to challenge myself. I’m here to strive, yes. But also to suffer. This is harder to understand. I feel like I’ve got a lot of pain in me that I need to extract with more pain. Pain about whether I am a good husband, a good father, a good engineer. So a physical and mental challenge like this is an exercise in exorcism. A cathartic battle with whatever demons are inside of me. Will I slay them on the trail, in the dark of the night? Or will I be consumed? Only one way to find out.

Beautiful rainbow just before the 9pm start

🎬 After the challenge

I finished the Hope12 solo completing 8 laps, or 40 miles. My longest run to date. And fitting as I will turn 40 next year.

Despite going into this wanting to suffer and in doing so to reforge myself, that didn’t really happen. Yes it was tough, and my legs were sore by the end as I hobbled round. But I didn’t go to that deep emotional and spiritual place. It wasn’t the mental breakdown I thought it might be.

Sleepiness wasn’t really a problem. With the physical challenge and the caffeine the night passed by relatively quickly. And when the dawn came all hint of sleepiness was gone.

I enjoyed the trails beneath my feet. I saw two deer jump the trail and disappear into the woods. With the light drizzle the power cables fizzed. The crunch of the gravel sections.

The dawn was incredible, not because of any vibrant colours or spectacular sunrise, but because it was the dawn. It was a new day. The night was over.

The peacock calling was an anchor for another lap nearly done. Click-clack of the person in front or behind with poles. The team runners on fresh legs flying through the woods. Lots for my senses to absorb. It was a relief each lap to get to my car boot and taking the weight off my feet for just a moment, to change my socks, to put on some talc powder. Then off up the hill, again.

By the time I got to what would be my last lap I was reduced to a walk. My legs were very sore. The downs were very difficult and I didn’t have the capacity left even for a slight jog.

It was a great feeling coming across the last bridge and knowing I was nearly at the end.

I’m proud of the achievement though, and came 15th out of 113 in total. The event was fantastic in terms of route, venue and organisation.

Tired but smiling at 6am

🪦 Infirmity and Old Age

While I didn’t get any great epiphanies or deep emotional experiences from the race, I did ponder growing old and infirmity as I plodded those trails. Here are my lightly editted thoughts from during the race.

An ultra race like this is like life - which I can say with authority as I’m hobbling around like an old grandad. Movement hurts. All movement. Even my arms and core hurts. I’m slow. And as I’m dwelling on my aches and pains a young bucks suddenly comes flying by, running. They pass within a whisker of my shuffling form. They don’t give me enough space. I’m annoyed but then I also remember. I remember being the young buck too, once. That first lap, which seems a lifetime ago, when I too was running the hills with light feet. When my muscles were strong. When I was bold. I overlooked the slow trotters too back then. I barely noticed them except to get frustrated if they didn’t make room for me to pass. It’s like life. The old folks have been and lived through being young. They remember. They just aren’t young in body anymore.

As the race progresses my legs deteriorate. Instead of just walking the uphills I’m now walking the downs too. I’m tentative. I’m unsure. My condition is worsening, physically, yet I’m still strong in mind. And when the end comes, like in life, I ponder that it’s not about reaching the destination. It’s about the journey. Whether the end is a finish line in a race, or death, it’s still the end. And the end is nothing compared to the journey in between.

I have to ask myself of the race: did I enjoy the race journey, or was I preoccupied with just it being over? In life I must ask the same question. Surely I don’t want to go through life, body deteriorating like it surely must, and just want it to end. I’ll take this race then as a reminder to enjoy the journey, pains and all. Because the end isn’t the point. It never was the point.

And maybe too I can take from this to be a little kinder to the old and the infirm. One day soon that’ll be me. And I’ve felt, momentarily at least, that future of my body not working. It’s self evident but the old were once young, and strong, and invincible. The arrogance of youth flowed freely in their veins. It’s an arrogance of indifference. The young are not expressly unkind to the older generation. It’s just that they don’t even notice. They don’t realise. It’s a different kind of arrogance. An arrogance of it just not even occurring to you.

The opposite of love is indifference — The Lumineers

So as I go forward in life I’ll choose a little more love and a little less indifference. Because I’ll get a chance to be young again, when my muscles recover from this race. And I can do better next time.

👟 Practical ultra running tips

A few new lessons on gear and food I learnt from this race:

  • For chaffing, I would normally use Vaseline or some sort of Bodyglide type thing. For this ultra I just used arrowroot powder (basically tack powder) instead and it worked a charm. By keeping all the chaffing hot spots dry by using powder I had zero issues.
  • For caffeine I went with a bunch of products so I could see what I felt like on the day. I really enjoyed the cold expresso drink for that hit of caffeine. This worked much better for me than my other options like a green tea, fizzy energy drinks and caffeine tablets.
  • Nuts and pork scratchings were my go-to fuel source. Because this was a slow race (for me at least) I could take things that I could munch to give me something to do on the laps. This also fuelled my body with a great source of slow burning fats.

💍 Cool finds

A quick list of things I've read or found this week that I want to share.

  • This week I’ve discovered Wordle - a word game - and I love it. A great little mental challenge each day.
  • This is a great article summarising a recent randomised interventional trial on "clean" ketogenic diet vs a "clean" Mediterranean diet.

It’s a pleasure writing to you. Have a great week. 😊

About the Saturday Blueprint

The Saturday Blueprint is a weekly newsletter every Saturday on health, vitality and philosophy by Nick Stevens.

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