A good friend of mine, Johnny, and I are planning our running of wild ultra races around the globe. We have wandered from the beaten track. Only two events made our elfin-sized list: (1) the 100 mile Barkley Marathons in the Frozen Head State Park of Tennessee and (2) the 246 kilometre Spartathlon between Athens and Sparta.
The former race was inspired by an assassin's failed escape attempt from a maximum security penitentiary. The latter by the run of the Athenian courier, Pheidippides, to announce the Greek victory in the Battle of Marathon over the Persians only to succumb to his death on conclusion of the proclamation.
All this esoteric obsession with running (away from some things and towards others) percolates in the mind. Are we tormented depressives using extreme races to escape the muffled voices. Voices which brood like listless vagrants creaking the floorboards of dusty attics between the earlobes? Or are we just boy-men pursuing our self invented idea of happiness which lies, for eternity, beyond the grasp of our clawing fingers?
We unworthy few, hidden by the shadows along life's continuum, unable to see the luminescent residue which lingers in our footsteps. Lighthouses of peril, or beacons of hope, for those who follow.
The correct answer, as you should have guessed, is: don’t overthink it. We do what we do. It’s stronger than us.
Before I begin to tell you about the main reason for this post – Icarus and how to deal with crossroads - you need some backstory. Allow me, kind reader, to take you back. To an earlier time. To 1994. And while we’re at it, let me take you back to another city. To Paris, France. And to a place in particular. To a cemetery. To a cemetery brimming with reputation. And infamy. To the cemetery of Père Lachaise.
I was with my good friend, Lisa Strad. Then a musician, now a doctor. We were doing the tourist’s who’s-who guide of famous people – composers, musicians, poets, philosophers - buried at Père Lachaise. At the time it seemed cool and uncheesy, now somewhat perverse and reeking of week-old Camembert. Lisa was there to find her musician, Chopin. I was there to find mine. The Lizard King. The lead singer of The Doors. Jim Morrison.
Please remember. It was 1994.
While Lisa (who was in the process of a career change from music to medicine) jeremiad and denounced anyone searching for meaning in their own lives by sourcing inspiration from the burial sites of dead musicians, my mind was elsewhere. Jim Morrison’s bust had recently been stolen from his tomb. A pair of lubricated French teenagers were being chastised by the cemetery security guard, an old wrinkled soul, for placing flowers into empty bourbon bottles under the missing sculpture.
“Pour une morte Américain,” the security guard muttered, “Trop triste”.
For a dead American. How sad.
Kurt Cobain, everyone knew, had died earlier that year. At 27. Like Jim. There was I – 22 - and what did I have to show for it? Rien, that’s what.
“All baloney”, said Lisa. Her search for an alternative career in medicine was cemented quite firmly on that cold Parisian morning. Nobly and unselfishly, I thought, she’d rather prevent dead people than be inspired by them.
Between the wisps of taciturn mist, she killed any hope of enlightenment I had expected to realise from beyond the crypt.
And so we ambled through the tightly packed tombstones. Until we came to the tomb of Oscar Wilde, the notorious Irish writer. The tomb was cradled on the back of a Sphinx angel: an angel without testicles. Then - as I searched for the Sphinx's package - I knew very little about Mr Wilde other than his predilection to aesthetics and penchant for decadence. In good time and over the years, I would become fond of his writings and the words in which he would manage to weave his wit.
“Nothing succeeds, like excess” would become a favourite. Pertinent every time I have encountered an arduous task. It seemed apt that the man who wrote that quote is buried a few rows down from the king of excess himself, Mr Morrison.
So why the link between decision making, prematurely deceased celebrities and ultra running? This is a good question. One which I still ponder. But if I could answer it in a word, the word would be Icarus.
You all know Icarus as the character from Greek mythology who flew his home-made wings too close to the sun causing the wax to melt, the wings to disintegrate and Icarus to perish in a flurry of feathers. A tale to be relayed to all children to avoid hubris. But what I didn’t know about Icarus is that his father warned him not only of vanity, but also complacency.
“Don’t fly too low to the water Icky, otherwise the dampness of the seawater will clog your wings”, his father may, or may not, have said.
Which makes me think that although we need to avoid exaggerating in life, staying too high for too long and turning it all into tragedy; we should avoid the opposite: never taking off high enough to escape the dampness and striking the water before being allowed to feel the clouds on our skin.
Crossroads come our way, every now and again, and we need to make a choice. The easy way. Or the hard way.
With all these wonderful ideas skulking in the brain, breeding like a bevy of Malthusian mosquitoes, I am reminded of words from the Bourne Ultimatum:
"If you start down this path, when does it end?" says the good agent.
To which the evil agent replies: "When we've won. When we've won." *
Forwards. Never sideways.
* I added the second “When we’ve won” for effect. Sorry.