The other day, a friend sent me a link to an episode of Radiolab called “In the Running.” It’s about Diane Van Deren, an ultra-runner who began running as a way to stave off seizures caused by epilepsy. When the seizures started to outsmart the running (along with several other methods of treatment), doctors were able to detect the part of her brain where the seizures were occurring, and she had that part removed. She hasn’t had a seizure since, and it was only after having brain surgery that she took up ultra-running.
What is ultra-running, you ask? Technically, it’s any race longer than the 26.2 miles of a traditional marathon. Most ultra-runs are 50 or 100 miles. Some, like the Yukon Arctic Ultra, are 430 miles and span the course of several days (during which the runners only stop to sleep for an hour at a time). Van Deren was the first woman to complete that race. It’s considered to be the toughest ultra-marathon in the world, and it takes place in February, during which the temperature can drop to -50 degrees Fahrenheit (yes, there is a minus sign in front of that number).
Upon hearing this, my first reaction is what I imagine most people’s would be: a mix of admiration and wondering what sort of madness would drive a person to run a race like that. But in the case of Van Deren, it’s mostly admiration. The part of her brain she had removed is the part that controls memory and the sense time. So because she doesn’t know how long she’s been running, she doesn’t know how tired she should be, and therefore, can fall into a rhythm and accomplish great feats of endurance.
But she also can’t read maps, so when she comes to a fork in the road, she drops a ribbon, and if, after running for an hour or so, she gets the sense that she’s gone the wrong way, she doubles back until she finds that ribbon, then chooses the other direction. Now, I can read maps, and I love running, but there is no part of me that has the slightest inclination to attempt something like this. And yet, I listened to Van Deren’s story, and once the awe fell away, I was immediately hit with the sense of feeling “less than.”
I remember going to graduate school and, for the first time, meeting other writers, which was both an odd and a thrilling experience, until I started to learn what they considered to be the length of a “good writing session”: five, eight, maybe ten hours, if they were fortunate enough to have that kind of time. I sat in silence, already feeling like an outsider for being the youngest in the bunch, having had a very classic education, and therefore knowing next to nothing of contemporary literature. What would they think of me if they knew I never wrote for more than two hours at a time?
In college, I took it as a point of pride that I’d never had to pull an all-nighter. I wrote papers the day before they were due. I had an excellent memory, so I didn’t have to cram for hours before an exam. But I was a hard worker and a dedicated student, and it wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I started to question whether or not that was true. And the only reason I did question it was not because of output or quality or feedback from peers or professors. It was simply because I didn’t spend as much time writing as other people did.
Fast forward ten-plus years, I still don’t write for more than two hours at a time. Part of this is due to other obligations, but even on the weekends, when I don’t have to watch the clock, my creative brain peters out as the two-hour mark approaches. Maybe, if I’m on a roll, I can push it to three hours, and only during a retreat can I work on a book for a full day—but for me, a “full day” is six hours, at most, and I’ve never sustained that for more than a week, nor left the retreat feeling both utterly satisfied and utterly spent.
But I write, and that’s the point, isn’t it? Any artist will tell you that. I write nearly every day, whether I feel like it or not, and over the years, in spite of the seasons when I was only able to write once a week, I’ve produced (if I may say so) a decent body of work. All things considered, I’m satisfied with my writing practice. But the thing that keeps nipping at the back of my neck is the same thing that troubled me as a graduate student: why, if I love something, can’t I spend more time doing it?
I mentioned earlier that I’m also a runner. I took up running when I quit dancing and quickly learned that I was not built for it. But being young and dumb and wanting to be like “those other people” who floated out the door and ran eight miles like it was nothing, it took many years and many injuries for me to admit I was not like “those other people” and would have to work to be a runner. Now, I do physical therapy twice a day, get acupuncture once a month, strengthen the muscle groups where my body is inherently weaker, and run half the distance that I used to.
And the thing is, I’m perfectly content with that. I feel stronger than I can ever remember feeling, and I’m satisfied at the end of those three-and-a-half mile runs. But then I listen to Radiolab and hear about a woman who runs hundreds of miles, and I think, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do more? Or someone tells me he spent all day working on his novel, and I think, even if I had the time, I couldn’t do that. Or people sit in offices for 40+ hours a week and somehow manage to not feel like zombies, and I remember the myriad ways my existence fell apart when I had a traditional full-time job, and again, I become “less than.”
I’m inclined to blame our culture for this pervasive sense of inadequacy, in part because I think our culture is two steps short of plummeting into an abyss of insanity and therefore can be blamed for a great many things. “Live your truth” and “you do you” it sings out of one of its mouths. But the world is a two-headed serpent, and with the other forked tongue, it sneers, “Look at how much prettier, smarter, more accomplished, faster, sexier, richer, unabashedly better this person is than you.”
And yet, it can’t all be Instagram’s fault (a platform I’m not even on). I’m about as close to a cave-dweller as a middle-class, twenty-first century American can get, and I pay as little attention as possible to the circus going on around me. So why do I still find myself measuring all that I am against other people?
C.S. Lewis wrote a lengthy preface to Milton’s Paradise Lost, and particularly intriguing was what he wrote about Satan. In the poem, the Son of God is introduced onto the scene and declared to be the head of the angels, and this is what sets off Satan’s rebellion: jealousy. But as Lewis points out, “No one had in fact done anything to Satan; he was not hungry, nor over-tasked, nor removed from his place, nor shunned, nor hated—he only thought himself impaired. In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, he could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige.”
That cuts, doesn’t it? There was nothing about the entrance of the Son that made Satan anything less than what he’d always been. But now he had a point of comparison—and he was not the Son of God, nor the ruler of the angels, and this ate at him until he started a war. How often do we see that in our world, in ourselves? Granted, ours is not “a world of light and love,” but it still contains many things more interesting to think about than our own prestige.
What I feel when I hear about people who run more or write more or work more than I do isn’t exactly envy—if I’m honest, I don’t want to do any of those things (well, except maybe the writing more)—but it’s envy-adjacent, a reaction best expressed in Jesus’s last exchange with Peter in the Gospel of John. When Jesus tells Peter what his life will lead to if he follows Him, Peter immediately looks at John and says, “What about him?” Jesus replies in typical Jesus fashion: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
What is that to you? I once thought about getting a tattoo of this verse, and I may yet do it because, clearly, I still need the reminder. If Diane Van Deren wants to run 430 miles in sub-zero temperatures, in what way does that diminish my three-and-a-half miles in the comparatively temperate Pacific Northwest? If someone spent 60 hours a week working on his book, why should I feel less pleased about the ten hours I spent on mine? And if someone else can sit in an office for nine hours a day and still manage to take out the garbage on time, why should I care if I couldn’t manage that?
The answer—we all know—is that I shouldn’t. But the problem is that I do.
At the end of her interview, Van Deren talks about the rhythm she falls into when she’s running, a rhythm of breath and of feet hitting the ground. This rhythm is how she measures her pace, and it’s what she gets lost in as she covers hundreds and hundreds of miles. I used to run while listening to music, but I stopped when I moved to a neighborhood without sidewalks and therefore had to start running in the road. Once I made the switch, I never went back. There is something decidedly different about running to the sound of your own breath.
And yes, that metaphor is a bit obvious, but I’m going to stick with it anyway.
We can’t tune out the world as easily as we can take the headphones out of our ears. And really, I don’t think it’s a matter of tuning things out. I think it’s a matter of finding a balance between pride and humility. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes that God “wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another.”
That’s a tall order, as is most everything God wants of us (and for us). But can you imagine living like that? Can you imagine recognizing all that is false and flashy, both in yourself and others, and letting it breeze by? And can you also imagine recognizing what is good and lovely, both in yourself and others, and naming it for what it is, without lording it over anyone or letting it diminish how you feel about yourself? Let’s try: well done, Diane Van Deren. I admire you deeply. I’ll think of you the next time I’m running down the road, feet hitting the pavement, the sound of my breath in my ears.