Having lived in a foreign country for most of my 20s, I sometimes look back and wonder why I made that choice. Why I stayed in Japan so long, right out of college. The “plan” was to teach English for 2 years and then move back to the States and pursue a graduate degree. Deviation from the The Plan had something to do with a boy and lots to do with my emotional immaturity at that time in my life. I was a 20-something after all.
Now a single mom in my 40s, I can surmise that a huge part of the draw, for me, was the challenge. Living in a rural Japanese town with very few foreigners provided me with daily built-in obstacles. It was guaranteed that nearly every single day would present me with some crazy oddball problem or conundrum. Whether it was trying to order my medicine from the pharmacy in Japanese, travel for work, deal with my broken-down bike in the humid dumping July rain, communicating with the local police about the creepy man who hides in the bushes and flashes me every other week on my morning runs, or simply trying to mail a package home or navigate an unfamiliar neighborhood with a map I can barely read. Yes, some things got easier & more comfortable over time. But my life in Japan was inherently ripe with endless opportunities for embarrassment, humiliation, confusion, exasperation. All these equal GROWTH. I couldn’t help but learn a ton about myself during and after my time in Japan.
I look at my life now, and I see the relative ease and comfort of my existence. I do not encounter many daily physical struggles. I am, however, aware of the underlying messiness, complexity & uncertainty of my real-life personal and emotional difficulties. These challenges are woven throughout our everyday lives….sometimes we barely notice them and other times they rumble incessantly – an annoying background static that we just can’t shake.
Problem is, very rarely are they simple. concrete. challenges. They are not tasks I can pick up, complete, check off my list, dust off my hands. Be done, move on. They are messy, oozy and complicated. Real life goop.
Perhaps this is why I gravitate towards ultrarunning. I don’t think I’m alone here. The physical, sweaty, HARD work of training for and completing a long mountain trail ultra is challenging for sure. But the simple concrete nature of it (“OK! start here! run up that mountain! run down! do it again! go over to that mountain! you have 32 hours! GO!”) is strangely comforting. It’s a challenge in a relatively protected and controlled environment. You are allowed the opportunity to do something really super freaking HARD (and perhaps fall on your face and fail in your attempt), and then go back to your own “real-life” mountains.
In Scott Jurek’s memoir “Eat and Run”, he repeats this mantra which his father often used: “Sometimes you just do things!” It becomes part of his internal dialogue.
Yep, sometimes you just do things. Like really reaaaaaaaally hard things.
Doing really really hard physical things is seemingly about 3000% easier for me than tackling my pesky inner challenges. Why is that??? Telling me to go shovel snow or dig a trench is a million times more appealing than asking me to sit quietly and address my regret, self-doubt & insecurity; or contemplate my future, my relationships, my finances. I would much rather mow the hill in my backyard than have that scary talk with my boss or close friend.
Running trails helps. Somehow, I am slowly learning to combine the two…to recognize that these two types of HARD WORK are complementary. The strength I build on the trail can empower and sustain me when I encounter more ambiguous and vague challenges in my personal life.
a thing i need to just do