The running stage of a half-ironman race went past the front of our apartment complex last Sunday. For those of you who aren’t in the know with these things, a half-ironman is a 1.9km swim, followed by a 90km bike ride (up into the Dublin mountains in this case) and a 21.1 km run. It’s an epic undertaking. And yes, a full ironman is twice as long as that!

The winner was the gold medalist from the last two Olympic triathlons, Alistair Brownlee and it was an incredible sight to see him blasting around the course. He won by almost 11 minutes in the end.

It was the regular joe-soaps of the race though who really captured my imagination. I stood at the side of the road for almost five hours applauding and marveling at the effort that the athletes were putting in. The race started at 7am in the water in Sandycove and, although the winner crossed the line at around 11am, many were still running at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

Over the last few years, I’ve listened to lots of ultra-endurance athletes speaking or have read what they’ve written. It’s a subject that really fascinates me. A common thread amongst them is that they say, after a certain point, the race becomes just as much of a mental battle as a purely physical one. What do you do when, after two hours on the bike, every muscle and sinew is in pain and your rational mind is screaming at you “You have to stop now or you’re going to die”? I suppose there are two options. Stop or keep going. The fact that so many keep going is a testament to the power of story in our lives; even the search for meaning really.

The story of a race that is staged at a certain time, on a certain date, in a certain place, over a certain distance is a very powerful one. Who chose the distances for these races? Why not 100km on the bike? Or 50? Or 1.5kms in the sea? Like so much in our world, it’s a construct. But, once we attach significance to that race and that distance then it can become so powerful in our minds that we are willing to put ourselves through hell to achieve success.

I was struck by the rawness of the experience. Sweat, blood, snot, salt-water, cramps, nausea, pain, chafing, detached toenails, and yet they continue to chase the goal of covering that distance without giving up.

It seems to me that it is good evidence of the separation of mind and Self that is referred to so much in the Indian philosophical tradition. The rational mind says “Stop, this is dangerous; you have nothing left; what is the point of this anyway?!”. But yet, there is another Self who is able to observe those thoughts and ignore their advice; a witness to the rational mind who is able to over-ride the thoughts; the ultimate decision-maker. And maybe that’s the true appeal of ultra-endurance sport, that participants are able to transcend the thinking mind and connect with that higher Self, the atman, that which connects us all to our true selves.

Patanjali says:
Yoga is the stilling of the mind (the stopping of thoughts). When all thoughts stop, the individual sees his true self. At all other times, the individual identifies with his thoughts.

Whether we know it or not, we are all seeking to experience our true selves. There is certainly potential for transcendent experiences in endurance sports (just as much as there is by doing yoga asanas) when the body becomes so exhausted that the regular functioning of the mind starts to shut down and maybe even stop.

Is that what we’re all seeking?