When I learned I was among the 100 riders invited to the Pirate Cycling League’s first 300-mile event, The Long Voyage, I was jabbed with a twist cone of excitement and dread. And right away, I thought of the Barkley Marathons.
That infamous off-trail race in Tennessee selects just 40 runners each year, and shares the good news with them in a condolence letter: “It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that your name has been selected …” Rather than train for the brutal race, Barkley’s organizers encourage participants to “spend this time putting your affairs in order.”
The Pirates are more upbeat about our odds of seeing the finish. Still, their welcome felt crosscut—like a congratulatory back-pat coupled with a crotch-punch.
Should I reach a similar mark on this voyage, I’ll have just 88 miles to go, or roughly the distance from Lincoln, Neb., to Marysville, Kan. (The home stretch…)
Adding that kind of range will take gobs of training, I realize. It’ll also take a little something us English majors call “the willing suspension of disbelief.”
That’s the mental trick you pull that lets your mind just shut up and enjoy a big story. It’s a cognitive reshuffling of reality’s rules that tells you it’s OK that Hamlet’s dead dad can talk, Scott Bakula can travel through space and time, and all Storm Troopers have impossibly cruddy aim.
It’s just how these particular worlds happen to work. And if you want to have any chance of enjoying yourself inside those worlds, your doubts will have to simmer down.
Ultra-endurance events draw their feasibility from a similar well.
When the Barkley Marathons’ documentary filmmaker hitched a ride with race director Gary Cantrell (aka, Lazarus Lake), the first thing she did was point to his truck’s fuel gauge. Was it broken?
“No,” Cantrell said.
“OK. We’re just on empty?”
“No. ‘E’ means excellent. ‘F’ means you’re fucked. It’s on E. We’re in an excellent state. We have plenty of gas,” he said. “Why? How does yours work? Backwards?”
This up-is-down mentality—the perfectly comfortable belief that one can be on empty and “in an excellent state”—is what makes ultra-endurance both achievable and attractive. Quiet your mind to do this one hard thing. Suspend your disbelief long enough to take in an unusual story that runs by different rules.
Then ask yourself: If this absurd thing is actually in reach, what else in your life might you tip over into this richer world of the weirdly possible?
That’s the thing I’m willing to pedal an extra 88 miles to try and learn.