At first glance, ultrarunner Scott Jurek is an odd bird: he enjoys running astonishingly long and punishing distances like 100+ miles. But at a second, longer glance by way of his lucid autobiography Eat and Run, Jurek seems to be motivated less by extremes as ends in themselves and more as means to help him achieve altered states of consciousness. Okay, maybe that’s still unusual, but it’s interesting too. The athlete as seeker: Jurek is a runner in search of something more.
Eat and Run explores a number of themes that pertain to this something more–this quest to explore the contours of consciousness and depths of perception through physical activity. These themes include discipline, training and physical limits, instinct and intuition, egolessness, meditation and mindfulness, tuning in, and transcendence. What follows are some passages that illustrate these themes.
In a passage on discipline, Jurek touches on Bushido, the culture of ancient Japanese samurai warriors that espoused an empty mindset, “letting go of the past and the future and focusing on the moment.”
Here is Jurek discussing limits: “I wanted to know more about that space between exhaustion and breaking.”
“The more I measured and adjusted, the more I trusted my instincts.”
Here is Jurek on egolessness and mindfulness: “I wanted to lose myself, to connect with something larger.” And this: “I did want to find that place of egolessness and mindfulness that only the monotony of a 24-hour race can produce.” And also this: “running had turned into something other than training. It had turned into a kind of meditation…” And finally, this: “I stayed plugged in.”
In one passage, Jurek recounts a conversation with a seasoned ultrarunner who spoke in almost musical terms about connecting with the resonances of the natural world through running: “he spoke of vibrations and wavelengths and signs from the hidden world, and while I knew what he meant–the sensation of losing oneself, of entering a zone at once connected to the earth and separated from earthly concerns–I wasn’t sure how to achieve it on a regular, predictable basis.”
And finally, Jurek touches on transcendence by discussing the need to run “with abandon and animal freedom…if I wanted to lose myself, to break into another dimension”; by quoting the Greek Spartathalon champion Yiannis Kouros who says that ultra running is a “test of ‘metaphysical characteristics'”; and describing the great native Mexican runners, the Tarahumara: “while the Tarahumara run to get from point to point, in the process they travel into a zone beyond geography and beyond even the five senses.”
As a distance sports enthusiast myself as well as a musician, I have an interest in activities that go on for a while and in so doing change my perceptions. In sport or in music making, this is not a state of mind one goes after deliberately–at least initially–but rather something revealed in the course of expending energy and exercising attention over a chunk of time. So, generally speaking, Energy spent over Time = Cool Perceptual Changes.
But the conditions need to be right too. In sport, a steady-state pace, repeated mile after mile is a must. In music, a steady groove, repeated over and over can certainly help. It’s with these similarities in mind that I think about how sport is a physical workout while music is a virtual one. One of the only analytical accounts of musical activity that describes it as a virtual workout is musicologist David Burrows’ work on music and dynamical systems theory. (See his articles “Music and the Biology of Time” (1972), “A Dynamical Systems Perspective of Music” (1997), and his book Time and the Warm Body (2007). Proceeding by analogy, Burrows proposes that pieces of music model our experiences as living beings–constantly maintaining a steady-state, dynamic equilibrium through constant change. (“Music takes place in its own almost total sonic absence.”) Burrows’ view of music addresses the old question of what music is actually for: Is it for self-expression? Mobilizing large groups of people in coordinated behavior? Is it for the mind or the body, or both? If music’s primary purpose is in fact as a kind of technology for reflecting back to us the experience of being alive and sensate and time-bound, then that helps explain why there are such a staggering variety of musical styles floating around: there are, after all, a lot of different ways of being in the world.
Similarly, distance sports are distinctive ways of being in the world. And as the excerpts from Jurek’s book illustrate, the experience of long distance running is not unlike the experience of making and listening to certain kinds of repetition-heavy music in that in altering our perceptions it paves the way for new ways of experiencing the world. This, most of all, is the reason why some of us keep listening and keep moving.