The ode less travelled

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2012, 11:23am

On December 14, I will run all four of the territory's long trails - Lantau, Hong Kong, Wilson and MacLehose, a total of 300 kilometres - in under 72 hours. That's about seven marathons in three days, along with 14,400 metres of elevation gain. Mount Everest, in comparison, is a mere 8,848 metres high.

This is not an official race. There will be no souvenir T-shirt, no checkpoints, no prizes for completing. At the end I will go home, shower, nap and take my three children to the park.

Friends have asked me how I'm training for it. The answer is actually quite boring.

I run a few times during the week and then run longer distances at the weekends, all the while fuelling my body with a healthy, but not overly restrictive, vegetarian diet.

The real question is why. I can start my answer by referring back to Typhoon Vicente, which struck Hong Kong on the eve of my daughter's birth in late July this year.

As Hongkongers battened down, I laced up. I ran with two friends to the top of High West, a 494-metre-high hill adjacent to The Peak. Running through the wind and rain, we could have been mistaken for the runners described in Charles Hamilton Sorley's The Song of the Ungirt Runners:

The rain is on our lips,

We do not run for prize.

But the storm the water whips

And the wave howls to the skies.

The winds arise and strike it

And scatter it like sand,

And we run because we like it,

Through the broad bright land.

My family and colleagues thought what I was doing was dangerous and maybe even irresponsible. But they were also a little envious. Asked why I did it, I said, "It was fun."

I am not an elite runner. I have no sponsors and I will never threaten a course record (although because the Four Trails course is made up, I suppose I will have a record of sorts). Only once have I placed highly enough to earn a trophy. I run simply because I like it.

Of course, one can say I've evaded the question. What the non-runner wants to know is why I, and so many people similar to me, like to run - and why I'm undertaking an absurd adventure like running 300 kilometres over difficult terrain.

I think I have an answer. If you look at photographs of runners taken after a long race, the overwhelming majority show smiling, proud, grateful people celebrating not just a result, but the long process of which the result is a part. Yet, as W.H. Auden knew, the photos leave much unsaid:

The camera's eye

Does not lie,

But it cannot show

The life within,

The life of a runner

The unsaid truth in these photos is that the best and surest happiness in life is found in overcoming limitations. If you can find an unhappy photograph, it will be of a runner frustrated by not overcoming limitation on that particular day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson went so far as to say that the only sin is limitation. The reason I run - the reason we all run - is to discover and go beyond our limits. Emerson called this the act of transcendence. The children chasing each other on the playground and the adults running along rutted trails are driven by the same primal human compulsion - to reach beyond their former selves and to become something greater. I do not finish a run the same as I start it, physically or mentally.

Long-distance runners speak of hitting a wall - the acute and urgent pain that attends the discovery of one's limits. This often happens around the 30-kilometre mark of a marathon. In ultra races, it can happen several times, each wall thicker than the last. Breaking through these walls helps convince us that most pain can be overcome.

Running is a microcosm of what it means to live well. As a father, I hope my children will learn that all happiness and meaning is found not in ease, but in the "strenuous life" described by William James and more recently by the late runner-sage George Sheehan. I want them to know the meaning, if not the words, of the verse from Rudyard Kipling's If:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,

Yours is the earth and everything that's in it,

And - which is more - you'll be a man, my son.

It is strain, not ease, that leads to happiness. If my children can fill their time with honest effort, I have no doubt they will live happy lives.

I am running Four Trails to discover what my mind and body are capable of - and then going beyond that. I am also running because I am grateful to be able to run. I know how fragile our bodies can be. My body won't always be able to take me from dawn to dusk.

At some point, hopefully long from now, I will no longer be able to reach the peaks of mountains or the remotest parts of the wilderness. I am aware of finitude and mortality, and because of that, I feel gratitude and urgency. I run because I like it.


Chad Lykins is a father of three and assistant professor at HKU's faculty of education.