What does the IMTUF 100-mile ultra-distance trail race have to do with the ancient Greek concept of “arete”? And how does arete apply to those volunteers who staff race aid stations, helping runners reach their goal? Read on, my friend.
Before the Box Creek (Mile 75) Aid Station: The runners feel like Odysseus and his men in the small boat. Any minute they could be dashed against the cliff, or struck by a boulder hurled by the Cyclops Polyphemus.
At the Aid Station: Huddling around a campfire in the wilderness, with basic nourishment and good companionship.
Leaving the Aid Station: Feeling like the natural born runners they are.
The Concept of Arete Briefly, arete is the Greek ideal that can be summarized as a combination of strength, courage, and resourcefulness. Wikepedia says the arete in its basic sense means “excellence of any kind.” The term is not gender specific. Homer applies the term to both the Greek and Trojan heroes as well as major female figures. In the Homeric poems, arete is frequently associated with bravery, but more often with effectiveness. The man or woman exhibiting arete is a person of the highest effectiveness: they use all their faculties – strength, bravery and wit – to achieve real results.
In preparing for an ultramarathon, runners train and practice in order to develop their strength and courage. But no matter how strong they are, or how much courage they have, there is always some problem in an ultra-marathon that requires some resourcefulness to overcome. There is always a real risk that calamity will come flying out the blue sky like the boulder thrown by the Cyclops and their dreams will be dashed like Odysseus’s boat against the rocks.
An ultramarathon is defined as any footrace longer than a traditional marathon of 26.2 miles. Ultramarathons can be 30, 40 or 100 miles or longer. Runners can get food and drink at the aid stations, but they need to carry everything they need between aid stations. They can be accompanied by a pacer for companionship and safety but the pacer is not allowed to carry their food, water or other gear. Carrying supplies for the runners is called “muling” and will lead to disqualification. Often ultramarathons are running through beautiful places, such this IMTUF event.
In the book Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall explains how record-setting ultrarunner Scott Jurek discovered his secret weapon: instead of cringing from fatigue, embrace it. Jurek says of fatigue, “You get to know it so well, you’re not afraid of it anymore.” McDougall also quotes Lisa Smith-Batchen, an ultrarunner from Idaho, talking about exhaustion as if it is a playful pet. “I love the Beast,” she says. “I actually look forward to the Beast showing up, because every time he does, I handle him better. I get him more under control.” Once the Beast arrives, Smith-Batchen knows what she has to deal with and can get down to work. You can’t hate the Beast and expect to beat it. The only way to truly conquer something, as every great philosopher and geneticist will tell you, is to love it.
Goats and Volunteers Helping Ultrarunners Achieve Arete The story of the cyclops and Odysseus offers a unique bit of wisdom: that the bond between goats and humans goes back thousands of years. The story goes like this: Odysseus and his men enter a cave to steal some goats and sheep. The cyclops traps the men in the cave and starts to kill them by devouring them, so Odysseus cleverly devises a way to blind the cyclops with a sharpened stick. Odysseus notices that the evil cyclops is guarding the entrance to the cave, and that the sheep and goats are allowed to come and go. So Odysseus arranges the sheep into groups of three and ties one man under each group, then suspends himself under the biggest goat. The blinded cyclops feels the back of the goats and sheep as they pass the cave entrance, but he misses the fleeing mariners.
During this year’s IMTUF race, we five volunteers staffed an aid station at roughly mile 75 on the course. Our spot was 5.7 miles from the nearest trailhead, so all materials had to be carried on our backs and the backs of Irene Saphra and Carl Dammann’s trusty goats. The race directors, Jeremy and Brandi Humphrey, had already delivered water to the site, and had given us food and a basic first aid kit to carry, which we supplemented with our own equipment such as tarps and cook stoves to heat water, an extra down jacket to keep runners warm during the night, and matches to start a campfire.
All night long runners came to our camp in various states of exhaustion. Since there was no vehicle access to our station, dropping from the race was not an option for them. One guy had a foot/ankle that really hurt to the point where he had a hard time walking. Another guy had some sort of stomach cramping which was making him really weak; he crawled into the “nest” we had arranged in the back of our tarp shelter and told us to awake him in 30 minutes. Another fellow sat in our lawn chair and puked. All of these runners were excellent runners in excellent condition who had plenty of strength and courage to get to mile 74.4. But they needed to be resourceful in order to run the remaining 28.5 miles of the 102.9-mile race. And we aid station volunteers needed to be resourceful in order to give them what they needed. Somehow the basic supplies we offered – along with the novelty of having their photos taken with a goat – and the companionship around the campfire were enough to help them recover and continue their journey.
I don’t know if all of the hurting runners ultimately finished the race, but I am pretty good at deductive reasoning. I can deduce from the fact that there were no broken-down runners at our aid station the next morning that our mission was accomplished. Somehow our little group had the supplies and the ability to provide the runners what they needed to keep running. Our group had many years of backcountry knowledge, and we had a nice campfire; in short, we had arete.
I learned a lot by watching the runners and my fellow volunteers at our aid station and by observing the scene at the finish line at Burgdorf Hot Springs on Sunday afternoon. I observed that the runners, volunteers and pacers all displayed arete in their common goal of getting runners to the finish line. Three cheers not only for the runners, but for the pacers and all the volunteers!
Learn more about Irene Saphra and Carl Dammann’s goats and goat packing here.
(Story by Ben Hipple, a runner living in McCall, Idaho. Ben has completed two ultramarathons (of 34 and 40 miles) and eight marathons. His last three marathons have been under the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon for his age group; he’ll be running his first Boston on April 15, 2019.)