This summer has been a journey into what it means to live my best #ARPlife. Thus far, I’ve just begun my battle through the existential jungle that lies on the other side of elite athletics: the “real world” rigged with booby traps and creepy crawlies (namely, taxes and pencil skirts).
Beyond that, I’ve struggled to discern where exactly I fit into the athletic world.
As has been made immeasurably clear, I am no longer a professional athlete. A solid bout with hypoxia on a mountainside taught me that if I don’t train like one, I shouldn’t try to race like one. At my next event, I tried, for the first time in my life, entering a race and not racing. I allowed people to pass me without speeding up, chatted with volunteers at aid stations, and even deigned not to wear a heart rate monitor (egad!).
That, too, was a journey.
Then, this weekend, I decided to take my #arplife to the next level and attend a grueling athletic event and not participate. With a freelance assignment and need to get sunburned, I hitched down to Arizona to the Hoka One One Javalina Jundred to see what an ultra marathon was like. I had been told that this particular event is the “desert party you’ve never heard of.” In addition to a bunch of folks shuffling around a 20-mile course in the desert, I was told there would be plenty of food, beer, and activities for the crews staying at headquarters. Of any race that felt good not to run, this would be it. (Also, note: in addition to beer and partying, not running this race was a good idea because this race was 100 miles long, which is certifiably insane and would actually kill me).
In total, I spent about 18 hours on the sideline (yeah, everything about an ultramarathon is extreme). In that 18 hours, I saw the glories, defeats, and details of sport from a completely unattached and foreign perspective.
In closely examining and experiencing a sport that was not mine, I found several striking similarities between watching a grueling race and participating in one. First, I experienced the same mental progression throughout the event as I’ve had in any other endurance race:
- Start: This is amazing. How do I get involved.
- Middle: This is stupid and hard and I hate it and everything it stands for.
- Finish: This is amazing. How do I get involved.
Alongside that mental track, other similarities included costumes, glitter, and cowbells. In many ways, I felt right at home.
There were, however, a few stark (maybe obvious) differences I noticed in my transition from competitor to spectator:
- The announcing
Holla to every race announcer ever for filling the void between laps for the folks in the stadium. I never fully contemplated the importance of your job until I encountered the dark thoughts that creep out during periods of silence at an endurance event. Thank you for your service.
- The food + beer
Have I mentioned yet that there was beer? There’s nothing more American than eating junk food while watching other people exercise. I am now a proud patriot.
- The anticipation
“Spectate” and “expect” are etymologically related and I’ve learned you can’t have one without the other. The periods between laps, when we were waiting to see who would come in next, were completely agonizing. There was speculation on what horrors could have happened on course, close analyzation of split times and pace rates, and the constant weight of not knowing what will happen. Never have I ever felt so much love for the people that waited for me on long lap days (sorry, Mom).
- The emotion
I would be lying if I said I didn’t appropriate the euphoria of winning and the pain of defeat from the athletes on course and insert it into my personal narrative. This is why we effing love sports. When you watch these battles, you can’t help but engage with the athletes and their journeys on a personal level. It felt odd to engage with other spectators on an emotional level over an experience neither of us was having, but, then again, maybe that’s the point.
- The Fandom
Piggybacking off of #4, I think that fandom is the admiration hangover we all experience after getting emotionally involved with someone else’s athletic journey. As an athlete, in order to maintain sanity throughout a season, we were taught to leave results and performances in the past. Whether it was good or bad, it’s best to forget, live in the moment, and move forward. As fans, we get to remember. We get to analyze, speculate, relive, and continue to talk about great and bad performances as we weave them together into one continuous story. I thought that was neat. I am a fan.
It doesn’t escape me how powerful sport can be in bringing people together in divisive times. Yes, politics, biases, and general hurtfulness can certainly pervade the pure borders of athletics, as well as any human activity. That said, there’s no denying the power of a long race, high temps, and impossible physical feats in bringing people together. That is why we compete. And, as I’ve learned, why we spectate.
That’s what I got. My spectatorship won’t last long…heading to my first marathon in under a week! Woohoo!