My Family of Choice
Tomorrow at 5:00 am, I’ll be crying. I know this for sure. Tomorrow, in the hush of the early morning hour, a group of a few hundred regular people from all walks of life, cultures and countries will start a 100-mile journey on foot that will bring them face-to-face with every part of themselves. They will voluntarily put their body, mind and soul to arguably one the greatest tests of their lives. The Western States Endurance Run is the oldest 100-mile race in the United States. Antonio Rossman who ran the race in 1986, wrote this about it:
“A shotgun blast precisely on the hour will send us westward along the Western States Trail, 19,000 feet up, 21,000 feet down, and 100 miles in distance. Our goal: to traverse the Sierra Nevada and the mighty canyons of the American River, arriving in the Gold Rush town of Auburn, in under 24 hours. Our ostensible reward: the most coveted emblem of the endurance athlete, and symbol of the world’s most demanding sports event - a sterling-silver buckle that proclaims, “100 miles one day”.
Along this emigrant trail of granite clefts, majestic forests and pristine streams, we will feel the presence of the Paiute Indians, the mountain men, gold miners and pioneer families. As morning gives way to the afternoon in the lower elevations, where oaks and grasses replace the tall pines of the ridges and where rivulets merge into the defined forks of the American, we will encounter the oppressive Central Valley heat working its way up the canyons. When dark and coolness come, our way along the silent trail will be marked only by flashlight and the distant lights of Auburn.
By the time we reach the finish line, we will have found, both physically and mentally, as many valleys and peaks that mark this trail. But those who come into Auburn arrive with a rare grace. The runners who press through the weary and lonely hours can get through, only if they are both tough and at peace with themselves. But we could not endure without the unspoken support of our companions on the trail and the palpable support of friends who waited with aid at the checkpoints paced us through the night and kept us on the trail not only this day but also in the months of training before."
I have not yet had the honor of completing this race but that hasn’t stopped me from learning and growing in what has become my family of choice. I love the family I was born into and am grateful for their ongoing love and support. But my Ultrarunning family has opened my eyes to a whole other experience of unconditional support and acceptance. A family that never preaches, judges, or shames. This is a family whose highest collective life values are shared in the form of adventure, freedom, and self-growth. This family consciously and intentionally turns its back on living in the world of probability, so it can breathe the rare air of possibility.
In this family, I have found courage. Not in the classic way we’ve been taught to show courage - by doing something outwardly brave and bold - but rather the kind of courage David Whyte writes about so eloquently,
“Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with community, a work, a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything, except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply, and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences.”
The irony of running 100 miles in a timed race is indeed an outwardly bold act, and it is not lost on me. But through the years of building my family of choice in this very small and extraordinary community, I have come to understand the deepest definition of courage - the courage to dream, and to wholeheartedly and selflessly support the dream of complete strangers whose deepest life values are profoundly aligned with mine. They are my family, not because I’ve run 100 miles - I haven’t - or I’m a noteworthy athlete - I’m not - or I have gained a measure of professional success - they don’t care. They are my family because they believe in what the French philosopher Camus used to tell himself quietly, “Live to the point of tears”. We, in this family, live to the point of tears not out of intentionally created suffering but for the privilege of feeling alive, connected, and loved even if we don’t win a medal.
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