A learning journey, all the way across America

Photo courtesy of Ricky Gates – http://www.rickygates.com

I watched Ricky Gates’ 2017 run across America yesterday, and found it inspiring on a number of levels.

Gates had felt unsettled at the time about the Trump administration winning the 2016 election and, as a professional runner and someone drawn, and devoted to understanding better what life “is all about”, he took on the challenge of solo running from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean on his own.

He managed this in as unaided a way as is technically practical, so just one support vehicle, loosely tracking him with some supplies. He slept out each night on a tarp and camping mat, which he carried on his back.

Possibly, from reading about Donald Trump’s return to social media this morning (which I refuse to share here) but also due to having sat on my arse for the past 6 days, following surgery on my Achilles, I felt compelled to celebrate Gates’ pilgrimage from 5 years ago.

Firstly, I’ll embrace any opportunity to support and promote an endeavour that was, itself, “inspired” as a means to counter the turmoil (at the time, and possibly still) that is Donald Trump. Sign me up for, literally anything, that might spread an anti-Trump message.

Second, no matter how polished Gates’ running portfolio is, a marathon a day for over 150 days – including sleeping outside in the open, every night, breaking camp and boiling a stove in the mornings for your daily pre-marathon coffee – is nothing less than a herculean accomplishment.

Gates planned his route meticulously from state to state, many of which he was setting foot in for the first time.

He documented the diversity of landscape and culture along the way, and had already hammered home the eclecticness and the natural beauty of America before he’d left his first state.

He even choreographed a pit-stop back on his home turf in Aspen, Colorado – the familiar “comforts” of running over the Rocky Mountains nearby, super-charging him for what was next to come: endless miles of searing heat across the Nevada desert.

With all this planning, however, each day he attempted to get from dawn to dusk in as basic a way as possible. If his phone (which contained the map) ran out of battery, before he could re-charge it, he was forced to follow his instincts and, on several occasions, he went off course.

In the desert, his initial strategy, to avoid the 110 degree daytime temperatures, was to run through the night. As this routine proved troublesome from the resulting lack of sleep he was managing, he then bought a golf cart, carrying the extra water he needed, before upgrading to a child’s stroller, equipped with an umbrella, and allowing him more running time when the sun was up.

It was during this gruelling chapter in the desert that Gates suffered acid reflux.

You’d imagine that, due to the sheer amount of distance he covered, it would be the knees or the heels giving up, but it was his stomach that succumbed. He couldn’t keep food down, spent days vomiting and passing blood and then, on the verge of seeking medical help and throwing in the towel, he decided to experiment with ingesting mouthfuls of mustard (a tip from the internet).

This eventually worked, and he kept pushing on. So calm in his temperament when on camera. Resolute in not failing. Forever curious about what his commitment to a goal, that could surely be doing him long-term damage, was to reveal along the way.

And so, lastly, what stuck with me from Gates’ story, by way of a lesson underneath which we can all hook some learning, wasn’t to be in awe at how far our bodies and minds can be stretched, or to what heights of resiliency our spirits can soar. It was Gates’ humble reflections on his experience that I valued the most.

Naturally, it is only through the medium of cliches that achievements such as Gates’ can be summarised.

As other explorers of his generation (Beau Miles is another go-to, for me) help curate modern twists on well known wisdoms, Gates’ documentary plays homage to many, yet seems to dial up those connected most to the study of solitude, and escaping the impulses many of us have, to take on different and often competing roles on a day-to-day basis.

Why not focus instead, Gates muses, on just one. Being you.

Akin to the adage about being “true to oneself” it seems to me that Ricky Gates’ epic journey in 2017 underscored what he already knew about life – namely, that we all know very little, really, about how to make sense of it, and can often be the creators of our own mis-directions, in our attempts to do so.

Perhaps, accepting this, is as solid a starting point for any of us, no matter where we find ourselves when we’re at our most thoughtful or our most fearful.

Do we all have to go on epic journeys to be at peace with our sense of self, and how we show up in the world? I suspect it’s plausible that we do.

Although, choosing the 3,700 mile run option definitely isn’t for the faint-hearted.