In the opening scenes of Batman Begins (2005), a determined Bruce Wayne has finished scaling the side of a mountain with a rare flower to present to Henri Ducard (aka Ra’s al Ghul). After banging on the castle door and subsequently entering the main hall, Bruce’s wavering ability to stand is evident. He is exhausted, a man ready to collapse onto the floor in a heap. Ducard proceeds to ask Bruce if he’s ready to begin his training for membership in the mysterious League of Shadows. Gasping for breath, Bruce tells Henry that he can barely stand. Ducard’s reply and corresponding kick to Bruce’s body is both swift and fierce. “Death does not wait for you to be ready!”
I can attest to Ducard’s jarring remark from the standpoint of a late 2016 trail run. Truth be told, this trail run was my first ultramarathon, a 50K race in the mountains of Blue Ridge, Georgia. I completed a trail marathon a few years prior, but that trail and this trail are worlds apart in difficulty. The former was forgiving; the latter, brutal. I finished the race, but I walked the last three or so miles…gladly. My quadriceps, like the whole of Bruce’s body after that daunting climb, were hanging by a thread. They ached for relief, for respite from running unending hills and a terrain littered with rocks as far as the eyes could see.
At 35, I can only speculate what death will look like for me. But my body felt like death after the 50K race. What amazes me, however, is how quickly the recovery process unfolded. After crossing the finish line, I proceeded to trudge into the lake some ten yards away and soak my weary legs in the chilly water. I pulled out a Trigger Point GRID STK and Foot Rubz ball for the drive home, and followed this self-massage with a few hours on the couch, a second soak in the bathroom tub with Epsom salts, and compression socks. Lastly, I ran seven miles three days later. My legs were still sore, but I ran seven miles three days after running 35 (I got turned around a few times on the course).
The idea of running as death is intriguing. In a Strength Running article, Jason Fitzgerald outlines seven principles he should have known and implemented when he first started running. One of the principles happened to be a question. “How often should you see God?” Wait. What? According to Fitzgerald, this question is rooted in workouts – not religion. As Fitzgerald puts it, “’Going to the well’ or ‘Seeing God’ are phrases often used to describe those workouts that are harder than races. I did a lot of these types of workouts in high school and college." Puking was a common sight at the completion of these types of workouts. Puke your guts out.
Thankfully, I didn’t puke after that 50K trail race. I contended with some nausea for the remainder of the day, but I bounced back late in the evening. In retrospect, I’m asking myself if I should have pushed harder as it was a race. But since it was a new distance, I decided to take a more conservative approach so as to not “visit the well” or meet God before my appointed time. I prepared my body for the grueling climb, but death does not wait for you to be ready. For me, the feeling of death became evident by way of the morning sun, stifling humidity, and mile after mile of rocks.
Maybe the readying of our bodies for running races hard is what going to the well feels like as physical limits are revealed and pushed towards the danger zone. To paraphrase Kenny Loggins, running is a highway towards this place. Bruce Wayne underwent intense training to prepare his body and mind for the threats that he would face as the Dark Knight in Gotham. I underwent a similar type of training, though it was comprised less of martial arts. I prepared my legs for the gargantuan task of running (and hiking) for multiple hours with minimal pause.
This intersection of Batman and death and ultramarathons reminds me of a famous poem by Emily Dickinson. Composed in 1890, the poet speaks of death as a gentleman who comes calling by way of a carriage. The first line of the poem is most appropriate in the context of the brutal trail race I finished (survived). “Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me.” Dickinson appears to expel the uneasiness about death in this timeless poem.
Running is the perpetual process of standing, of standing tall on your feet and persevering. Running is testing your perceived limits and then streaking past them in a blaze of fire. This is how new distances are unlocked and subsequently tucked away as milestones, as marking moments for life. Runners know that death does not wait for us to stand. But should we fall as Bruce did after being leveled by Henri Ducard, we rise up again, shake off the pain, and smirk at death. We leave him in the carriage and fly away into the limitless sky like bats.