Friday, July 6, 2012

Runner’s Search for Meaning

Runner’s Search for Meaning:

A review and reflection of Viktor Frankl’s Mans Search for Meaning and Scott Jurek’s Eat & Run.

By: Rachel Nypaver

In my past few months of research, I have one subject matter continually overflowing into another.  It went from leadership, to the effects of nature, and then on to happiness.  I learned how it was really everyone’s aim to be happy, that this was the main goal to strive for.  However, what I ultimately learned was that this had to do with one basic premise: andindividual’s search for meaning.  In order to be happy, a person must find meaning in life, in her own life. 

What all my books and research led to was Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning.  I had it starred or highlighted so many times that I knew my journey to figuring out “what is the point?” would not be fulfilled until I read it.  My reasons for reading Eat & Run were more basic; for one, my sponsor Brooks sent it to me and two, I’m and ultra runner and Scott Jurek is one of the best ultra runners out there.

Why was this book so intriguing to me, besides the fact that it was referred to by so many?  Because Viktor Frankl was not only a famous psychologist known for his work in logotherapy, but a Jewish survivor from Auschwitz, the German concentration camp.  His accounts in this particular work would include a psychoanalysis in how he and others found meaning in their struggles, standing side by side with death, and having all except one liberty taken away from them.  Can you imagine?  Probably not, nor would you want to.

Frankl speaks of several tools he and some of the other men used to survive their harsh conditions, the main one being love.  He defines loves as “the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire” and that “the salvation of man in through love and in love”.  He spent many hours in loving contemplation of his wife (whom he later found out had been killed in another camp).  Another tool was humor, the soul’s “weapon in the fight for self-preservation”.  Other studies our there have proved that the saying “laughter is the best medicine” isn’t simply a saying, but a true antidote towards health.  Most interestingly, as I would not have considered this on my own, was the value prisoners put on art and nature.  If the opportunity was given, they would stare in awe in the beauty of a sunrise.

However, these things were merely tools, not the key to surviving.

We know that thousands upon thousands of lives were lost to gas chambers and other unthinkable tortures, but many more were lost in the person’s will to thrive.  They found the struggle to live meaningless, their sufferings without purpose. 

Frankl had another view, a view he shared with others, that if able to avoid the guns and gas, kept them alive.  He viewed the concentration camps as “proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms….to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

He knew that, try as they might, the guards could not access his inner mind, conscience, or change his thoughts.  Without that submission, the guards would never have complete power over him. 

With that in mind, Viktor was able to find meaning in his sufferings.  Despite every material thing, every luxury, every human he loved being taken away from him, there were things he could still strive for, whether now or in the future.  And, contrary to the beliefs of others, he valued his past experiences, acknowledging the he brought them into being: “having been also a kind of being”.

Before I transition over to Scott Jurek’s book Eat & Run, I’d like to touch on one more point, a different perspective than the one most commonly held.  Frankl talks about not searching for the meaning of one’s one life, but instead, asking life what it wants and need from you.  “…each man in questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond to by being responsible. 

There are plenty of other passages I could quote from Frankl about existence and happiness, and I’ll share a few more in a bit, but for now I’d like to shift things over for a bit and talk about Scott Jurek, one of best ultra runners of our time.  I’m sure a few of you are wondering how this ultra runner’s journey described in Eat & Run has anything to do with Man’s Search for Meaning.  There’s actually A LOT in common, and I’ll share with you why as soon as we get past a few basics and obvious differences.

For one, I feel like I’m must note that an ultra marathon is considered to be anything over 26.2 miles.  50ks are common, but now what Jurek is known for.  He is known for, among other things, for his 7 straight wins at Western States 100…a 100 mile race.  Now, why would anyone in their right mind run 100 miles?  He must be crazy, right?  He must put himself through so much suffering!  Exactly.

So yes, an ultra runner suffers.  His suffering is self-inflicted, the main difference between Frankl and Jurek.  Yet, more and more people in the past few years have taken on ultra running.  Is everyone insane?  Probably a bit, some more than others. 

I won’t elaborate here on what I divide as unbalanced-addicted ultra runner and balanced ultra runners, but simply state that running should never be a replacement or a way to avoid other things.  I believe that it is okay to once in a while run of steam and stress, but running should be an activity of running towards something, not away.

Back to suffering…Jurek experienced pain in his races, time and time again.  He kept racing, and kept wanting more.  Why? Because that pain had meaning.

In his books, Jurek uses one phrase over and over, a phrase he learned from his father: “Sometimes, you just do things.” It sounds good, almost like a mantra. 

Really, I think it’s a bunch of bull.

Trying to ignore the meaning in the things he was doing may have triggered the trouble Jurek faced towards the end of the book.  But, by the end, he was doing some soul searching.  He was trying to figure out all the whys.  He even admits: “There are ultra runners who don’t question why they do what they do, but I’m not one of them.  Why did I run?  Is ultra marathoning crazy?  Is it hopelessly selfish? Is there any value in winning? Competition drives me, but I know that losing myself is the real key to fulfillment.  How can I win without ego?”

I wonder if Scott Jurek knew he was really writing a book on the meaning of life?

Here, he is already talking about a path of transcendence, especially admiring the famous Greek runner Yiannis Kouros, who teaches that ultra-running is an exercising in transcendence. 

Transcendence is a main topic in Frankl’s work as well and he talks about how the more one forgets himself, the more actualized he becomes.  In ultra running, a person can become lost in thoughts, in the surrounding trees, the rhythm of his feet hitting the ground.  By digging deep, he becomes on with the earth.

At this current time, I am also half way through Marshal Ulrich’s book Running On Empty.  Another of the great ultra runner’s of our time, Ulrich hits on many of the same points of Jurek, including talks of transcendence and meaning.  This place of transcendence is what they both strived for when they ran.

The problem was, they both first used ultra running as methods of escape as well.  Looking back, they both questioned some of their choices, even some of their greatest running achievements.  Just think about it for a second longer; two of the most well-known a best ultra runners in the world are questioning whether or not it was all worth it, did these running feats really matter?

At some point, they both lost the balance in their lives.  They let the act of running define them, like so many others do.  However, a runner is not merely someone who puts one foot in front of the other at a fast pace.  A runner is a person of perseverance, strength, and passion.  It is the qualities and characteristics that the act of running has instilled in a person that makes them a runner, not the physical act itself.

Now I cannot attest to whether or not Marshal should have climbed Mt. Everest, where there is a 10% death rate, when he had a family at home, or if Jurek needed to win 7 straight Western States to really reach “greatness”.

But I do believe their suffering had meaning.

 Jurek states: “Life is not a race.  Neither is the ultra marathon, not really, even though it looks like one.  There is no finish line.  We strive toward a goal, bit it’s not what is most important.  What matters is how we move toward that goal.  What’s crucial is the step we’re taking now, the step you’re taking now.”

This sounds a bit oppositional to Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

In actuality, the two quotes complement each other perfectly. 

Nietzsche simply states that a man must have a reason to live.  With that, he can endure pain.  Jurek is focusing on the present moment, Using your purpose to guide your footsteps, your actions now.  With whatever step you are taking now, you are defining yourself. 

Jurek didn’t run ultra marathons simply because “sometimes you just do things”.

They had a purpose.  For himself, I believe (before he was “lost”) he ran to see what he was capable of.  He strived for the best he could be, to see what he was made of.  Too many people today are scared to test their limits, not believing that they are capable of anything more.  They may never realize their true potential.

His running has lead to a higher state of mind, a place where he questioning the meaning of things.  We know that sometimes the deeper you dig, the more you discover. 

He has inspired others to get up and tie a pair of shoes, to start their journeys too.

(Marshal Ulrich has raised thousands for charities.  Likewise, by running and raising money for charities, he not only helped improve the lives of countless others, but that thought has kept him moving at times he felt like quitting.)

By telling his tale in Eat & Run and letting the readers run side by side with him in some of his greatest races, he has give us experience we may never have on our own.  He has taught us lessons not only on how to eat and run better, but, if we read closely enough, to live a little better too.

In different ways, Frankl and Jurek are both teachers, if simply through experience, on existentialism, finding meaning in life. 

I haven’t heard anything lately of Scott Jurek racing, but I constantly see Facebook posts him touring with Brooks and “running happy”.

I just heard a few days ago that he is getting married next week to Jenny Uehisa.

It seems like he’s got things figured out. :)


  1. Very insightful and thought-provoking blog! Thanks!

  2. I love your writing. Love reading your blog :)