This article appeared in the May 27, 2021 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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A shepherd's courage

Rescue workers work at the site where extreme cold weather killed participants in a 100 km ultramarathon race in Baiyin, Gansu province, China, May 22, 2021.
Laurent Belsie
Senior Economics Writer

This morning had that late spring mix of moist air and sunlight, which made me push a little: three miles, farther than I had run in months. 

So later, reading a clip about China’s ultramarathon disaster this past weekend, I felt a certain twinge: 21 ultramarathoners died after being exposed to rain, hail, and high winds. 

Whenever athletes die in extreme sports, many wonder why they do it in the first place. When researchers in Poland queried more than 1,500 runners in 2018, they found many motivations: self-esteem, competition, health, weight-loss concerns, and so forth. But the ultramarathoners were different, talking about qualitative goals such as finding a life-meaning and connecting with running friends. 

Saturday’s toll could have been worse, according to news reports, except for the presence of Zhu Keming, who was tending his sheep and took refuge in a cave. That’s when he spotted one of the distressed ultramarathoners and brought him inside, massaging his feet and hands and lighting a fire to dry his clothes. Four more runners straggled in. Mr. Zhu ventured out and brought back yet another runner.

That may be the most important question: Why did those runners stop? Exhaustion? Common sense? What caused them to stop pursuing the extreme and seek shelter and a warm fire with a shepherd?

In some of my recent runs, I’ve walked for stretches – something that would have seemed shameful a couple of years ago. As I start my fifth(!) decade of adult running, I realize I run not for the distance or even the running itself, but for the sense of movement and the peace of the trees and the birds and the inspiration that comes.   

This article appeared in the May 27, 2021 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 05/27 edition
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