When John Witzing, a police officer from Peterborough, Ont., carries water, a change of clothes and a carefully curated selection of fatty food into a shipping container near the banks of Lake Tahoe in northern California on Friday, his goal will be to run more than 150 km on the treadmill inside before he returns to the wider world.
He will have 24 hours to accomplish the feat.
Before Witzing’s eyes adjust, the blackness in the container will prevent him from seeing anything: not the treadmill, his limited possessions or the camera live-streaming the innovative experiment in endurance running to Facebook, YouTube and Twitch. Viewers may tune in from afar, but the only company he’ll have in the dark will be his thoughts, an inner monologue he expects to be relentless in its attempts to convince him to quit.
It is not an outcome he intends to concede.
“Short of putting a bullet in me, I’m going to make it to the finish line,” Witzing said.
Such is the mindset that has powered the 43-year-old Ontario Provincial Police constable through an array of gruelling endurance events. Witzing has completed three Ironman races — which combine a 3.86-km swim, a 180.25-km bike ride and a 42.2-km run — and countless triathlons that spanned half that distance. He and his training partner in Peterborough, personal trainer Josh Chessman, ran their first 50-km ultramarathon at New York’s Bear Mountain State Park in May.
It was in the midst of the nine-hour drive to that race that Witzing and Chessman conceived of an even more ambitious test. How far, exactly, could they push themselves if they were encased in boxes and forced to run in a state of sensory deprivation, temporarily robbed of their vision and ability to tell time?
“We’re stripping ourselves of that just to be as forcefully in tune with our bodies as we can be,” said Chessman, 28. “That’s going to be the only real tool we have.”
Witzing and Chessman are billing the isolation run as an unprecedented test of physical fitness and mental fortitude, one they and a third participant — Brian Chontosh, a distinguished retired U.S. Marine — will start at Tahoe on Friday at 5 p.m. ET. Darkness isn’t the only complication. Over 24 hours, the temperature outside is expected to fluctuate from 25 C to below 10 C; the runners will have to bundle up on the fly inside each of their 20-foot-long containers. The specialized treadmills they’re using are non-motorized, which will make the experience more akin to running on a road.
“I honestly don’t like running. It’s pretty f—ed up to think I’m spending so much time doing it,” said Chessman, whose athletic background is primarily in weightlifting. “The point is doing something you don’t want to do in order to be mentally stronger.”
To train over the past few months, Witzing and Chessman masked their faces for frequent runs on the TrueForm treadmill in Witzing’s garage, an apt imitation of the container’s dimness and heat. With the guidance of a coach, TrueForm director Paul Koczera, they each shortened their stride to improve foot stamina. They cycled and did yoga, the latter undertaken to remind them to breathe and to be present in the moment. Witzing cut carbs from his diet in favour of fat, and during some of the rare moments in the box when he breaks from running, he plans to fuel himself with almond butter, jerky, fruits and vegetables. If anyone is ready to forgo sight and sleep, and run for an entire day, it is Witzing, Chessman and Chontosh.
The runners have a few objectives. Surpassing the benchmark of 150 km (at a pace of 6.25 km/h) will be top of mind for Witzing. Chessman isn’t aiming for a specific distance, but thinks he’ll be “a lot more enlightened” when he emerges from seclusion, considering the time he’ll have to think about topics as grand as marriage, children and his purpose in life. Witzing, Chessman and Chontosh are all running in salute of soldiers and first responders; they’ve been sourcing donations for Wounded Warriors Canada and the Reveille Project, two organizations devoted to caring for veterans.
Inside his container, Witzing will get a chance to rebut, as he puts it, the lies that our minds tell us in times of immense strain — the niggling doubt “that we’re not capable of doing the thing we set out to do.”
Simultaneously, he and his partners will be advocating for a cause they hold dear: mental health. Running in the containers is a symbol of the suffering and loneliness people can feel when they combat depression, anxiety or another affliction, they believe.
Witzing said he and his partners want to impress on people that it is worth pushing through that pain.
“No matter what the struggle is, no matter how grave the odds might seem, it’s always worth continuing the fight. There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “You’re stronger for raising your hand. You’re stronger for fighting, and there are people there who want to see you get through it.”