Blending Endurance Sports and Performance Art
The following is a critical art review of Saulius’s latest act, titled “Afternoon Run”.
I was scrolling Strava a few mornings ago on the toilet when this activity from Saulius popped up in my feed:
What is this? An “afternoon run” from Seattle to the top of Mt. Si and back? 72 hours to cover 104 miles? And dragging a tire the entire way? I have seen a lot of ridiculous stuff in my feed over the years, but this takes the crown. I immediately recognized that this was not merely an endurance feat of an ultra-weirdo; this was true, bonafide performance art.
Who is Saulius? Well, let’s start with what we know about him.
- He started popping up in Facebook groups and Strava feeds a few years ago.
- He doesn’t own a car. (an environmental message?)
- He does very long self-supported urban “runs”, often multiple days, buying food from gas stations and sleeping on the ground. (a commentary on homelessness?)
- He does many of his runs barefoot and posts nasty pictures of his feet. (a rejection of materialism?)
- For his job, he rappels down and washes Bezos’s Balls (the big Amazon glass balls) at night. (a commentary on the political domination of Amazon, billionaires, and capitalism in general?)
- He likes to drag a tire on his “runs”. (we’ll get to that one later)
Ask his fans about their favorite Saulius memory and you might get a variety of answers: that time he ran from Seattle to Portland to attend his grandmother’s birthday, or the time he biked to Mount Rainier National Park, ran the Wonderland Trail, and biked home, or the time he ran to the Canadian Border, only to get turned back by Border Patrol because they wouldn’t believe he ran there. As Gen Z’ers might say, this is “truly unhinged behavior”. Just when you think you have seen it all from Saul, he manages to surprise once again.
What might be equally important is what we don’t know about Saulius. He has never really given an explanation for why he does what he does. Why barefoot? Why drag a tire? In fact, his mysterious internet persona is so perfectly cultivated that none of us are really sure if he takes himself and his activities seriously, or if it is all some humorous inside joke. He so expertly blurs the line between the seriousness of ultra endurance sports and the sophisticated absurdity of performance art. He is a modern day, real-life Forrest Gump. We are not sure how to feel about his work – amused, impressed, repulsed, or a mix of everything. As I sat on the toilet taking in his latest act, I felt a mix of many things, including my previous dinner.
Seattle to Mt. Si and back is nothing new for Saulius. He has attempted it on a few occasions but never succeeded. One time his digestive tract blew up and he bailed around Issaquah. Another time he made it to Mt. Si, but fell and hurt his ear. He sent out a plea for help on Instagram. My friends Logan and Daniel happened to be driving by, so they picked him up and drove him home. I knew that someday he would succeed on Mt. Si, but I did not anticipate the addition of the tire drag.
Saulius’s choice of Mt. Si for the setting of his performance is strategic. Mt. Si is arguably the most famous day hike near Seattle and the iconic peak of the I90 corridor. I first hiked it in middle school. Trail runners lap it like a training circuit. Saulius took a classic, trivialized peak, and made it absolutely as difficult as possible. No car. Carry a tire the entire way to the top. Scramble the haystack in the snow, in the dark. Really, it is not too different from other extreme mountain sports. Expert skiers push the boundaries by skiing the hardest lines possible without falling. Rock climbers seek the hardest humanly possible line up a wall. Is Saulius not doing the same with Mt. Si? Except that most people in the community would characterize Saulius’s aesthetics as far less “tasteful”. He makes us wonder how, in pursuit of sports that supposedly embody freedom, we have found ourselves slaves to these implicit standards and rules.
The use of the tire is a thoughtful motif. Ever since their invention in the 4th century BC, wheels have transformed human civilization. They have allowed us to move heavier objects great distances, advance farming equipment, and even generate electricity. Most recently, tires have transformed how humans and societies interact. In 99.9% of cases, when a Seattlite goes to hike Mt. Si, they get to the trailhead using tires. However, Saulius gets to the trailhead despite his tire. In an almost Kafka-esque irony, Saulius metaphorically trades places with the tire: he becomes the vessel of transportation, and the tire becomes the beneficiary. Saulius is the tire, and the tire is he. This is an absolutely brilliant commentary on the seemingly irreversible mechanization of humanity and our dependence on mechanized means of transportation.
As mountain / ultra endurance athletes, we tend to normalize abnormal activities. To a “regular” person, the things I do on a typical weekend are absolutely absurd. But few things impress me anymore. Even amongst hard core endurance athletes, Saulius manages to surprise. In the same way that a normal person may see my activities as absurd, we see Saulius’s activities as absurd. He raises a mirror to the ultra community. Why? This a question that we really need to ask ourselves because there is a little bit of Saulius in all-i-us.
Nastassia is another local endurance performance artist who has watched the evolution of Saulius closely. They had this to say about the contextualization of this endurance performance art:
Much of the conceptual art of the past century has endeavored to free art from the static and exclusive gallery setting and bring it into conversation with everyday spaces and themes, and this piece is no different. Saulius’s tire is indeed an echo of the “readymades” of dada artists, not to mention Rauschenberg and John Cage’s Automobile Tire Print.
Endurance-based performance works bring a level of vulnerability for the performer not possible with other media. Afternoon Run is a quiet, down-to-earth iteration of the long-walk-as-performance that has been explored in the work of Marina Abramović, Francis Alÿs, and countless thru-hikers carrying impractical objects 2000 miles. Responding to Alÿs’ piece When Faith Moves Mountains, in which 500 volunteers moved a sand dune a few inches, Joan Fisher wrote that it “expose[d] the void of meaning at the core of a given social situation.” This quote could equally have been written about Afternoon Run‘s commentary on the arbitrariness and futility of ultrarunning culture.Nastassia
I reached out to Saulius to ask him if there was anything he wanted his audience to take away from his latest, and arguably greatest, work. He said:
You don’t need a car or shoes to enjoy the outdoors and to stay fit.Saulius
Is that really the true meaning of your work, Saulius? No influences of Camus’s absurdism or Nietzsche’s nihilism? Just that shoes are unnecessary? Even after the act, Saulius is still playing the part, keeping us on the edge of our seats, not sure what to take seriously and what to laugh about. Ultimately, maybe Saulius is just what we make of him. Life can be incredibly grave but also absurdly comical, depending on your perspective.
What will Saulius’s next great act be? It takes a creative artist to continually surprise and amaze. What I do know is that one morning, I will wake up, scroll Strava on the toilet, and once again marvel at the Art of Saulius.