Monday, December 12, 2011

All for the Adventure

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."  -J.R.R. Tolkein.


Cardigan coast, Wales, September 2011.
Why do I do this?  It's that time of the year when I begin to think about what's in store for next year.  And by "what," of course I mean, "what athletic events."  It's almost like I don't even consider the possibility of not doing them, even though, until six years ago, they weren't part of my life at all.  I was moderately content being a gym rat, flogging myself once or twice a week in indoor soccer, playing poker regularly with friends, and marching my way through the video games that had been a constant in my life until that point.  I'd even read books.

But now it's nearly a given that I don't have time for many of those things.  I still read a fair amount, especially about triathlon and endurance sports, but the last video game I played was long ago.  The poker crew has largely disbanded, in part due, no doubt, to the fact that everyone's lives have pulled them in different directions.  I'm certainly in that number; indeed, if someone were to ask me if I'd be up for a monthly poker game starting in February, I'd immediately ask, "what night?"  If it's a Tuesday, I'd be concerned that it would interfere with one of my two weekly Computrainer interval sessions; if it's a Wednesday, I'd have to figure out whether I could squeeze in a track workout around it.  Ultimately, I'd make it happen; I put a premium on keeping regular commitments with friends if it's at all possible.  The point is simply that, somewhere along the line, it became a given that I'd have daily -- or, perhaps twice-daily -- training commitments throughout the year.

This certainly isn't what passes for normal in America, and on some level, I'm not at all convinced that it's sustainable.  With a family, it's pretty selfish to spend hours a day away from home, on top of job commitments and the like.  Some people try it, and a few succeed, but I think the majority of them would ultimately admit that they're not the sort of parents they could be.  Ironman addiction has been the cause of more divorces than one would think; telling oneself, and one's family, that training for 15-20 hours per week is "inspirational" has always struck me as narcissistic in the extreme, and most spouses and kids would settle for a little less inspiration in exchange for seeing the athlete-in-training on occasion.

So, why do it?  Why even try to maintain the balance?  Does it make us happier?  I know plenty of athletes who train year-round in preparation for a main event or two, yet it's not obvious that it brings them daily joy.  They spend most days exhausted, and then, if the race doesn't go well, they have to live with themselves for months.  If, in contrast, it does go well, the joy is relatively short-lived, as they immediately begin focusing on how to do even better the next year.  Always striving, never content; it doesn't seem like a recipe for happiness.

But then again, maybe it's not about happiness as conventionally understood.  Maybe it's about meaning, and the unshakable belief that, through hard work and dedication, we can be better tomorrow than we we are today.  Maybe it's about having a palpable measure of progress and improvement in a world in which, many times, we're just trying to stay afloat amidst competing obligations.  Perhaps it's about a temporary victory over entropy and complacency.  Maybe it's because we know that, when we achieve something physically that previously was beyond our reach, it wasn't because we got lucky, or because we knew someone in a position of authority.  It's because we earned it, one mile at a time.

Luray, VA
This seems right, but for me, I don't think it's the whole story.  If I simply wanted to improve on what I've done before, I could race 5k's and have plenty of time for other things in life.  Instead, the distance and endurance are integral to the allure.  There's something irresistible about looking at a map of four states and thinking, "I covered that today on my bike."  There's something poetic about an elevation profile of a route that looks like the results of a polygraph test, and where you arrive at the summit, look down, and see your past snaking away thousands of feet below you.  It's metaphorical.

Pen Mar high rock, Maryland
The first race for which I registered in my adult life was an Iron-distance triathlon, not a 5k or a sprint triathlon, or anything sensible like that.  And I chose the race about 15 months in advance, at a time when I had done no running, did not own a bike, and could barely swim a lap without stopping.  It was a little crazy, yes, but looking back on it, the whole point was that I was a little bit terrified and completely out of my element.  I was not at all sure I'd finish, and I had very little idea what I was in for: I didn't even know anyone who'd done an Ironman.  Somehow, however, I got through it without a team or a training partner, and I learned a lot about myself along the way.  I also learned a great deal about the kindness of strangers, as when I twice had to hitch-hike back to my car when I suffered irreparable bike problems miles from the nearest building or cell phone tower.  There's nothing quite like a bike to teach survival skills.

I did survive that first Ironman, but it didn't quench the desire to expose myself to the unknown.  The next year, finding that I was insecure about my ability to climb steep hills, I signed up for the double-metric century ride at Mountains of Misery.  And, the year after that, the "beta" version of the Diabolical Double ride in Deep Creek, Maryland posed yet another potentially insurmountable challenge, so I threw myself straight at it, emerging 11 hours later a severely broken human.

Cresting the summit of the last climb at Mountains of Misery, 2011.
Indeed, whenever I've reached the end of the season and asked myself what's next, it's instructive that the first things circled on my calendar have always tended to be epic adventures without a clear map.  In 2009, I raced the inaugural Ironman Cozumel, and this past year, the inaugural Ironman Wales.  Next year, it will be the inaugural Ironman Mont Tremblant.  In each case, a strong part of the draw for registering was that, not only had I never done the race, but no one had done it.  There are no race reports to be found; everyone is finding their way for the first time, and there's always the chance that something will happen that no one could have predicted.  (In Cozumel, logistical problems and mosquito swarms; in Wales, the remnants of a hurricane and... Wales.)

Still, as I get more experienced in endurance sports, I've become less possessed with Ironman races.  They certainly pose a staunch test of determination and will, but after the first couple, they become to real adventure what Buzz Lightyear is to Buzz Aldrin.  They're simply a known quantity.  There's a closed course mapped out well in advance, down to the foot, to such an extent that, if they're off by 1/10th of a mile, the race directors hear about it from athletes armed with GPS watches and and indignation.  There are cheering crowds, myriad volunteers offering all manner of gels, bars, snacks, and drinks, and support vehicles that will change your flat tire if you don't mind waiting a few minutes.  And, for the more established races, a quick Google search will yield so many race reports that you'll feel like you've raced the event before you've set foot near it.

I don't mean to denigrate the challenge that Ironman races present.  The point is simply that, when I think about what goals get me out of bed in the morning to train, it's not big races with expos and an army of support.  Instead, it's the thrill of facing a situation in which I'm not quite sure that I'll succeed.  This past August, a friend and I attempted a 300k (190-mile) ride through the mountains of West Virginia that included about 14,000 feet of climbing.  It was just us; no support vehicles, no aid stations, and no guarantees of anything.  After some nutritional mishaps, we found ourselves far behind schedule and racing daylight to crest the Shenandoah mountains so that we could descend before nightfall.  We ultimately found ourselves on the side of a highway, an hour after dark, with trucks flying past, wondering how it was we'd actually get home.  But we did, and that's a day I'll never forget.

In the next couple of years, I'm planning more of these adventures into the unknown.  This summer, I plan to compete in the Saratoga 12-hour Time Trial, where the object is to ride as far as possible on a designated course in 12 hours, in a self-supported manner.  Then, six weeks after Ironman Mont Tremblant, I'll try my hand in the Tejas 500, a 500-mile non-drafting bike race with a time cutoff of 36, 42, or 48 hours (your choice).  Success wins qualification for the Race Across America, a 3,000-mile, 9-day trek that I'll likely do as a relay with some friends in 2014.  Then, in winter of 2013, I'm planning an assault on Challenge Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand.

Challenge Wananka bike.
Challenge Wanaka run
Next, in the summer of 2013, I'm looking forward to attempting the High Country 1200k, a 4-day, 750-mile ride through the high peaks of Colorado.

High country.
Qualifying for High Country will require completing unsupported, hilly rides of 200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k in the months beforehand, so that, too, will be an excuse to see where the road takes me. 

Someday, I'd like to toss my hat (and head) into the ring for The Brutal Double-Ironman in Wales, which is designed to be the toughest in the world.  The second half of the double-marathon climbs straight up Mt. Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales.

The Brutal, Wales.

I can't wait; in the words of Marillion, "Wide awake on the edge of the world."  It's possible, perhaps likely, that not all of these ambitions will come to fruition, but that's life.  In the meantime, there's no drawback to thinking wistfully about them.

What picture in your mind's eye gets your pulse racing?  What mountain does your long road climb?