Earlier this spring one of my 7thgrade confirmation students upon learning that I was headed to Arizona to run a 50k, asked the question few ask me out loud. It was a one-word sentence: “Why?” I am not really sure there is an answer, at least not an answer that many would understand. People might exercise for their health, they might try to break some record, personal or otherwise, but at age 61 I have pretty much given up on either. The truth is I do ultra-distances simply because I can, but I am not sure that really is an answer to the why question.
I had a late start into the world of endurance sports. I was not a kid who was interested in sports in high school. My family didn’t pay attention to traditional sports, and I frankly was not good enough. When I attend high school track meets I always feel empathy for that kid who is so far back they look like they must be in another race. I was that kid, in track, the only sport I ever even attempted. I was in my 30’s when skied my first 50K, 44 when I ran my first marathon, and 60 when I ran my first 50-miler. But it was different. Those were never races I was going to win; those were races where I would never even get noticed. As a result, I have tended to find groups that would notice: Skiers doing the same races; bike groups that gather to ride together; a group doing the same race. There might be some shared training, but more there was a shared focus, a tribe of like-focused folk.
For whatever reason, I don’t really have a tribe right now, and I am old enough and experienced enough to know that tribes of this sort are a gift in the present that tend to disappear. Most endurance sports are solitary in a way, but oddly for me, it is being a part of a group that has always drawn and grounded me in endurance sports. Perhaps because there are so few people who understand, much less relate to this sort of endeavor. Having a group that understands has always been an important aspect of this for me.
Perhaps it is related to not having a group to focus my efforts, but being alone in this has meant that setting the bar higher and further was almost impossible not to do this year. I was almost bound to find my limit. Two 50k’s so far this year, the Alexander 380 gravel bike race, the Missouri River 340 mile canoe race, and the 50 mile Superior Trail race. Something on this list was certainly bound to bring me close to what I could physically and mentally be able to accomplish.
I found that limit this weekend. At 2:30 am, 190 miles into the 380-mile gravel race, I decided it was time to stop. It was dark, and wet, the steep down hills were increasingly looking like a crash waiting to happen. My focus, balance, and small muscle motor skills where failing, after 21 hours of pretty much continuous effort. I stopped knowing and learning from poorly made choices in past similar situations: There was the cross country ski race where I froze a couple fingers so badly they turned black and I thought I would loose them. There was the marathon where I ran 13 miles after I felt my tibia break. Deciding to stop was sort of remarkable for me.
I wonder if there isn’t a difference in stopping and quitting. I have to admit, during the 20 miles I had to ride to get to Prairie Du Chien after I decided it was time to stop, I was asking myself the why question, I was considering if I should not just give it all up and be like your
average 61 year old, and lower my activity level to short walks and occasional bike rides on paved trails. To me, that would be quitting. Stopping was a matter of deciding if the potential damage was worth the risk. For me on Saturday morning, it was not, but it was also not a place to quit. I was stopping, not quiting.
Can I look back and figure out how this might have unfolded differently? Of course! We could have found a place at sunset and slept for a few hours (we had the gear along) but that is surprisingly hard to do at 1:00 am when it is dark and raining. I could have better thought through my rather ridiculous weekend schedule (I had to preach on Sunday morning). It is always amazing how clearer things are in hindsight.
I had been posting my progress on social media, and that meant I needed to let folks know that I was stopping. The first of many supportive comments came from Gary Jones: “With age comes wisdom. Live to race another day my friend.” Perhaps I have more of a tribe then I think.