Endurance: Why I Run

I've been bitten by the endurance bug once again. Since deciding that I would get back into racing last month, I've been consumed with thoughts of getting faster and stronger and entering longer and tougher events. I've been tracking my workouts with detailed spreadsheets; monitoring my weight; carefully working in rest days to counter my overzealous nature. Hell, I've even been eating carrots for chrissakes! When not working out, I spend my days looking for events to enter that are ambitious enough to scare me, but not so crazy that I can't complete them with adequate preparation. After all, I've basically done nothing since 2002.

But, for me, it is 2002 all over again. Back then, I was an active member of the Tri-DRS listserv and myself and several other guys I got to know got pretty caught up in the notion of ultra-endurance events. It wasn't enough to run a marathon anymore, or to do a century ride (100 mile bike ride), but they had to be EPIC. They had to be off-road, in inclement weather, or they had to contain thousands of feet of elevation gain. And, together, we found some pretty sick events to enter. One of which has become the bane of my existence ever since.

Yes, 2002 was to be a monumental year for me as an endurance athlete. I kicked off the year with my first ultramarathon, a 50 kilometer trail run through 5 inches of snow. This served as my lone over-distance training run (and was the most painful competition in my life) for the Death Valley Marathon, which I ran several weeks later. I won my age group by over a half-hour and finished 13th overall despite walking the final mile with a blister the size of a jalapeno pepper. It was a good day and my training was going well. I started placing in my age group in various triathlons that year, completed my first Half-Ironman in 5:10 after suffering through the worst swim of my life, and also participated in my all-time favorite bike ride. It was called "Blood, Sweat, and Gears" and took place in the mountains outside of Boone, NC. The race was 107 miles long and had over 11,000 feet of climbing in it. I refused to push the bike that day, even when everyone around me was walking, and I finished in 6:05 with a huge smile. I still proudly wear the t-shirt. My buddy Steve and I woke up the next morning and ran 20 miles on trails through Pisgah National Forest. Yep, that was the kind of shape I was in. And it's where I want to be again.

But those events were all just appetizers for the main course that never came. My main goal that year was to finish the world's first off-road Ironman triathlon in Colorado. The 2.4 mile swim would take place at an elevation of 6,000 feet. The 112 mile mountain bike leg consisted of two laps, each beginning with a ten mile 3,000 foot climb to over 11,000 feet. Lastly, the 26.2 mile trail marathon was going to be through dry, dusty trails in the middle of the night. I've talked about this event a lot over the past four years and I can't stop talking about it still. For six months, every day of my life was geared towards training for this event. An event that got cancelled a week before its scheduled start time. An event that was supposed to give me some answers.

I don't know if I would have ever finished that race, but the main reason why I entered it was to find out once and for all if I'm a quitter or not. As I liked to put it years ago: I want to know if when I'm exhausted and hurting in the middle of the night, and I'm sitting on the side of the trail, will I or will I not have what it takes to get up and continue on. Or will I sit there and cry and go home a quitter.

As a college senior, I forced my track coach to kick me off the team during the final semester. I had to make him do it for scholarship reasons -- I couldn't quit and afford that final semester my own. Between graduating, helping to plan a wedding, getting into grad school, and working on my thesis, I decided that I could no longer spend two hours a day plus weekends away with the track team. I remember a painful conversation with my father on the phone prior to this. I was ashamed of myself for wanting to quit and I was hoping that my father would have expressed some sort of shame or anger in me and talk me out of it. I was looking for some stern, manly advice. It never came. Years later, a friend's younger brother commented to me that there was "no way my father would have ever tolerated me quitting anything." I was jealous of him for that. And, in retrospect, I should have known better than to look for a moral lesson from someone who always takes the easiest way out of life's problems.

And so I entered the race to test my will. And I put so much into it emotionally and physically that when it got cancelled, I collapsed and disappeared from the sport. And it was easy to do so. We had recently moved, there were new things to do, and I didn't have the heart to do it anymore. I convinced myself that I only did it because there was nothing else in North Carolina to do. I sold my bikes and quit.

This whole sad lesson has made it very hard for me to look in the mirror the past few years. Ever since I ran my first 5k when I was 10 years old, I thought of myself as an athlete. I ran track through high school, earned a scholarship to a Division I college, and ran then too. And when I got myself booted from the team, I did so as an undefeated individual in dual-meet competition. And then, after a year of adjusting to married life and grad school, I took up multisport competition and got into even better shape. I was faster. I was stronger. And I looked it. Yes, when I've looked into the mirror these past few years, it's been like seeing the body of a cheap imposter. Gone was the lean muscular build. Gone were the chiseled legs. Gone was the angular jaw. Some would take the easy path and simply blame it on a deskjob; others would say that I'm simply getting older; a few would probably suggest that I may have finally gotten my priorities straight. That's not what happened. The fastest triathlets and endurance athletes in the world are in their mid-thirties and all the ones I knew had desk jobs -- who else can afford all those trigeek toys? And as for that third suggestion, that's simply a matter of personal preference, but I know for a fact that I'm a better husband, more efficient worker, and more patient listener when I've gotten a good workout in. Not to mention the fact that I find improving the "net worth" of my body to be equally important to that of my wallet. But that's another discussion entirely.

There is good news though in that, at 30 years old, there is still plenty of time for me to test myself physically, as well as mentally. I don't have to stare at the stranger in the mirror, I can welcome back the old me. And, with some hard work and a bit of guts, I can even put myself back in the situation that I craved so badly some years ago. To enter a race that will likely test the limits of my endurance, determination and strength, and to find out once and for all if I am really just a quitter. Or will I go on?

I think I found my test.

A couple weeks ago my buddy Eric informed me that he wouldn't be accompanying me on the mountain biking trip to Sun Valley, Idaho. I understood his reasons for not going, but I was disappointed as we were going to drive together and share a campsite. Not to mention, he's fun to ride with and we constantly push one another out on the trails. But I'm not so sure I'm going to go anymore either. It seems there's a little something called the "Mountains to Sound" race at the end of June that I may want to stay home and compete in. It's a 5-leg relay race that covers 100 miles from the mountain pass where I snowboard all the way to the waters of Puget Sound. I hope to solo it. It consists of a 22-mile mountain bike leg, a 48 mile road bike leg, a 12 mile kayak portion, a 12 mile run, and a final 6 mile run. To be honest, aside from the stiffness one's legs will feel when transitioning out of the kayak to do the running portions, I don't imagine it will be that hard. Maybe this isn't the right test after all? Or maybe I'm just completely back to my endorphin-obsessed self?

I wonder how many people will remember me on the Tri-DRS listserv?

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