Wednesday, March 03, 2010


one of my more pivotal Ironman experiences came around mile 132 of my 2nd Ironman Arizona.

i'd had a tough race, and struggled most of the day, to the point that i found myself among the stragglers of the marathon leg shuffling painfully past nightfall to beat the cut-off time. it was late and so had become quite dark, with very little light to guide competitors along the course. for the most part, we were left to ourselves, in forlorn gatherings of 1s and 2s and sometimes 3, to make our way by following the whispers of the river in the night.

at some point i came upon an old man on the race course. his body tags identified his age as 63. his body language indicated his state as suffering. he was bent over nearly double, his body at a waivering angle, hobbling, limping along on one leg, at a pace that verged on a pedestrian shuffle on a path that staggered haphazardly across the sidewalk. he made for a disturbing figure, made all the more alarming by the incoherent nature of his response when i greeted him.

i knew something was wrong when we reached a crossroads, and instead of following the clearly marked signs to go left along the shoreline he turned towards the right--especially considering that the way left led to the lights of the finish chute discernible in the distance and the way right led to nothing but darkness.

at that moment, i grabbed a hold of him and pulled him with me. he mumbled something about it being okay to leave him, to which i replied with a soft suggestion that i thought i could use his help and it'd great for me to have his company. i ended up staying with him for the remaining miles, and only left when his family spied him at the start of the finish chute and jumped onto the race course to accompany him home.

it had been no big deal to me. i'd pretty much written my race off in terms of performance, and had made up my mind to just try to enjoy it to the finish line. keeping him with me had been a minor act of charity, and something i figured was more important given his condition.

besides, it's something that i've come to realize is quite common in Ironman and all endurance events. unlike so many other competitive sports, ultra-distance races seem to be much less focused on competition in the sense of overcoming others and much more focused on competition in the sense of overcoming the self. and in that process of reaching some resolution with the self, i've witnessed behavior that can only be described as selfless. in ways that are sometimes surprising and almost always profound.

because the distance, in exposing us to our own selves for the sake of finding our own truths, invariably shows us the nature of our own suffering, and thereby makes us realize that one of the greatest things we can do as creatures of free will and intelligent understanding is to act to reduce that suffering...and, if possible, all suffering. in us and in others.

thing is, i've also come to realize that what is so common to endurance events so often isn't so common in ordinary life. so much of what we see in this world is not about being selfless, but instead about being selfish; so much is not about resolving the self, but about conflict with others; so much is not about ensuring that others reach the finish line, but about ensuring that they don't. and because of this, we never discover our own truths, and learn nothing about the nature of our own suffering, and if anything only serve to perpetuate it. in us and in others.

which is why i've come to view that experience with that old man in the last miles of Ironman Arizona as being so pivotal.

because what i learned is that at some moment in our lives--perhaps every moment in our lives--we are confronted by a crossroads, with a choice to go one way or another. one way is to do the right thing, one way is to do something else. one way guides you on a path, one way carries you astray. one way leads you to the lights of the finish, one way leads you to nothing but darkness. sometimes it's easy to tell the difference between the two, sometimes it's impossible. especially when you're just a solitary figure stumbling alone and blind and senseless and dumb in the suffering of the night.

and it doesn't help that this world, this ordinary world keeping an ordinary life, so often stresses that which asks us to do the wrong thing.

which means that one of the lessons of the distance is that we be more than ordinary, and that we remind ourselves that we can do the right thing. even when there's no thanks, no reward, no recognition, no one to even see, no one to ever know. even if it means we forego our own selves and sacrifice our own race.

so that there may be a revelation of truth that addresses the suffering of this world. in us and in others. together. that accompanies us on our way to some sense of home.


Adam Culp (Crazy Floridian) said...

Endurance events so often force us to spend many hours alone, whether it is training or even during the event itself. But the moments I treasure most are those moments when there is someone else to share the struggle with. To share the memory of the pain and suffering that we endure together as we beat our inner demons and ourselves.

Adam Culp (Crazy Floridian) said...

I enjoy your writting. I have added you to my blogroll at Hope that is OK.

Sladed said...

Nice retelling of your experience and, even better, a very important observation about life's truths.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thanks, well said.

Anonymous said...

Boy! That is life,and the struggle to do the right thing.