Sunday, March 20, 2011

Daring Lachesis

Thanks to Pam S. for the photo
“I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time”.
Bond’s epitaph in You Only Live Twice
Ian Fleming

This month I entered my sixtieth year (which is to say that I turned 59; unlike the Christian calendar, I had a year zero).

Milestones aplenty lie just beyond the horizon. Significantly, if I were to wait one more year I could practically walk my way into a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon, instead of trying to knock 20 minutes or so off my PR, which is what I am aiming for this spring.

A recent book by Susan Jacoby, Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age suggests that if we think that by exercise and healthy living we will stave off the effects of aging and delay senility, we are dead wrong. This might be true; there is evidence on both sides. In any case it is an issue I care nothing about, since burning and raging at the close of day has never been included in my life plans.

And yet my generation is apparently bug-eyed with panic in its frantic attempts to keep from getting old. Billions are spent every year trying to outrun time and genetics. We will do almost anything, from grinding grimly away at lunch hour kickboxing sessions to injecting botulinum toxin into our bodies just to convince ourselves that the train is not about to leave the station.

One of the things I have finally learned in my 59 years is that not everybody is me, so I should not scoff. But I will, because this is my blog.

Several years ago a running shoe company ran an ad that suggested we runners were actually fleeing old age itself and that we would succeed if we bought their product and just did it. Did this sell any shoes? I would like to think not, but it probably did.

Rather than trying to outrun time, isn’t it better to run well with the time you have?

My participation in endurance sports has always been based on three keys: setting a goal that is somewhere beyond my reach, planning and working towards it and then pushing myself to achieve it. Side effects include a focused mind, a healthy cardio-vascular system and a strong sense of direction and adventure. There is satisfaction and validation if I am successful, and humility followed by renewed determination if I am not. Occasionally I have raised some money for a worthy cause.

Never once have I considered the idea that I might look younger, that my mind might stay clearer or that I might die later. To me, the very notion that anyone could have such an objective is laughable. It is King Canute seated on his throne at the sea’s edge with the waves splashing over his feet, trying to order back the tide. It is hubris, a double-dare to Fate.

(To his credit, good old Canute admitted defeat and acknowledged that there were things even a king couldn’t control. My generation should take note).
I began running in the nineteen-eighties, passionately inspired by the example of Terry Fox and his Marathon of Hope. To this day he remains my hero, and his self-determination is my touchstone. Of course he was not able to delay his death from cancer, but he made valuable the time he was given. He was successful at keeping hope alive, if not himself.

None of what I do guarantees me a long and healthy life, or even that I will survive the next 24 hours. But I don’t want that guarantee; I just want the next 24 hours I am given to be as valuable as I can make them.

“You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.”
Woody Allen

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Into the Valley

The Death Valley Spring Century

“Oh, a mighty wind’s a blowin’
And it’s kickin’ up the sand”
Mitch & Mickey

 Driving through the town of Shoshone on my way into Death Valley National Park, I passed a billboard advertising the ‘Death Valley Health Center’. I wondered if anyone else had ever seen a paradox in this.

But Death Valley is all about paradoxes; it doesn’t quietly satisfy your expectations, but rather surprises you into redefining them and then waits to see how you adapt. This was only my second trip to the area but already I have immense respect for this most starkly beautiful and placidly terrifying of places.

The day before the Century I couldn’t resist driving the route of the Badwater Ultramarathon from beginning to end: Badwater to Lone Pine and as far up Mount Whitney as I could get until the snow stopped me. I might never run the race itself, but at least now I have seen what awaits those who do.

As I drove back to Furnace Creek in the afternoon a wicked wind whipped up from the south. A few miles from the Ranch I came upon two cyclists – Dave and Pam from Cleveland - who were walking their bikes; the wind was so fierce it was hard for them to make forward progress. I drove Dave back to the ranch and he went back later for Pam.

All afternoon the wind whistled and howled outside my hotel room, making me feel as if I were in a Quonset hut at the South Pole instead of a resort in the desert. I could only hope that it would die down a bit before sunrise.

Race morning dawned clear and bright, and still windy. The moment we rode out of the Furnace Creek Ranch driveway and turned south toward Badwater the vicious headwind hit us, slowing progress down to a crawl. Roaring up from the south, it was as strong a wind as I have ever experienced. An immovable object which we cyclists were trying to move. It can’t keep up like this all day, I thought. Or can it? And can I?

It was a perfect storm of wind. Here we were in Death Valley, with mountains climbing heavenward on both sides - no hills, trees or even boulders to slow anything down - forming a funnel for the force of the gale to be aimed straight at ME. There was nowhere to hide. Whether you picture it as a giant hand relentlessly and repeatedly slamming into my body, or a giant rubber band pulling me backwards toward the start, the fact is that it was the wind and not I who was in control of this ride. Every pedal stroke amounted to an effort just to keep upright on the bike. This went on for hour after hour after hour.

As the wind pushed at me I saw that this was not going to be a day of high speeds. My expectations of finishing 150 miles before dinner needed some rethinking. In my mind I heard the crabby lady in my car’s GPS: “Recalculating”.

It took five hours to travel the 45 miles to the Ashford Mills aid station, where I reconnected with Pam, the cyclist from the day before. At Jubilee Pass, the turnaround for the 100-mile distance, I spoke with Race Director Chris Kostman who advised me to downgrade my 150-mile goal and work on finishing just the Century. I didn’t take much convincing. Not only was I tired, but we were already so late that it was not likely the aid stations on the route could stay open much longer. And without aid stations there is no way; there are no Seven-Eleven stores along the road to Badwater.

So along with several others, I became a Century rider and headed back down into the Valley. Hitting the desert floor and heading north, we now enjoyed laughing at the headwind which had plagued us all morning and had now become a tailwind. For the first time all day I got into my big chain ring and sailed along at speeds up to 28 miles per hour. I actually found myself wondering how I was going to fill the rest of the afternoon after I got back to the Ranch.

But Death Valley was not finished with us yet.

Seven miles south of Badwater another vicious headwind slammed into us without warning or mercy. A Bermuda Triangle-like mist spread across the valley floor, possibly indicating where the north and south gales were charging head-on into one another, like opposing armies. My speed dropped to eight miles per hour again. This wind seemed stronger than it had in the morning, and I was about ten times as tired. And there were still 25 miles to go. There was no point in bemoaning the unfairness of it all; it is not about fairness. It is about handling what is thrown at you.

My arms were aching with the effort of supporting myself down on the drops; I had not expected to be cowering from the wind for so long. I would have killed for the clip-on aerobars that I had left at home, thinking they would be too clunky and dorky-looking for this ride. Fool.

At the Badwater aid station, with 18 miles still to pedal on my silly putty legs, I spoke with Pam and her friend Jill who were wisely about to call it a day. They were going to wait for Dave to come and get them in the car. Would I like a ride? I wasn’t quite ready to drop out but I asked if they would check on me later.

I started pedalling toward home, one stroke at a time. The mileposts passed so slowly that I kept thinking I had missed one. Twelve miles… eleven miles… ten miles. At nine miles Dave pulled up in his car offering a lift; this was my chance. For better or worse I decided to try to tough it out till the end, and watched my last opportunity for a ride disappear up the road. The wind had been roaring in my ears and tearing at my body for ten hours.

All I could do was to look at the four feet of pavement passing under my front wheel, and grind the pedals around: down, up and over, down, up and over. There were riders strung out ahead of me and behind me at hundred foot intervals doing the same thing: heads down, minds locked in negotiation with bodies, asking for just a little more of the impossible, the supernal. It wasn’t a lot of fun, but then I hadn’t come here to have fun; I had come to place a challenge before myself and to see how I responded. To see what was possible. For in the end, it isn’t the elements we battle, is it?

As we passed Golden Canyon about three miles out, I began to realize that I was going to finish this sucker. I made one last imprecation to my weary legs and summoned up the strength for a final push.

The last mile into Furnace Creek is downhill. With impeccable timing, the wind decided to die down right about this moment. I had indeed managed to get near my goal of 11 hours elapsed time, but for 100 miles, not 150. However I was not complaining; this was a JTF day – Just to Finish, and finish I did. Just. I coasted joyously past the finish line feeling - as I always do - like I could do it all over again.

Just not today.

To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.
Ashleigh Brilliant