Thursday, January 12, 2017


Above the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Each January I like to find a word or phrase that will help frame my plans for the coming year. Last year I chose GETTING THERE. My hope was to learn to enjoy the process of moving myself forward and not spend so much time thinking about the endgame. I think I was moderately successful, no more so than in my last race of the year, the Run for the Toad 50k, in which I focused on the experience and let the goal come to me.

I figured out that in an ultra-distance race, you'd better not waste time and energy fussing about some distant finish line or it is going to be a very long day.

This year’s word, CLIMBING, sends me in a different direction. It's a multi-purpose word. You can climb up something, towards something, or out of something. In our rich, beautiful English language, you can also climb down something. You can climb a corporate ladder or a mountain. People even climb into bed.

From where you are in a climb, you can look upward to where you’re headed and downward to where you’ve been. Janus, this month’s eponym, would approve.

The months ahead could be exciting for me. My book, Dr. Bartolo’s Umbrella and Other Tales from my Surprising Operatic Life, a memoir of my years as a singer, will be published this spring. I am going to start a new website. I will reach an age milestone.

And I am going to Iceland for an ultramarathon.

The event takes place on a hiking trail in the southern highlands of Iceland. Hikers normally take several days to cover the distance. Runners in this race are expected to do it in under 9 hours, and I will get to spend some quality time pondering my word of the year.

One look at a photo of the race I have just entered tells me that we will not be in Kansas, Toto. There are mountain trails to go up and then get down somehow. The weather varies from year to year and can range from sleet and freezing rain to short-sleeve warmth. The terrain will feature sand, gravel, grass, snow, slush, ice, glacier-fed rivers and streams, and at least one climb down a hill requiring a rope.

It sounds irresistible. No?

Onward and upward. Mostly upward
Just to keep everyone moving along, there are time cutoffs. On paper they seem generous, but apparently a fair number of people do not make them. The prospect of sitting in the cold rain waiting for the sag wagon, stiff and sore and disqualified, will help keep me from dawdling I hope. But there’s only so fast you can climb – up or down.

I have planned and dreamed enough about the scores of events I’ve entered over the years to know that reality often quickly diverges from vision once the gun goes off. Mike Tyson said (somewhat ungrammatically) that everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face. The success of a lot of endurance pursuits hinges on how you recover after getting punched in the face. I expect this will be part of my training regimen over the next six months.

Monday: OFF. Tuesday: 6 km easy. Wednesday: Face Punch.

To date there are only a handful of people over 60 registered for the race. I should take this as a sign that this is no run for old men. Naturally, I will ignore that particular sign. 

Once again my reach is exceeding my grasp. As it was with my first 10k, my first marathon, and my first Ironman, I couldn’t do this race tomorrow – or even next month. Nor do I expect to. For me training for an event has always been equal or greater in value to the event itself. I am trusting myself when I pledge that I can raise my body and mind to a place where doing it is at least possible.

After all, as a runner in the Badwater Ultramarathon once said, “We are all here to see what is possible." I have often thought she could have been referring to the race, or to something larger.

And I do reserve the right to climb into bed at the end of it all.