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Finish Lines: Context

More than just a finish line
Must feed this burning need
In the long run…

from ‘Marathon’ by Rush, lyrics by Neil Peart

Since finishing the Chicago Marathon in 1994, I’ve crossed well over one hundred more finish lines. But finishing has never been enough. There’s more to the story.

As with that first marathon, I had hoped that taking on increasingly difficult challenges, and then overcoming them, might help me feel better as a person. I wasn’t sure why, but I just knew I was far from happy. Couldn’t pinpoint it. I had a great wife, an interesting job, a good life all around. Yet something was far from right.

What can you do in that case? Well I tried to take control of the one thing I could: me. It had seemed to work in the past. I’ve always believed in a strong mind-body link. Since high school, when I was playing hockey and lifting weights, things seemed to be easier around me, including school and relationships. Not perfect, but better. I could absolutely tell the difference if I wasn’t active.

In college, I felt increasingly bad inside, and yet still had to perform in the classroom. Weight training served to help me find some balance to accomplish that. Activity made things a little easier, through business school and through the busy lifestyle of a traveling management consultant.

But there’s no escaping the invisible load that is depression. I didn’t know it at the time, at age 34 when I completed that first marathon, but that effort, and others to come, were part of the continuing struggle to outrun the outrunnable, all while trying to keep everything else in my life under control.
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Starting Lines

There is nothing like a starting line — literally or figuratively — to engage the vast spectrum of human emotions. Excitement. Fear. Elation. Anxiety. Invigoration. Depression. All of the above, or none of the above.

But the starting lines we face every day, from a new project to a significant new endeavor, all mean the same thing, each time: we are undertaking a new journey to expand who we are.

Sometimes we are at a starting line, with no idea what the finish looks like, or even how to get there. We have to go on faith, follow our instincts, to head in what we think is the best direction. This is true with your personal direction, your relationships, your work, and even your races.

With such circumstances, I stood at the start of the 1994 Chicago Marathon. Only weeks earlier I had impulsively signed up for this journey, having no real idea what I was getting myself into. As the sun was rising over Monroe Harbor, early morning October 30, 1994, I stood at the starting line, grinning with other eager runners waiting for the gun to go off. This was the starting line for a journey that would extend beyond the finish of this particular event. A journey of discovery that would take more than a decade, with no end in sight.
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Beginnings: Bold Moves

Sometimes the best things we do are the things we aren’t supposed to do. The things that we’d never consider if we took the time to try to evaluate rationally. The instinctive actions. The bold moves.

But it’s the bold moves, the unexpected moves, that can shape us the most. Think about it. When you consider the best things you have done in you life, how many of them have involved taking chances, taking risks that might fail dramatically?

Many of the better things that have happened in my life were impulsive, and I’m glad the impulses were not dismissed. I met my wife by taking instinctive action that has led to a 22-year marriage and four great children. My most enjoyable jobs have been ones that were taken because they just felt right, not the ones that necessarily fit the career path mold.

Then there’s endurance racing. It began with a flash, innocently and without warning. We all have our ‘Must Do’ lists in the back of our minds. The kind of things that just seem perpetually out of reach, so far away that ‘someday’ isn’t even soon enough. My short list included things like getting a pilots license, earning a black belt, and — for some unrealistic reason — finishing a marathon.
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The Beginning

8:56am. January 10, 2007

The form complete. The check written. The envelope addressed and sealed. The stamp attached. The application in the mailbox.

The wheels are now in motion. The journey is reborn. The story begins.

Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run, July 20-22 2007.

The End

2:33am. June 27, 1999

On a thin dirt trail at the side of a mountain, miles from the nearest road, I could move no further. Despite the star-filled night sky, the area around me was pitch black. The flashlight had gone dead an hour earlier.

Completely alone and miles from the nearest road, it was not good. The sound of water rushing about 100 feet below made it clear: one false step could be a very bad one.

It had been more than 21 hours, and 73 grueling miles since I had left the Squaw Valley starting line with 400 elite ultra-marathoners, on a quest to run 100 miles through the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. I had begun the race with a strained hamstring, against doctors orders, and against the better judgment of my wife, who, reasonably, questioned the risks of participation in such an event. My view: I had never run more than 50 miles, why not now?

During the race, I had covered terrain that began in snow and reached 100 degrees hours later. I had been in agony in the early evening after covering 46 miles, but elected to keep going. By midnight, one-third of the runners had quit, but I didn’t want to be one of them.

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