Shoot the Moon

An article titled "Long Day's Journey Into Night" by Ben Tesdahl, in the March/April issue of Marathon & Beyond, presents a surprising story of his "first (and only) successful 100-miler". Mr. Tesdahl researched, planned, trained, tried, failed, regrouped, and on his second attempt, at Umstead in April 2005, finally succeeded. The truly startling thing is what he reports happened then:

I did not feel euphoria. My eyes did not fill with tears of joy. I did not pump my fist in the air or let out a whoop of celebration. Instead, the only feeling I had was one of relief that I had finally gotten the 100-mile monkey off my back, coupled with considerable annoyance at myself for having put that monkey there in the first place. And it was definitely not a pleasant feeling of relief. It was instead the kind of relief that you feel when walking out of the dentist's office after a root canal.

I limped to my car, slumped into a lawn chair I had placed nearby, and thought, So this is what it feels like to run 100 miles. It was not a good feeling. My legs and joints throbbed with an almost unbearable dull aching that would not subside even when lying down, and my stomach was so queasy that even cold water tasted horrible. When I thought about all of the elite ultrarunners I had read about who run multiple 100-mile races each year, I shook my head and mumbled under my breath: "What a miserable way to spend a weekend. Why would anyone want to do this more than once in a lifetime?"

Days later, Tesdahl continues to ponder his experience. He doesn't change his mind:

... I thought back on the hundreds of hours of training I had put in and the hundreds of dollars I had spent on shoes, equipment, and nutritional supplements in order to reach my goal. I thought especially about all the time I had spent pounding out training miles instead of spending high-quality time with my wife or pursuing my other abandoned hobbies. In the end, I concluded that the physical, mental, and financial cost of the journey to complete a 100-miler had not been worth the rewards of reaching that goal.

Likewise, he realizes, many of his other major life goals — college, Army Ranger School, law school, the bar exam, etc. — cost far more in "sacrifice, pain, and disappointment" than they gave him back. And he finds it disheartening that "... no matter how high I set my goals, thousands of people can reach goals that are even higher and reach them faster and better." He calls himself mediocre.

Thus Ben Tesdahl concludes:

If you have been searching for real meaning in your life and have contemplated making the leap to ultradistance races as a way to find that meaning, I recommend instead that you focus your precious free time on enjoying the company of your loved ones while you still can. I think you will find that use of your time to be far more rewarding than running all day and all night down a trail leading to nowhere.

Whew! One must thank Mr. Tesdahl for reporting a discouraging discovery about himself so forthrightly — and doubly thank M&B for printing the article. It makes quite a contrast with the conventional euphoric "My Most Unforgettable ..." essays that interest-group magazines typically feature, whose authors suddenly become enlightened as they cross the goal line, apply the final brush stroke, defeat the Balrog, dot the last "i" of the manuscript, hear the newborn baby's first cry, save the accident victim from almost certain death, etc.

But is Tesdahl really right? There's no reason to doubt his sincerity, or his courage in speaking out. But is the final negative evaluation appropriate? Is Goodness of Life best measured in units of hours spent with friends and family? Is the optimal strategy to sit back and accept mediocrity? Do all trails lead to a meaningless dead end?

Alternatives: reach for the stars once in a while. Stretch the old envelope and laugh at any stretch marks that result. Set an outrageous goal and cherish attempts to achieve it, even when they fall short. Sacrifice. Strive. Sure, spend time with loved ones, and throw your heart open to new friends. No, don't denigrate an accomplishment if others, more talented, reach it more easily. They're climbing the same mountain via a different route, with different equipment. Do your best. See if today's best can become a wee bit better tomorrow. When you can't do it any more, look back at that amazing thing you once did and salute yourself. Use your own ruler to measure audacity. Push back against the dark. Touch your scars, and smile.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled, monochromatic, mediocre life.

(cf. My Religion, Optimist Creed, Fail Again, Achieve, Not Always So, ...) - ^z - 2011-04-09