Written by David Adlard
So, people ask me about this “adventure racing thing,” (and the mountaineering thing, and long hiking and, and… ) and “the thing” is, many people have heard about it. About people who do this crazy race, or climb this or that hill, taking time out of their “normal” lives to traipse through the wilderness, maybe for a few hours, maybe for longer than a week straight, and a few crazy folks will think “YES. That. I want to do that.”
That’s how I started… I saw Eco Borneo on TV in the middle of a mid-life-ish fitness crisis, (despite still being a legend in my own mind) and decided then and there that that was what I was going to do, and, I mean, how hard could it be?
I kept it secret for a while – about 30 minutes, in this case, (though some folks may keep a better secret). Then I started doing some research on races and racers – their gear, their planning, their journey, their struggle, their triumph. The spark inside burned deeper, and after a bit of exploratory training, things shifted from dreaming to doing. To buying gear and planning. Figuring out the how and the when, how much it will cost, what gear to carry. To finding teammates and talking them in to it too (surprisingly easy!). Then the first (short – 12 hours) race, then another, then a 24, then Nationals, then finally you decide to do a “real” expedition length race – across a desert, or through Alaska, or through a jungle, or from mountain to mountain to mountain in Idaho or something, somewhere, and when THAT happens, you start trying to figure out how to tell the ones you love, who inevitably shake their heads in disbelief, and ask “why?!”
And here’s the thing:
No one who hasn’t felt this spark will understand. Even if they express awe and admiring wonder at your crazy endeavor, you won’t be able to articulate it to others to their or your satisfaction. No matter how much you try. They. Just. Won’t. Get. It.
But you go anyway. You put on a brave face. You downplay the struggle. You’ve done the research, the planning, the training, the buying of gear – LOTS of gear – (and you even have a spreadsheet with your gear packing list on it).
You’re ready. You tell them and yourself that you’re not scared (and before your first race or big climb, you really weren’t… you may actually have been so confident as to be verging on cocky) but now you know better, and you have some possibly well justified caution/fear. You’ve seen injuries. You’ve been injured. You might have even lost a friend.
You’re venturing into the unknown.
The wilderness that is both outside and inside yourself – this vast wonderland of deserts and mountains and valleys and glaciers and rivers and oceans and nigh-on-impenetrable bush out there, and looking inward, the deep well of guts and strength and willpower within, that you’re going to dip into over and over, deeper and deeper, wondering when it will run dry and finding through all of the pain, suffering, fear, self-doubt, sleep monsters and mental demons that assail you that somehow it never does run dry so long as you keep stubbornly putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. One. Step. At. A. Time.
Perpetual Forward Motion.
Then somehow, miraculously, each step, each paddle stroke, each turn of a pedal, each CP adds up to hundreds of miles, and then you’ve done it. Your dream. The Finish Line. Crazy. Beautiful. Incomprehensible.
And it’s done, it’s finished.
By now you’re wet.
Your legs hurt. Your feet hurt. Your shoulders hurt.
You hurt. Period.
You’ve slept less than 10 hours in a week. You’re wearing the same spandex and same underwear you started with. You’re tired of bars and gels and Ramen and dehydrated meals. You’re tired of bugs.
You’re really tired of bugs.
You’re ready for a beer or a cider.
Or maybe it’s a diet Coke with 1/3 lemonade mixed in.
You’re ready for a traditional Finisher’s Burrito, or cheese burger, or brat, or pizza. Whatever it is, you’re ready for something. Sometimes it’s what helps you make the last few hours, and becomes the main topic of conversation on the final push.
And you’re ready for the comforts of home. You make the journey home in the brilliant glow of your triumph, excited to see your friends and family and share all the glorious and gritty tales of your adventure, race shirt and finisher’s medal in hand, quite possibly the only physical rewards of your sacrifice.
And they’re happy to see you. Thrilled for your achievement. Still in disbelief that you did this awesome thing. They want to hear “all about your thing”, but in a few sentences. Maybe twenty minutes max.
And that’s it.
You feel deflated.
But you can’t blame them.
They don’t get it.
And that’s ok. If you’re completely honest with yourself, even you don’t completely get it. How could you possibly sum this up in a few sentences or paragraphs?
You write a blog. You post photos of breathtaking landscapes that most people will never see in a lifetime. The sunrise above the clouds, from 14,000 feet, with the shadow of the mountain stretching hundreds of miles behind you. Remote places you can’t drive to or even reach with a four-wheeler. Jaw-dropping scenes like these were a huge part of the allure of doing a race, or climbing that mountain. But when you were actually out there, you discovered it was so much more. The sum of so many things impossible to capture in a photograph.
You can’t photograph how ridiculously heavy your pack felt when you put it on fully loaded with all your mandatory gear, back up clothing, your food, water, a pack raft, climbing harness and even a rope, knowing you have a half marathon to RUN, simply as part of the prologue, before having to cross a raging river and being soaked for the next several hours. And cold, for much longer than that.
Putting on an even heavier pack and leaving the “comfort” of base camp with 9,000 intimidating, scary, vertical feet in front of you.
But for the first of many times, you act like you know what you’re doing, and then it’s on, you’re strapped in, it really doesn’t feel that bad, and with perhaps a 10 second countdown, you and your team are off.
You can’t photograph the terror you felt inside as you flipped out of a kayak or raft in a whitewater segment and found yourself trapped under your boat, being “spin cycled,” wondering if you would get out alive, then the pure joy when suddenly you find purchase on a rock and you break the surface, grab a breath of air, and claw your way back into the boat and keep racing.
You can’t photograph when you were traversing a 60 degree snow and ice slope, realizing that one bad step or axe placement could leave you sliding hundreds – or thousands – of feet down the mountain, and yet slowly, steadily, you press on, one careful step after the other.
You can’t photograph the day when you and your team are trying to find your way down off an icy mountain ridge in a whiteout by compass, and suddenly you’re slipping and sliding down the glacier, doing everything – anything – you can to stop before falling in a crevasse, then suddenly you slide close enough to a rock that you can arrest your fall, and then you’re up, making your way back up the slopes to your teammates. You rest for a minute or so, letting the adrenaline shakes course through you, before you’re up on your feet, negotiating your way across the steep snow cute, on your way to the next CP.
You can’t explain the self-doubt that gushes up and out in the form of tears that you try to suppress, but can’t, when the exhaustion become so intense that you literally fall asleep while on your bike. You can’t explain the feeling when you have an hour-long hike-a-bike up a steep mountain trail ahead of you, when your legs are made of lead, and your insides are going to explode, and no way can you make it up this 3,000 foot climb, and is this where it all ends? When you’ve reached the limit of all you have to give.
Just kill me now.
Somehow, from somewhere deep inside you, from a place you didn’t even know existed before, you find a little spark, and maybe with a curse on your lips, tear streaks through the grime on your face, toes and fingers frozen, you manage a step. Then another. Then ten steps.
Then another ten.
The somehow, miraculously, you find your way to the top of the climb and sit, breathe, feel the wind in your face, and take in the incredible views all around you – where you’ve been, where you are, where you’re going. You look back down the hill, and you see the person you were before the climb, and now, in a bit of shock, you try to understand the person you are now – and then you get up and, no matter how hard it feels, you put your pack back on, take a sip of water and you keep going.
And it never gets easier. But next time, a little piece of you knows that you can go just a little bit further, a little bit faster, and you slap your mate on the back, pick up your pack and this time you lead those first ten steps.
You can’t photograph the effect your teammates have on you. How they helped you when you were at your lowest. How you did your best to help them when it was their turn to suffer. How you took turns towing or pushing each other, and how the total of the team was greater than the sum – or capabilities – of the individuals.
You can’t photograph the moment when you decide to make that 100% commitment where you step out onto the headwall where you are completely exposed, with hundreds of feet to climb, or when you push off from the safety of shore and make your way inexorably toward the canyons with six class 5s ahead of you. When you clip in and pedal over the edge, knowing the only way to make it is at full speed, heart in your throat.
You can’t photograph what that decision takes from you – and gives to you – when you decide to commit fully, knowing that once you start, the only way out (or down) is forward. You especially can’t capture the feeling when you make it up. Or down. Or through, when before, you never thought you could even attempt it, let alone complete it.
And you are TRULY alive, maybe for the first time.
You can’t photograph the feeling of crossing the finish line after falling down a cliff on day 1-1/2 of the race, separating your shoulder, putting it back in using a cliff, then somehow, 5 days later, concluding with a 50 mile upriver canoe paddle. The speechless wonder as you cross the finish line with your team intact… people who literally let you stand on their backs to climb out of a gully with your injured arm.
You’ll look back at the photos for years, but more importantly, you will remember singing Christmas carols, telling bad jokes and sharing stories during a long long night of trekking through the bush, and then the magic moment when the sun comes up, when you get your “second wind”, and when you stop for a moment and just let the sunlight warm your face before starting back up with a renewed energy, enthusiasm and optimism. You remember that last day, biking toward the finish, your team in a tow line, working as one, working hard to overtake the team just ahead, your legs feeling stronger than ever, despite the miles and miles of effort before, minds and bodies in harmony.
So the thing about racing, or mountaineering, or thru-hiking is you didn’t really take time out of your “real life” to go live some pretend life out in the wild.
All of these things were just as real, sometimes a thousand times more real, than so-called real life. The suffering, fears, highs, lows, pain, joy, triumph are real – and you realize that you loved it, all of it, and that none of those things could be had without the other. Inexplicably, the days you suffered the most were probably the best days of all, when you found the deep scary place in your head that said “no” and you resolutely, persistently said “yes” and pulled yourself up to the top of the mountain and found out how much you were capable of. Even though you can’t explain it in a neat little consumable package for everyone else, you can look back in wonder at the places you’ve been, both outside and inside yourself, and all the sensations you’ve experienced – and you know, somehow, you’ve been changed forever.
Best of all, you realize the journey isn’t over, it’s never over, because you found that the incredibly transformative power wasn’t in the race, or the mountain, or the trail or the river itself, or in the accumulation of miles and experiences. You have found that the internal fortitude you have found within yourself came from loving and embracing the hard parts. Yes, especially the hard parts.
“If it doesn’t suck, we don’t do it.”
“It is what it is.”
“If it ain’t raining, you ain’t training.”
“Suck it up, Princess.”
Reaching the finish doesn’t instantly bestow upon you some transcendental wisdom or transformative miracle, but rather it starts to unlock new ways of living and seeing the world around you.
You finish, thinking “never again,” but moments later, you and your team are already looking for the next race. You want to search further for the answers, then you begin to see that there are no answers, only questions.
And the journey continues by trying to understand them, seeing more, learning more about yourself. Living those questions, living moment by moment, waking up every day and doing the training, doing the work, often failing, but always trying, and stubbornly moving perpetually forward. One step at a time.
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