DrylandA tale of toughness

FasterSkierSeptember 15, 2003

Through our lives in sport we sometimes meet or experience people and situations that change our own lives or outlook on life. This just happened to a couple of us here at Fasterskier.com.

There are many grades of athletic performance. For a newcomer, each sport is at its highest level more challenging and advanced than you ever thought. Until you really experience the pinnacle of a sport, you may think you’re a World Champion in your own world. However, most of us get “put in place” when we are up against the very best, or at least get an eye-opener that changes our outlook and self-claimed bragging rights.

Without exaggerating too much, both Gordon Lange (FasterSkier partner and former US Ski Team Head Coach) and I can claim to be pretty tough athletes. We’ve either been Olympians or the best in our National age groups in a couple of endurance sports. We’ve done events at times and at a pace that most people think is undoable. This makes you think you’re pretty tough, both physically and mentally. However, we’ve now stopped talking much at all about our physical workouts or our mental toughness; we’ve seen an example of what that really is.

A couple of weeks ago we both signed up to pace (run along with) two friends the last 25 miles of the Wasatch 100 Mile race, without really thinking much about what it entailed. The Wasatch 100 Mile race is not only exactly 100 miles in distance, but also includes 26,000 feet in elevation gain and loss. The race starts at 5 Am in the morning, and this past weekend we met our friends at the aid station at 75 miles, at about 1:30 Am the next morning. This is where we saw the first example of toughness.

Wasatch 100 elevation profile

As the morning approached we started seeing flashes of lightening behind us, and started being rained on. John is also a mountain climber, and started telling me old climbing stories about being stuck on rock walls during lightening storms. The storm came fast and furious, and we were still fairly exposed at above 9000 feet. We kept going, and our pleading with Thor, the old Nordic God that created thunder and lightening with his big hammer kept us untouched. The storm skirted around us, but seeing lightening in clouds seemingly below us was a new experience for me.

From the volunteers at the regular aid stations 5 miles apart we learned that Gordon and Alan were just ahead, and we soon caught up with them. Gordon and I felt bad for, but were at the same time truly impressed by our friends. Between the two of them we figured they had pulmonary edema, hands and fingers swollen to almost double size, several blisters the size of old one-dollar coins, leg and quad pain that would make most adults sob constantly, and tunnel vision from sleep deprivation. But not one single complaint!

I asked John how he mentally got through this pain and the 100 miles – he said: “by focusing only on dealing with the current moment”. An interesting mental attitude, which successfully would bring us to the finish line.

The mental uplift by knowing that the finish was just 3 – 4 miles away (plus a couple of “Celebrex” pills), increased our pace considerably at the end. The goal of breaking 30 hours seemed suddenly doable. We ended up running at 7 min per mile pace the last two miles – imagine that after grimacing through every little down slope for the last 20 miles. Both John and Alan broke the 30-hour goal, by 2 and 3 minutes respectively. The winner had arrived almost 10 hours earlier.

An event like the Wasatch 100 seems to be a test in how far mentally you can push your body physically. The human body and mind can perform unbelievable tasks together, as the old phrase “mind over body” infers. Observing this in practice is awe-inspiring, and creates respect for the power of mental strength. In a way it also puts life in a certain perspective; be happy in life, there is always someone with worse problems than what you have.

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