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Posted In: Features

The ‘Why’ behind endurance racing

Andy Thompson

@richmondoutside
October 19, 2012 10:17am

Credit: Insidetrail.com

It’s been a week since I completed the Grindstone 100 in Swoope, Va.  Arguably the toughest event I’ve every competed in, the slugfest is a 100-mile (101.85, to be exact) run/hike/crawl through the mountains of Western Virginia.  It not only covers more distance than Richmond to D.C., but it also climbs nearly the same amount of elevation as Mt. Everest. Those two facts aside, the most painful aspect of the Grindstone came in the form of root and rock covered single-track that extended most of the race. The rocks – or “shale shit” as I affectionately named them – made it near-impossible for me to roll into a solid cadence. Not to mention the constant tripping and toe-stubbing. The latter has resulted in a big toe sans toenail.  After such a beating, the question remains – the question almost everyone I know asks me — why do I do these races?

The answer lies in the psychology of these types of endurance trials. Only four years ago, I distinctly remember saying “I will never run a marathon.” Since that time, I have finished the infamous Vermont Death Race, the Storm the Eastern Shore Adventure Race, the Atacama Crossing 150-mile Stage Race, three marathons, two 50-mile trail runs, four 50k trail runs, the Total 200 bike ride, and now the Grindstone 100.  This amounts to 800+ miles of trekking, running, cycling, and kayaking – not to mention all of the miles training for these events – most in the last 12 months. So, why am I already looking ahead to another 50-miler, 100k, multiple 100-milers, and a Double Iron-distance triathlon?  Simple. Because I can.

Why do we give up long before our body wants to? This dilemma is my driving force. If the race exists, it must be feasible to complete it, right? I had a conversation recently with my buddy, Frank Fumich, about a quintuple (yes, that’s 5x’s) Iron-distance triathlon. That equates to 12 miles of swimming, 560 miles of cycling, and 131 miles of running! A friend of his just completed this feat of seemingly impossible endurance last weekend at Lake Anna State Park. Now, Frank’s attention is turned to doing the same in 2013. Just a year ago, I would’ve said “never” to attempting such a task. I’ve seen what I’m able to push through, and now I’m thinking “maybe.”

The author before the race.

 My body will continue on. Despite the pain, the misery, the “dark places” my mind wanders to, the second I cross the finish line, those things are distant memories and my attention immediately turns to the next race. The little voice inside all of our heads that says “Give up!,” “The pain is too great!.” “This isn’t worth it!,” is hushed as soon as I reach the finish line.

As a student of literature, I’ve compared my experiences to Dante’s Inferno.  He transcends the different levels of Hell, guided by Virgil – his pacer of sorts. The misery of those he passes by – those damned to eternity in their respective circle – is not too dissimilar to those fellow racers huddled on the side of the mountain, crippled by pain, fear, and cold.  But Dante continues on. He knows that the end is near and he will soon exit the strange land that causes so much despair.

Okay… that might be a bit of stretch, but couldn’t it be argued that life, in general, is like a race or a classic piece of literature? This analogy isn’t a new one. How often do we see the guy at the office that has no hope after a divorce or loss of a job – crippled by the fear of the unknown? If we only knew how far away the finish line was, it might make it easier to persevere.  But we all have lines we can cross each day. If we live in the present and focus on one foot in front of the other, we will eventually find what we seek.

Perhaps this is a bit too philosophical. Maybe I’m just an endurance lunatic, but I honestly think there is more to life than trudging through the misery. For me, these races prove that we are more capable than we think we are. We compare ourselves to one another, but at the end of the day, we’re all in it together. I crack up when marathoners ask me “what was your time for the Grindstone?.” Dude!  It’s irrelevant!

I’m no Karl Meltzer, that’s for sure. But, I did suffer through the same course as the Speedgoat. I’ve walked the same path, and I succeeded. In life, some people get where they want to go faster than others, but the experience of those that take a bit longer – those that enjoy the journey – makes the result that much sweeter.

Resting at an aid station.

So, maybe my conclusion is to take your time, push yourself further than you feel comfortable, and stop worrying what other people are doing. If you’re afraid of how long it will take you to run a marathon, know this: the cutoff is usually 7 hours and the medal you get is exactly the same as the one everyone else gets! The fact that you challenged yourself in a way that 98 percent of the rest of the population never will is success. I will never qualify for the Boston Marathon or receive one of those nifty 1st place awards, but I will have the experience and the knowledge that I finished something that so many others were scared to even attempt.  That’s my definition of winning.

In my conversation with Frank, we were trying to hammer out our schedules for 2013.  I concluded that there are a seemingly endless number of races to attempt. However, there are definitely a few I’d like to knock out in the next year or two. I’m throwing my name in the hat for the Hardrock 100, and I’m planning on going to Iceland in August for another 150-mile stage race. There are some others, but we’ll leave that for the next column. I just know that I’m drawing new lines, crossing them, and enjoying the journey along the way.


About Andy Thompson

I was the Outdoors Columnist at the Times-Dispatch from 2007 to 2013, writing twice a week about mountain biking, fishing, hunting, paddling and much more. I live a 1/4 mile from the James River, close enough to see bald eagles soaring over my house on their way to find a meal. Pretty cool, eh?


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