I want to expand on the last piece I wrote on courage and goals, and talk about some of the traps that endurance racing can set for athletes looking to push their limits. That piece makes the case that aggressive goals are important because they force your ego to adapt, and that maintaining a flexible identity requires you to get good at setting goals. Goal-setting is hard, and an endurance race's finish line is as good a goal as any to start with.
Endurance races have had huge success marketing that finish line as something sacred. The Ironman series was my first encounter with the "finish and you'll be transformed" mentality. Finishing an Ironman is a major achievement that will permanently change your belief in your limits. The organizers know this and prey on that ego boost by setting up tattoo parlors at the finish so that each athlete can burn the Ironman logo into a calf after crossing the line.
This is a dangerous trap for the ego. It's easy to forget that some human invented the Ironman, or the particular 100 mile course you just finished, and that there are a lot of studs out there that don't find reaching your finish line that difficult. If you stay latched on to the sanctity of the finish line and don't see it for what it is - a fantastic first goal that you'll have to reset once you reach it - then athletes with more sweeping, adaptive ambition are going to scare you.
Anton Krupicka, two-time Leadville 100 winner, talks about this in his 2009 Leadville race report. He DNFed the race in 2009 after leading for over 77 miles. His assessment of the decision shows how little he cared about the finish tape:
I do not regret dropping out. I do not regret not waiting around for my legs to come back so that I could walk in the last 20 miles in seven or eight hours to notch a simple finish. I did not sign up for this year’s Leadville 100 to simply finish. Two nights before the race I had mentioned to my friend Brooks... that if things were going so bad that I was merely going to run, say, 18 hours, I would probably elect to not even finish and save my legs for something else.
If you don't run ultras, know that 18 hours is a stunning time for the Leadville 100. Here are the final 2009 results. The winner finished in 17:27. A time of 18:00 would have put Anton on the podium.
I remember feeling shocked reading this passage the week before I ran Leadville in 2013. It pissed me off that a stud on pace to win would choose to drop out instead of waiting at the aid station as long as it took to get back out on the course. Rest up for five or six hours if you need to, man, then get after it! Avoid that DNF!
I understand now that he was running a different race with different cutoffs. He just happened to be doing it on the same course I was using to play out my own drama.
Anton's objective going into Leadville was astonishing. He laid it out in a post he wrote two months before the 2009 race:
I had nothing to prove to myself about being able to finish the Leadville 100, or the 100 mile distance in general. And really, as elitist as it sounds, I in no way was interested in merely winning the Leadville 100 this year, either. Any finish time that started with a number higher than 15 was going to be a disappointment on some level.
Expecting Krupicka to care about the finish line exposes the danger of treating the finish line not as a convenient starter goal, but as an objective crucible that only the willing can pass through.
Why chase these goals if all that the achievement gets you is some new, harder goal? I found a wonderful quote last week in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that helped me think about this. The last couple of lines are the meat:
Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.
But of course without the top you can’t have any sides. It’s the top that defines the sides. So on we go...
Goals define the path. Life's spice comes from chasing goals, not from actually reaching them. Walking the path toward the goal, toward the glowing coal in the far-off dark, is what makes us better. But what do you do when you reach the coal? Throw it farther and keep on walking. It's an odd trick, but it gets you out there and helps you keep believing that you can do wild things.
That quote reminded me of something else Krupicka said in that same pre-race post. He won't quite say that the finish line doesn't matter to him, but he's quite clear about what does matter:
Of course, for some of us, we like to operate with the hubris that "just finishing" is no longer such a big deal and that "finishing this thing as fast as possible" is a worthy objective. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. I do know that striving to "finish as fast as possible" takes me much, much closer to flirting with that fringe-laden edge where life can either quite quickly go to shit or propel you into an indescribably satisfying blaze of achievement, personal transcendence.
After three years of chasing finish lines in the mountains, I'm closer to understanding that last phrase, and maybe a little better at applying its lessons outside of endurance racing.