Saturday, July 16, 2016

Searching For The Challenge That Almost Kills Me

When I gave the list of the hardest things I have done, less than a week after summiting Mt. Everest, people were surprised that Everest was only #9. Here's the list to jog your memory:

1. Italy 2015 24 Hour World Championships - terrible magnesium cramps
2. 2014 North Coast 24 hour run - I seriously could not walk for three hours after it was over
3. 2008 Casual Route on the Diamond on Longs Peak with Clay Meier - 20:15 car to car, super long mountain day, took a 20 foot pendulum fall. 
4. 2002 Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert in the same day solo - age 16, about 15.5 hours
5. 2009 double marathon (52.4 miles) fun run of Cape Cod May 9th - first ultra run at age 23
6. 2010 Wonderland Trail run solo (93 miles 31:32) - first real trail ultra run
7. 2006 Ellingwood ArĂȘte on Crestone Needle with John Inman - first technical mountain route, and first I lead, I have to look up the time but we finished in a hail storm after dark, and I really suffered leading the 5.7 at 14,000 feet.
8. 2013 Chicago Marathon - hit the wall, hard to explain this one, but I've never felt so empty, I felt like a lead ballon or a zombie while running.
9. Mt. Everest with oxygen 2016 
10. 2012 Devils Tower with Steve Bonneau and Ryan Stickle - I really struggled on the last pitch, dehydrated, not in great climbing shape.
11. 2009 Longs Peak Kiener's with Josh Zeigler - we took the 5.8 version by accident, ended up starting and finishing in the dark, 15 hours or so, but good weather.

I went to Everest with the intention to climb it without using bottled oxygen, I thought it would be difficult. (Of course, that's an understatement.) Well, I ended up using bottled oxygen and as I thought, it wasn't terribly hard. In other words, if you are looking for a purely physically difficult challenge, you won't find it using oxygen on Everest. That being said, it is difficult, and there is a huge element of risk, and it is the tallest in the world, so there is definitely an attraction on that particular hill.

Point being, I thought Everest without bottled oxygen would be the hardest thing I had ever done in my life, and when the trip turned out that it didn't go how I anticipated, and I ended up with the above list, it sparked a lot of thought about why I do this stuff. Why do I do this stuff? Well, for the purpose of this article, I like accomplishing difficult things, and since it happens I have some physical talent for endurance sports, specifically running, and high altitude comes easy to me, and I'm an okay climber, so mixing and matching those give me physical fodder for challenges. There is also a huge mental component to all of the above activities that I've done in the past, and the things that I would like to attempt in the future. The film Meru captured this desire for a difficult challenge really well. A variety of skills were needed to get up the route, and they were the first people, after many previous attempt, to succeed. 

We are so risk adverse today when it comes to failure. Are things that come easy really what we want to accomplish? People are scared to go simply rock climbing with me, or go on a bicycle ride, or go for a run. Of course, climbing Everest hasn't helped my reputation for doing beginner outdoor sports. 

Some time in the past I said that my acceptable rate of success is probably around 30%. Truth be told, it's probably lower, maybe 20% now, having climbed Everest, become a 24 hour national champion, being on team USA, done Rainier in a day, and set a whole bunch of track PRs after college, and run up and down plenty of mountains. In other words, I've accomplished so much, and I'm not getting any younger, that it's time for me to go after the more difficult challenges. The challenges where most fail, like Nolan's 14 and 24 hour runs to name a few. Although to be fair, success and failure in a 24 hour run is totally ambiguous. 

What I'm trying to say is I'm looking for a challenge so physically difficult and mentally stimulating that I finish knowing I had nothing else to give. And of course, it would be nice to actually finish it. One difficult part about all of these challenges is that after they are done and the days and weeks pass I'm left with the question, could I have done it better? I couldn't walk after the North Coast 24 in 2014, for three hours. Is that as hard as it gets? Is Nolan's 14 going to be the challenge I attempt five times before succeeding? I don't know. 

To be clear, I intend to live to 90 or longer. I have no plans to die on a mountain somewhere. There is simply a mental challenge, not to mention the physical challenges of the altitude, vertical climbs, and descents, of mountain travel. You have to watch your steps, use your hands, navigate, deal with rain, snow, hail, and wind, navigate some more, and do it all while tired without enough sleep. The mental challenge of timed races is that you could stop, whenever. Every 10 minutes going past the aid station is an invitation to stop, it's a very different challenge. 

Is there a perfect challenge? I watched a documentary on the Barkley Marathons this morning, and I do hope to try that some day. On a side note, I'm watching Restrepo as I write this, and war is totally off the table. Combat is way, way beyond my acceptable level of risk. I will say that from my extremely limited understanding, it is certainly extraordinarily difficult. That you veterans!

I don't know if there is a perfect challenge. I suppose that I will never know what my most challenging endeavor was, until well after it is over. But, that's what I am searching for. I'm looking for the challenge, or perhaps I should say challenges, that take everything out of me and leave me laying on the side of the path unable to go past the finish. 

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