“That was pointless,” said the young, sweaty, nearly naked man next to me. “Why did we run up this hill just to turn back around!?”
Feeling his physical pain, wishing we were through with our ordeal and that I could escape the sun, my fatigue and ever increasing leg cramps, my short temper allowed my tongue to get ahead of my brain’s sarcasm speech filter. I grunted and replied, “It’s a triathlon; it’s all pointless!”
The world is rife with sports metaphors and pointlessness is an undeniable part of life. What point does anything have? We’re born, we do stuff and then we die. End of story? I don’t know, but certainly that synopsis of beginning, middle and end has proven true for billions of years and countless trillions of creatures.
The race that I’m doing today is supposed to make me stronger, give me character, expand my horizons. Screw you!
I’ve been doing triathlons for five years: Sprint triathlons. The sort where the fast of foot and fleet of swim are done in an hour and the leisure crowd is finished in two. I was happy doing sprints. None of the three legs, the swim, bike or run, took me longer than fifty minutes, even on a bad day. The shortest segment of today’s race took me over 50 minutes and as we topped the long hill in our 13.1 mile run, did a 180 degree arc in the small, rural road and headed back for the last six and half miles beneath Iowa’s hot, merciless, August sun I had nearly an hour and twenty five minutes of muscle shredding leg cramps ahead of me. I still had to “run” for as many minutes as it took me to finish an entire sprint triathlon on a good day.
Pointless? Pointless, painful and humiliating; thank you very much! I’m forty seven years old, why am I trudging along in what has accurately been described as “Worst Parade Ever”?
Why? Because we have to create our own reasons for doing anything and because overcoming challenges is important. Of course, if you try to tell me that right now, as my legs spasm uncontrollably, I would want to punch you in the nose.
Life is full of adversity and how we respond to the challenges fate throws in our path greatly influences how much we enjoy and enhance our time here on Earth. Hedonism, the philosophy that we should all live for immediate pleasure and self-gratification, strikes me as being contradictory. How can we experience constant pleasure and live a life of meaning and of length? Pleasure can’t be constant because pleasure requires ever greater stimulus for us to feel elation. The journey I am currently taking, this antithesis of pleasure, my plodding struggle of self flagellation, was not the experience I had anticipated when I strode into the water five hours earlier and has become a constant reminder that pain is less fleeting than rapture.
Looking at things as objectively as I can is important to me. I know if I want to have a life that extends to at least nine decades, one that is lived with a body that is able to enjoy the world and a mind that is capable of understanding it for as long as possible, that I have to attend my form, nurture it, challenge it. Exercise matters but there is a line where we go from self care to something else.
Aggrandizing sport as important- that fitter, faster, stronger, longer is important for longevity- is a myth perpetrated on us for eons. Dedication to perfection as a form of self expression, a need to be in top physical shape to perform essential and physically demanding jobs, a desire to look and feel a certain way, are all things that worship of exercise can address but at some point more does not allow us to live longer.
So defining what we’re after is mighty important if we ever want a chance of getting it. As Joe Jackson said, “You can’t get what you want, till you know what you want.” Of course what I want right now is to be done with my race turned to death crawl; to be out of the sun, to have my legs stop screaming at me and to finish somewhere other than dead last.
The last five miles have me walking and limping along with a gate and pace that can not be described as running. I wasn’t ready for this race; I am under-trained, unprepared to compete for six and a half hours and as I see the final uphill, feel the breeze from the lake to my left and know that I have just one mile to go until I am finished I have no thoughts of victory- I just want the pain to end. One mile to go: The longest mile of my life.
I make it to the top of the hill, turn left and begin to run the final quarter mile. It is a downhill finish but what’s really spurring me on is pride. There are hundreds of people lining the course and many of them know me. Even in defeat I’m a stupid peacock!
At the end of the ordeal I find my wife who has raced as part of a three woman team. She finished her swim nearly six hours ago and has enjoyed a lovely, uneventful day as she waited for me to return. And waited, and waited, and waited.
She helps me limp around, gather our items, brings me food and drives us home. She asks me how it was and I say, “Terrible. I will never do that race again.”
I scream a bit as the cramps hit my legs and she commiserates. Once we’re home she helps me struggle to the bathtub which we fill with ice and water so that I can soak my abused limbs.
After eating I mumble to her in my exhaustion, “Never again.”
Of course the next year I do the exact same course. “You can’t get what you want, till you know what you want.”
Life may be pointless but it can be a great adventure. Go live it.