Luis Ocaña on the Ballon d’Alsace in the ’69 Tour

A bicycle-less vacation. An intractable stomach virus. An ultra-marathoner’s autobiography. And a fellow who cut his own arm off. These are the things that have me thinking about endurance.

It started in Florida, where my wife took us for a week of warmth and sunlight. We lumbered off the plane into the Fort Lauderdale sunshine, a bedraggled crew of New Englanders, pale and hunched from months spent under winter’s thumb.

I had seen this trip as a good opportunity to ride my bicycle in a warm, flat place, spinning out oodles of base miles in a suffering-free environment. But traveling with a bike was out of the question. My two  young sons and their car seats and various electronic accoutrement ate our entire packing budget, so I resolved to rent a bike. As it turns out, none of the local shops would rent me anything that wasn’t a moose-antlered cruiser.

So a week off the bike then. OK. No problem. I’ll read a book.

By now, you’ve probably heard of Aron Ralston, the mountaineer/maniac who, by freak chance, pulled a boulder onto his right hand, while hiking, alone, in an isolated canyon in Utah. Eventually, he cut the arm off and hiked out, then wrote a book, Between a Rock and Hard Place, which became the movie 127 Hours, starring James Franco. I had met Ralston a year or so before his accident (in fact, I shook the hand he eventually lost). He worked at my office for a few weeks, while in Boston visiting some friends, but I’d not gotten around to reading his book, because I thought I knew the story.

I didn’t.

Or at least I didn’t know the important parts, the parts about the bending and warping of the human brain as its resources become more and more depleted, the emotional bits and ups and downs of straining for survival and accepting impending death.

Ralston isn’t just some idiot who got himself into a bad situation. He’s a serious mountaineer with vast back country experience. The story of his accident is as much about the way that experience helped him live as it is about the durability of the human spirit under extreme circumstances. That he knew, ultimately, how to survive, allowed him access to the experience of enduring the suffering that survival required.

Ralston’s story got me thinking about the things we do to test our abilities, which brought me to another book in the sports section, Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes. You may have seen this guy in the Road ID commercials with Levi Leipheimer. His schtick is that he runs. And runs. And runs. 50 mile races? Yes. 100 mile races? Yes. 135 miles through Death Valley in summer? Yes. 200 miles without stopping? Sure. 50 marathons in 50 days? Yeah. That, too.

The point of Karnazes’ book is two-fold. First, Dean Karnazes is a complete freak. Humans don’t run 200 miles at a time. They don’t. Only freaks do that. Second, despite the fact that Dean Karnazes is an alien from Planet Freak, we are all capable of more than we think. The limits we impose on ourselves are arbitrary. Sure, most of them have their root in physical or mental pain, but still they are not hard and fast. There is a land beyond those limits, and there are interesting things to discover therein.

In cycling, the closest analogue to Karnazes is probably the recently deceased Jure Robic, multiple winner of the Race Across America, and widely acknowledged freak of physical ability and endurance. If you take the time to read the New York Times interview linked there, you will learn some of what lies beyond the limits we normal humans impose upon ourselves. Hint: there’s a generous dose of madness out there.

All of this brings me to my post-vacation mindset and a stomach bug that emptied me out and gave me a sneak peek at the wilds beyond my own normal limits.

Since reading the aforementioned books, I had resolved to find new ways to confront my limits and also to question them. Too often, I think, I have accepted the messages coming from brain, messages that say, “back off,” or even “stop.” If any of the evidence on offer holds, then those are just messages. Their truth is a thing to be questioned, not blindly accepted. I began to believe that I could expand my experience of cycling by confronting some of these limits, by pushing on when my brain told me I was done.

It is, after all, just pain.

Then, last Wednesday my youngest son turned four. We took him out for pizza, because that’s his favorite. He ate a lot of it, really much more than you would expect a four-year-old could put away. That’s why, when he woke up later in the night projectile vomiting in his bed, I was so shocked by the volume of no-longer-pizza. It looked like a collaboration between Charles Manson and Hieronymus Bosch.

Next I did what parents do. I cleaned up.

Having danced this dance before, I was also fastidious about washing my hands every time I encountered my young son’s vomitas, which was many times, over the ensuing day-and-a-half. Apparently, it didn’t help.

By the following Monday I was wracked with stomach cramps. My insides turned to hot sand. I was rent asunder by everything I tried to put into my system. More seemed to come out than went in. I was afraid that I was actually, somehow, creating matter. It was an affront to Einstein. And Newton.

And each time I thought, “Oh, Jesus, this is the worst thing ever in the history of things, ” I remembered Aron Ralston and Dean Karnazes and the possible unreliability of the messages coming from my cerebral cortex. I was able to step back from what was going on and say to myself, “This is just suffering. It will pass.” And that turned out to be a pretty effective strategy for enduring my illness.

In the week between vacation and illness, I had only began to test the waters of my new approach. I rode all the miles I normally ride, but I added some distance running and weight training to the mix. I stayed with the pain of fatigue a bit longer than I might otherwise, and I pushed through it a couple of times to discover further reserves of energy and will.

This was but a short trial. I have not yet discovered the cure for human frailty, but the early returns are encouraging, not just for my ability to ride ten more miles or climb one higher grade at the bouldering crag, but also for my ability to endure the everyday shit that life dishes out, all those little things you have to do but don’t particularly care for, like cleaning vomit or working for a living,

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Grizzly Adam

    Exactly. Life is a series of undesirable little mishaps and necessities. But not always. The great moments in the mountains and on the bike are like a great golf shot – after rounds of terrible scores, one brilliant shot can bring us back for more terrible rounds. Always hoping for that next great shot.

  2. Marco Placero

    My mom died last year at 92. One of her many admirable traits was, smiling throughout a lifetime of endurance. Her final lesson to me was that death had to be more than simply endured.

  3. david A

    I remember a Kermis in some town during the summer of ’86, I had been working 12 hr shifts in a Belgian factory and training till dark after work. Cycling or endurance sports of any kind seem to trick the mind into believing that if you can just push harder, increase the volume more and more everything will come out all right, regardless of the facts. Im assuming that my red blood cell count was that of a deadman, which I found to be true after a visit to the Doctor and that my testostrone level was probably that of a 6 yr old. I remember making the second group and just getting ridden off the wheels of the other boys. I would reach down as deep as I could to sprint to the wheel in front of me…..nothing. I pulled over to the side of the road and sobbed like a small child…crushed more pyshologically and emotionally more than anything else, my entire world seemed to crash on top of me. The idea of resting or trying something differant never crossed my mind…only harder and harder kms. under my wheels which added up to nothing……i seemed empty of anything else to give, but found that was not so…

  4. ben

    It might be an obvious next read given your thoughts, but “Born to Run” was a book I stumbled upon (right before going on a vacation) and found to be very inspirational. I’m not a huge Dean Karnazes fan, but that’s a personal problem of mine…but the stories in “Born to Run”, to me have a lot of heart/soul w/out the overblown drama.

    I’m getting very curious as to where I can push myself!

  5. Laurence

    I read that New York Times interview with Karnazes and felt impelled to share some of the crazier bits with friends. This was not just because it was interesting but also because it was funny. When he starts talking about seeing armed horseman chasing him, you realise you haven’t come close to pushing yourself to your limit. It’s really impressive and scary.
    From a training point of view, I wonder when it’s worth going on. I recently wrote an article about the Otway Odyssey (which is a 100km MTB race near Melbourne, Australia). The first year it took me 8.5 hours to complete. The last 5 hours or so were awful. I didn’t enjoy it and I had to lie down every 15 minutes or so. I’ve often wondered if that experience in any way improved me as an athlete. I guess it at least made me a bit mentally tougher. Although I’m sure Karnazes would never have lied down…

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