Personal Narrative

Endurance sports – what is “epic”? The SufferQuest Diaries, vol. 2

In search of epicness—whatever that is. (And if it’s organized, it’s probably isn’t epic.)

sufferquestPart 2 in a series.

SufferQuest is in some ways a misnomer. What endurance athletes are really chasing is epicness.

But what, pray tell, is epicness?

Hmmmm. That’s a tough one. It’s easy enough to list some of my epic experiences.

  • Hitchhiking across the States solo when I was seventeen.
  • Visiting a village in West Africa that was so remote the villagers had to ferry our motorcycles across a huge wetland in canoes was epic.
  • As were many of the times in Louisiana where I worked pipeline construction to earn money for college…midnight on Main Pass below New Orleans when we tried vainly to find a tree to hook a pulley to so we could drag a piece of pipe through the mud, and I spent hours up to my neck floundering through muddy, snake-infested waters pulling a heavy steel cable around entire islands full of trees and then watch the huge diesel engine on the barge uproot dozens of willow trees each time. The pipe never moved….or a strange, almost hallucinogenic week in Leeville when it got so cold that our gloves froze and cut into our wrists so badly that the blood ran down into our gloves—at some point almost everyone quit and we were down to a skeleton crew working around the clock and after each twelve hour shift you’d go into the showers to warm up and at some point you’d feel someone shaking you because you were sitting on the floor under the hot water sleeping.
  • There was the time my wife and I signed up for a hike in East Africa and it turned out not be a hike, but to be a climb up the second highest mountain on the continent, Meru. We showed up in shorts and tennis shoes, to the amazement of our climbing companions, twenty Germans in high tech climbing gear with poles and bandoliers of carabineers and things I still don’t know the name of.
  • Or the time, not that long ago, when I rode a motorcycle back from LA to Chicago in three days to attend a funeral, going over Wolf Pass shaking so badly from the cold that I struggled to hold the bike on the road.
  • And another recent experience, when my wife and I took an REI tour to Ecuador and on the day when the group was supposed to hike across the Andes’ version of the Continental Divide, it was sleeting sideways and everyone except an Army captain and I decided to stay in the spa. We spent six hours slogging, falling and flailing our way through a landscape so sodden that it resembled an underwater coral reef, stepping onto mosses that disappeared beneath us, plunging us thigh-deep in mud, our only companion an incredulous Andean fox, and laughing out loud because what we were doing was so ridiculously stupid.

It’s interesting, to me at least, that none of my five Ironman triathlons or three marathons make the list. Perhaps a few of my 200 mile bike rides might, but certainly most of them would not. And with good reason.

Most of us want epic. But we are all afraid of it. And thus an industry has emerged to provide us with false epicness. Epicness that’s safe. And that doesn’t hurt quite so much as real epicness. Experiences that allow us to impress our non-epic oriented friends.

Take for example, World Triathlon Corporation, who owns the Ironman brand and produces most of the 140.6 mile triathlons (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 run.) That Ironman you’ve seen on TV where people stumble across the line is a WTC event. (As a rule, any sporting event that is televised with a violin soundtrack is faux epic.) WTC is to epic as Disneyworld is to thrills. It’s an engineered epic experience. An Ironman is certainly hard, but it’s a seventeen hour time limit, which means 95% of those who start one, including elderly and obese people, finish it.

To the frustration of the suits at WTC, they cannot control the weather, so occasionally an Ironman does turn out to be accidentally epic. The first Lake Tahoe Ironman took place in freezing temperatures where a record 25% didn’t finish the course and I saw a seventeen-time Ironman sitting in the convention center rocking back and forth and shaking his head because he couldn’t finish the swim. There was the Ironman in St. George, Utah, and ones in Louisville, Kentucky when temperatures soared over 90 (I remember one of those because I ended up in the medical tent with saline bags hooked to my arm). But as soon as a WTC event turns out to be genuinely epic, they immediately de-epic it. Both St. George and Tahoe were shortened, mountains were taken out of the Tahoe bike course, and Louisville was moved from August to the fall.

WTC isn’t the only event organizer that does this. In 2007, temperatures were in the 80s for the Chicago marathon. The water stations ran out of water, hundreds became ill and one died. So the event organizers moved it to later in the year when temperatures were cooler.

It’s unfair to diss all organized events as non-epic. Some are authentically epic. There’s the Triple T in Ohio, a three day series of triathlons in the Appalachians. The Mt. Mitchell Challenge. Badwater. Leadville. Western States. Climbing Everest, even though you’re shuffling up aluminum ladders with a line of fellow asshole dermatologists with more money than talent, is probably epic. But these are all small, almost cultish events. They’re not the events most people do or even know someone who’s done. In many cases, they’re not events that most people have even heard of.

Most epicness probably occurs outside the organized event space—climbing mountains, running or biking across the country, through hikes on the Pacific Crest or CDT, rowing a boat across the Atlantic—that sort of thing.

So what then, constitutes epicness? I’d argue for an undertaking to be epic, it must have five characteristics.

  1. It must test both physically and mentally, but mainly mentally. At the end of the day, none of the things on my epic list were feats of athleticism as much as they were feats of will.
  2. It must involve genuine physical risk. There must be a point at which failure means injury or even death. A 100 mile run on a treadmill with a doctor watching an EKG monitor may be hard, but it isn’t epic. It must be a situation where you could die, not because you’re unprepared or weak, but because the challenge is so big.
  3. It must involve chance. That is, no matter how well you’ve prepared or trained, or how meticulous your checklist, a snow storm or a heat wave or a flood or something unpredictable could change everything for the worse. That’s probably why most epic events seem to take place in the mountains or on large bodies of water, where the weather introduces a constant element of chance.
  4. It must test relentlessness more than raw courage. Epic is not about adrenaline. It’s not about mustering up the courage to step off a cliff and plunge fifty feet into the pool below. It’s about mustering up the courage to go on when all your body wants to do is to lay down and sleep. Epic is about perseverance.
  5. Finally, epic is less about saying you did it than knowing you tried. Yes, we all brag about our epic experiences, but for the most part they’re so far outside the ken of most people they don’t even know what in the hell we’re talking about. For example, most people can relate to a marathon because it’s sort of like a 5K. Almost no one, except those who have done one, can relate to a 30 hour, 100 mile trail run. So bragging doesn’t really get you much because the listener just thinks you’re weird and feels sorry for you.

What do you think constitutes epic-ness? I’d love to hear the epic experiences of others and some other definitions of epic.

Next diary entry: Looking for the perfect epic experience: RAAM, CDT, and the alphabet of self-inflicted pain.

Categories: Personal Narrative, Sports

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14 replies »

  1. Endurance workouts may be harmful (at least in terms of lifespan).

    Check out this fascinating report on the factors that contribute to a long healthy life, based on a longitudinal study of 14,000 people that have lived at a retirement community in Laguna over the past 34 years. All the subjects donate their brain to be examined after they die, so they developed compelling insights on dementia.

    It’s the 60 Minutes Episode. The executive summary is: “Eat, Drink and be merry…” — good to be slightly overweight; alcohol is good for you and it is vital to stay socially connected.

    Most of the advice is intuitive, such as:
    one cup of coffee a day is better than none or many
    one drink a day is better than none or many
    social activities are important
    exercise is important
    no smoking is important
    reading and engaging your mind is important

    But there were a few surprises, such as:
    gaining a little weight is better than staying slim or losing weight
    high blood pressure reduces mini-strokes and prolongs life (with less dementia)
    40% of dementia/Alzheimers diagnoses are wrong — it is really the cumulative affect of many, many mini-strokes (based on autopsies of the brain) — this may be what happened to Pop-Pop
    45 minutes of exercise is better than 3 hours
    vitamins are all essentially useless

    It’s 30 minutes long, but I encourage you to listen the whole thing. I guarantee it will add at least 30 minutes to your life, so it’s a good investment!


    • Thanks John. Doesn’t surprise me at all. In the first of this series, I wrote:

      The truth is endurance sports are a lousy way to get fit and especially to lose weight. Exercise doesn’t really help with weight control, at least not directly. It takes four hours of intense exercise to burn off one lousy pound and at the end of it, you’re really, really hungry. If you really want to lose weight, just cut out the BAD (bread, alcohol, and desserts) from your diet. Maybe exercise helps with weight control indirectly, i.e., self-awareness and discipline. Maybe. Anyway, if exercise is good for fitness, you surely don’t need to do it at the level required to train for a tri or a marathon. A few hours of brisk walking each week will do it, and do it more safely. The statistics on the injuries accrued while training for endurance events are pretty daunting. Basically, every endurance athlete is hurt at some point in the season. Physical therapists LOVE to see an endurance athlete come through the door—a customer for life.

      Of course, your point is even stronger.

      • Addressing “otherwise” above and writing as an outpatient sports medicine physical therapist assistant, as a profession we do not “LOVE to see an endurance athletes come through the door”. Rather, as most of us are athletes ourselves, hate to see someone injured and not get to live their joy and work very hard to get these athletes back to pain free or tolerable pain levels and full function within time and competition parameters. We sometimes find these athletes difficult to work with because of their constantly going beyond set parameters advised, thus behaving in a way that is detrimental to an ultimately faster recovery.

        Ultimately, as a long time endurance athlete that started swimming competitively at age 8 and adding water polo in high school, while growing up in Long Beach, California I could think of plenty qualifiers for epic. I vote that epic is relative to our life experiences and opportunities. How many people have the opportunity to break the law and bridge jump at night at high tide? Or break their neck falling off a pier and return fully to sports? Lastly, where does my giving birth to my sons without drugs fit in to the epic scale?

  2. Epicness — to reach, achieve, to be fleetingly beyond the cusp mundane humanness through physical/mental/spiritual effort. A certain percentage of the population has need to strive toward epicness, but the why behind in my observations is multifactorial.

    If I had to pick a single driver, I would say anxiety is important. When we are focused on the epic, while we are training and planning we achieve a point of focus beyond ourselves and our daily lives. As the epic nears the details of life Thoreau warned us about fall away — our lives simplify until only the epic remains.

    The epic has special relevance because it is a toil of our choosing — whether a mountain or a marathon the selection comes from the person, not the job or the professor or the licensing board. The details are seldom of our choice nor are they welcome — but they are necessary to stay within our common lives. The rent must be payed, homework done, spouse’s list of needs met.

    But the epic stands apart from the clamor. It is OURS by OUR choice.

    And I agree, there must be elements of danger, or at least the perception of risk. And it must press limits of mind and or physiology.

    And I would also agree to be truly epic it cannot be organized. Well, maybe group efforts with internal organization don’t count in that — a mission in the mountains requires several people working together. Organized as in wearing a number, following a course and crossing some finishing line — that falls short of true epicness. Achilles would not be impressed by the Kona Ironman I would venture to say.

    Epicness — damn I miss it. August 2nd is the anniversary of my fall and I’ve not ridden since. The bike hangs on the wall, in the same gear, with the same equipment it carried that day. I exercise 5 hours a week — breaking sweat in the basement gets less adequate every day.

    A question I would posit is what is there when the epic wears off — going longer, higher, faster — pressing hard against physical and mental limits until it is clear that what has been is as good as it will be — what then?

    After I wrote that last paragraph I realize that is the very abyss I and peering into, and I have no answer. Maybe that is the greatest epic of all.

    • Nice, Cal. And it’s an interesting deeper question, “Why do endurance athletes do it?” Epicness. Then your question: “Why do some people need epicness?”

      Anxiety is a reasonable answer.

      I dont know when it stops and that’s a good question. A CEO I know segments outdoor athletes into different groups–competitive athletes, adrenaline athletes, epic athletes. For adrenaline athletes, it’s clearly when you kill your fool self. Someone told me a handful of Red Bull athletes die each year. But I dont think epic athletes are looking to die like adrenaline athletes are, that’s just a necessary component of the experience.

  3. The human condition is to strive. Much of it is being youthful and male, although Serena Williams and George Patton show that it’s not limited to that. SEAL’s and Daesh volunteers are young males. In the U.S. Post civil war Indian Wars, it was typically the young males who antagonized the whites. The others knew it would only bring trouble.

    So when this drive is channeled into socially acceptable goals, we may term it epic. When it leads to Alexander the Great’s conquests we may be in awe. When it leads to John Wilkes Booth it’s infamy.

    People strive. That’s human. The philosophical issues are the more interesting ones. (Personally I like to work out but avoid injury. When I was young, the thrill of bragging rights would lead to taking risks).

    I met someone who was the track coach at Notre Dame for 20 years and looked like a runner, so I asked him if he had run any marathons. He said “no one should run a marathon. It’s not healthy. Remember what happened to the first guy who did it.”

  4. It has to be fear. What scares you?

    I am sure there are many people that are afraid of a 5k, but of course that’s not epic, and I am sure that there are plenty of people think like yourself that think an Ironman is not epic. So the question you are really asking is what is epic to me?

    This is a personal definition and we have to careful when setting a bar so high that it does not allow other to even glance at it.

    That being said it has to scare you and provide some sort of accomplishment, a feat that proves to yourself that you did something epic. I am sure that running the Boston marathon at 61, in terrible weather, while wearing a trash bag doesn’t count as epic given your earlier definition, however the fact that you broke 3:30, and beat your 30 year old sons best marathon time would move it in to the epic category. At least your post race smugness would suggest as much.

    I am only a couple months out from running a 100K trail race in Mongolia and I am guessing/ hoping it will be epic. However, at the moment I am only slightly worried about. It’s going to hurt and sure I could die, but no more so than anything other day I ride my bike on the road, surf in shark infested water, or solo trail run for hours in mountain lion laden hills. What would make it truly epic? Winning or pulling some crazy performance out of my hat, doing more than anyone including myself thought possible.

    So an Ironman may not be epic to you or me, but qualifying for Kona sure as heck would be and I bet if you threw down the effort it would take to do that you be scared that you were going to die (whether you really would or not), scared that all the months of training would all be for nothing, and if you managed to pull it off by some sort of effort you never thought you could manage you would call it EPIC!

    It’s a moving target and maybe one day it’s 5k and the next its Badwater. That’s what keeps epic things epic they have to challenge you, just finishing for some and winning for others.

  5. I got quite a few offline comments of interest and in some cases, entire offline conversations followed. I thought I’d put a few of them in here.

    Charles’ hypothesis is that endurance training is an addiction, he wrote:

    My experience with ultra marathoners is that they do not like being accused of addiction. I used to volunteer for 24 hour races and usually ran 10 miles of it myself. I handed out water and other supplies for a few hours after. I saw people who ended up with fairly serious medical problems because of the “race”. They would get pretty angry with me when I suggested they were addicted to running. I suspect the same is true of bikers. I know a guy training for RAIN who is doing it to lose weight and its working (42 lbs so far) but many of these riders are in good shape already.

    At a minimum, if it repeatedly causes health problems its an addiction. But I wonder what relationships or work performance or income people are willing to sacrifice for a double century or 200 miles in a week or being able to finish a 50 mile footrace?

    Coach Brant argues that epic is relative:

    I think for some people,engineered epicness is true epicness because 1) they have never felt something different (true epicness according to him) 2) they may never have a chance to try something different so it is really epic, who’s to say it’s not?

    I’d say my Ironman is on my epic list, although according to this it should be since you talk about the year I finished in Louisville (98 degrees).

    But most my other races and rides would not make my list. Backpacking through Spain. Helping orphans in Africa. Snorkeling in Belize, jumping out of a plane. Those where epic to me, and yet none of them really made all 5 of the criteria.

    Sifu Ken wrote:

    This may take some time to write since I sit in a tiny room in Bangkok with a tiny, malfunctioning pc – but I do indeed have some personal thoughts about “Epicness.”

    I am sure we could all impress each other about extrinsic bouts of that word. Most people have epic moments from their first kiss to jumping out of a space balloon miles above the earth. “Epic” to me is just a new and exciting personal experience. I’d like to briefly address what the intrinsic values of epic means however; and that is a different matter.

    To have something so cool, scary and unique as epicness there are mind and body governors that prepare for the move or experience. The first is being (or making yourself be) in the right place at the right time – making your own luck. The second is recognizing intellectually that this is truly something out of the ordinary – creativity. The third is being prepared to deal with the situation rationally. That means pactice, hard work like getting out of bed at 4:00 am to train and then being ready to go for it when things get hard or uncomfortable – and then realize you LOVE it.

    My life has abounded around epicness. It is the stuff that keeps me alive; the epic journey, stunt, fight, women, my sons, my music. Everyone of us has epic experiences but many don’t even realize it.

    It is inside where the seeds of such emotion, action and cognoscenti coalesce and epicness begins.

    And Chris, who runs Adventure Corps, has already thought a lot about this same topic.

  6. I realize I used to meet your five criteria regularly back in the 70’s. Only we called it “rock band on tour….” 😉

  7. After reading through the two posts and comments it occurred to me that i was unsure as to the precise meaning of epic … so, as my parents so relentlessly told me to do, i looked it up. And, consistent with my experience with the English language, the meaning of epic is not all that precise which, again, like my experience, it becomes a kind of in vivo rorschach test.

    But it does occur to me that both in the discussion here and the dictionary definitions there is an element missing that seems inherent in the conversation. Singularity. I think there has to be a singularity to the event and, perhaps. a singular purpose. I was a bit surprised that cutting school to hitchike from Georgia to NYC to meet a profound person in your life was not on your list; meets all your requirements and had singularity and purpose. You and your wife’s “hike” in W. Africa would qualify because of your unpreparedness. Had you been prepared you would have been like everyone else on the “hike”. Likewise in the Andes; perhaps what makes it epic is that everyone else didn’t go.

    That may be why none of your endurance events didn’t qualify … doing something 10K other people are doing doesn’t seem to qualify unless the race is so big it becomes singular for that reason.

    My own experience with marathons is that it was a logical progression of something akin to an addictive trait i seem to carry. I started running when i quit smoking, 30 years ago now, to avoid the weight gain that was sure to come. What happened is that i remembered, from my youth, that i love running. I like the sollidude of running in the mornings when it is dark and I can run down the middle of streets “like the whole city is mine”. The first marathon was, to my mind, a logical extension of the ultimate runners high. What is the perfect distance? What i learned was that it is far less than 26.2 miles. But then i wondered if i could train enough to maintain that high that came about from miles (approximately and variably) 7 to 15. Could I maintain that high for an entire marathon. Not yet. I think the half-marathon is a good fall-back distance.

    I would talk about my half iron-man but it is still too painful and more pathetic than epic.

  8. Epic. Nobody remembers the rides, runs, or hikes that are in perfect weather or the fastest time. We always remember the event in dangerous weather. Thunderstorms and lightning – just a century with KR and JM. Tornadoes – just a 35 mile weekday ride with the Blazing Saddles of Decatur, IN. Fog – riding a full 100 mile day on the Blue Ridge Parkway and I skipped the Mt Mitchell climb because I couldn’t see the turnoff (since then I’ve done our own Mt Mitchell Assault numerous times). Hot and humid – many centuries and double centuries where one is balancing on the thin rope between finishing and the legs just locking up in cramps. I’ve been on both ends of that scenerio. Cold and night riding – the worst.
    Finishing, especially the epics, defines accomplishment and that feels good. Better cyclists will go back to bed when it’s raining or they’ll quit when they know a victory is not attainable. Me? I’m never good enough to win an event, but finishing it is a win in my mind.
    Even though so many fellow cyclists can ride the distances I do, part of my diabolical mind lets me think I’m better than them. And, it makes me feel good!