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