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November 16, 2007

Magical Mystery Tour

Q: Where does the fish keep him’s money?
A: In the riverbank!!
- Favorite joke of my 3-year-old daughter

Most of us strive to improve ourselves. We like to learn things quickly, then move on to the next task that further expands our expertise.

Athletes spend countless hours practicing skills that will improve their performance. Endurance athletes continually train their bodies to go further or faster than was previously possible.

Everyone tries to get better. It’s part of the human condition.

But what if you don’t want it that way? What if you could slow the development of a natural progression simply because you wanted to delay its inevitable arrival as much as possible? It is permissible to throw a wrench in the learning process?

I sometimes wonder about this in the context of my daughter’s favorite joke.

She’s been telling the riverbank joke since she first learned to talk – as anyone who’s ever had a conversation with her can attest. She still breaks into a fit of laughter after the punch line, the joke carrying just as much amusement each time she tells it.

The mispronunciation – him’s instead of his – has been there since the beginning, also. When we started hearing it on a regular basis, the joke triggered a few exchanges between my wife and I like the following:

Me: It’s funny how she says “him’s.”

Her: Should we tell her the right way to say it?

Me: Nah … she’ll figure it out soon enough on her own. Besides, it's much cuter this way.

There’s a certain charm to the learning process that’s only available one time for any given task. Once it passes, the accomplishment is tossed onto the pile of all those other things accumulated over the course of a lifetime. Adding on your fingers is no longer cute once you can do math in your head. Memorizing a spelling list isn’t impressive once you start writing essays. What was once remarkable becomes routine, and eventually taken for granted.

For endurance athletes, athletic accomplishments often suffer the same fate as childhood milestones: they are celebrated only briefly before giving way to a more ambitious task. Finishing a 5K isn’t such a huge accomplishment after you’ve done a half-marathon. Olympic-distance triathlons don’t seem so daunting once you’ve finished an Ironman. Each achievement becomes a stepping stone for something grander, with its own merit overshadowed by what lies beyond.

There’s a danger in this, of course. We can’t constantly move towards bigger and more challenging tasks without sacrificing a lot of other things to get there. We may become obsessed with a perceived need for accomplishment, and miss the satisfaction that each smaller goal should bring. And even if you eventually do every Ironman or climb every mountain – then what? Life can become a fruitless chase to find happiness from accomplishments of increasingly questionable significance.

On the other hand, the allure of the first-time goal is unmistakable. The apprehension of venturing into unfamiliar terrain, the stumbling trial-and-error nature of progress, and the uncertainty of success are an intoxicating combination. We spend enormous amounts of time focused on the task, and analyzing every step of the journey that gets us there.

(And if you need further evidence - think of how many “first marathon” or “first Ironman” blogs are out there. Can you recall anyone writing something like “This is my 5th marathon, and it’s the scariest and most exciting thing I’ve ever done!” Me neither.)

I’m as guilty of this tendency as anybody else, which is the primary reason my name is in the Western States goblet this month. It’s also the reason I’ll probably look for another 100-miler to do next year if my name isn’t picked in the lottery on December 1st.

I’ve never run 100 miles - but I want to figure out how to do it. I want to experience the magic and mystery of doing something for the first time, and accomplish something that seemed unattainable several years ago.

However, I want to be careful not to disregard all of the training it will take me to get there, or miss out on the pleasure of the learning process – a fact I was reminded of after my daughter and I recently had this conversation:

Her: Hey, Dad … where does the fish keep his money?

Me: Wait … what did you say? I’m not sure I heard that right.

Her: Where does the fish keep his money?

Me: Oh, OK … Where?

Her: In the riverbank!! Isn’t that funny?

As you can guess, the exchange for me was something other than funny. Despite my efforts, it appears that my baby girl is moving on with her life. She knows the right way to say “his”, and next week, she won’t even be a 3-year-old anymore. Just like that, it’s done. But I never want to forget how cute it was for my daughter to say “him’s” during her favorite joke.

Likewise, that’s my informal goal for 2008 – not simply to achieve the 100-mile task, but to remember the process that gets me to the start line. And since I happen to have this space to document it, I’ll try to share as much of the journey as I can along the way.

Because just like that, it may be done. And I never want to forget those feelings once I move on with my life.


Backofpack 11/16/07, 3:06 PM  

You've nailed it (as usual) Donald. I keep wondering, when or where it ends. After the 100, what next? The short term answer seems to revolve around different terrain, different challenges of the same distance. I've wondered about the day a person (me) decides that they are done with, say, marathons. Done, time to cut down to halves or 10Ks. What then? Does it turn into the glory days? The "I used to..." or "When I ran my 26th marathon..." I wonder how a person becomes settled in themselves when they are simply done?

jen 11/16/07, 3:46 PM  

This post makes all kinds of sense to me. Very well said. In fact it is hitting a little close to home as I'm tapering for my 5th marathon (yawn) and feeling... well just kind of weird about it. I guess it's hard to get myself pumped up for such an intense effort when I know how unremarkable I will feel during/after. I don't know. It's kind of sad actually. Hmmph.

Also, great joke. :P

Annette 11/16/07, 8:46 PM  

Sometimes the journey is what we forget, but never the achievement that follows it. And remember, you can always improve on your previous accomplishments. That in itself can be another journey - although, not as huge as the first. Enjoy the journey. You are privileged to get to be on it. :)

Darrell 11/17/07, 8:47 PM  

Although I've had glimpses of it, I hope the anticapation of the next race never dims.

Pete 11/17/07, 11:13 PM  

Great post.

In early October, out of nowhere, I decided to do a 50-mile run on November 3. I'd never run anything longer than a marathon. Running fifty was a kind of crazy, but it was also fresh and mysterious. I love running and cycling (not so much swimming) so I'm always motivated to get out. But I was missing that feeling of looking forward to a new, mysterious challenge. The fifty, man, did that do it. So, yeah, now I'm thinking 100 -- in 2009, though, after a year of gradually working up to it.

Nat 11/18/07, 9:29 AM  

Great post. I couldn't agree with you more!

Coach Tammy 11/18/07, 10:25 AM  

You are such an amazing writer!

Everything you said resonates w/me. I think when we get to that point of accomplishment, we either turn to the first-timers and provide mentorship for them so reignite our passionate memories, or we move onto other areas of interest. There is a danger there.. of always needing to be better, faster, stronger. It's important to be in the moment, and as you indicated, relish the journey.

robtherunner 11/18/07, 2:21 PM  

Great post, Donald! I definitely fall into the category of searching for the next 1st. It's hard to enjoy the journey when you are lured by reaching the destination. It's a struggle, I assume for most of us. I hope you get chosen in that lottery. I opted to leave my name out, but still hope to come as crew or spectator.

Makita 11/19/07, 6:11 AM  

Beautiful and so timely for me... I, too, am tapering for a marathon... my 2nd and I can feel a difference. A lack of the fear of the unknown I had preceding my first. I don't want to forget those feelings either.

Crash 11/19/07, 9:40 AM  

Great post - I find that since I've ventured into this world of endurance sports I'm always looking for that next "high"...

Phoenix 11/19/07, 10:09 AM  

Love this post.

I still miss the way my son said "pletty" for "pretty" or called Boston Market Busted Market.

Thankfully, Ironman is still far away for me so Oly Distance can still hold its allure for quite awhile.

I hope you get a slot for the 100miler - and I know you'll find a way to enjoy the journey and keep it fresh.

David 11/19/07, 5:49 PM  

Great post topic. Yes. And insightful. Reminds me of what "adults" told me long ago ... If you try that marrywanna the next thing you'll be doing is taking pills and tripping. After that it's a short ride to injecting heroin between your toes.
Well there is always something to be said for the ride. When you get there it may look all the same, but it's certainly different. Time passes and what was an easy time to beat last year may be harder. We age. We lose the ability to ramp higher. We eventually strive to maintain what we used to do. If we can do it, we avert the inevitable for a little while longer.
Mentoring the prodigies is a safe and satisfying alternative.

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