Last weekend I bicycled 200 miles as part of the Courage Classic, a fund raising event for the Colorado Children’s Hospital. It was my fourth year participating in the three-day ride that traverses four major passes, crosses the Continental Divide, and includes over two miles of vertical climb. Riding the Courage Classic makes me feel fit. But as feats of strength and endurance go these days, 200 miles through the Rocky Mountains on paved trails with aid stations every 12 miles is, well, for charity cases.
At one aid station I met a volunteer who was insanely jacked. His arms were as big as my legs; his legs were thunderous. “Why do you volunteer instead of riding?” This guy could ace the course. “Volunteering is a good way for me to help at this gig.” His answer was over-polite.
The next day I ran into him again. He mentioned doing a 100-mile off-road mountain bike ride after his shift. The subtext of his story was clear – he went too far and too fast to bother with the middle-aged dawdlers who ride the Courage Classic.
There are a few hot dogs in the Courage Classic. They start each day at 6 a. m. and finish just after 9 a.m., when some of us are just shipping out of the first rest stop. They are the ones who wear the Double Triple Bypass jerseys (240 miles in two days with 20,000 elevation climb). They never drop to their lowest gear and descend, brake-free, in excess of fifty miles per hour. I ride with the same steadiness I exercise in life. I average about 10 miles per hour, inclusive of breaks and lunch, which through mountains means 6 mph up and no more than 25 mph down.
But just as the Double Triple guys keep me from swelling my head, bigger guns of extreme fitness eclipse them. Iron Men leave marathoners in the dust. Riding on pavement, running on tracks, and swimming in pools is eclipsed by grueling off-road run/bike/swims where the athletes carry all their gear with them the entire way, (NY Times: It’s Entirely Natural: Off Road Races Grow).
What propels this desire to push ourselves in ever more demanding ways? Articles point out our need to counteract sedentary lives, connect with nature, and exorcise primal drives to run from danger and swim to safety. No doubt that’s all true.
I believe there is another motivator in the ceaseless quest to go further, higher, faster: the desire to set ourselves apart from the rest of humanity. We want to do something that puts us in a group of 700 rather than seven billion, or 7 rather than 700, or ultimately, to do something so unique we are the only one. Being in an extreme race makes us part of an elite group, a natural human aspiration. Winning the extreme race makes us special within that group, fulfilling the ultimate human goal of both belonging and triumphing. Trouble is, what it takes to be set apart keeps getting more and more difficult. The races get more extreme; the winning times get faster. We compete against every other individual on the planet as well as the personal bests of everyone who ever competed. What it takes to be number one grows harder every day.
The Courage Classic has no winners; the ribbon I get for finishing about 3 p.m. is the same one as the guys who finish at 9 a.m. I will never compete in an Iron Man or any off-road madness; simply reading about them exhausts me. I will never be the best at any one thing in life. But I am good enough to be content with my lot, and grateful I have the strength and endurance to cycle over the Rocky Mountains at my own pokey pace.
After all, what’s the rush? The landscape is breathtaking.
Stop by a brook.
Smell the flowers.
Enjoy the vista.