Across the Disappearing Finishing Line

Searching for the keys to endurance, a ski racer pushes his body and heart to the limit—until his father's sudden illness changes all the rules

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

BARRING THE ODD World War or Depression, being a man was once a fairly simple task. My grandfather, for instance, lived to be a well-adjusted 95—he visited Costa Rica on a banana boat at 90—by walking a few brisk miles every morning and avoiding between-meals snacks.

But it's not so easy anymore. Here are some things you need to know if you're going to be a healthy man, according to a recent issue of Men's Health: Chronic, day-to-day work stress can lower your sperm count by a third; a diet rich in garlic keeps your aorta flexible; vitamin B2 fights off migraines; shrinking your waist from 40 inches to 37 inches cuts diabetes risk in half; you can build your triceps by doing dips off the edge of a swimming pool; if you're determined to have sex in an elevator, a spokesman for the American Elevator and Machine Corporation recommends using a freight elevator ("Many lack security cameras, but check the ceiling to make sure"). Not only that—but negative sit-ups can build abdominal muscles faster than crunches.

None of this would surprise women. For a long time—say, three or four million years—being a woman was hard work. But sometime around 1985, when men in their underwear began reclining on Times Square billboards, manhood became nearly as time-consuming. A sampling of Men's Fitness covers over the past year promises "24 Ways to Customize Your Physique," "6 Dangerous Foods," "12 Instant Nutrition Fixes," "7 Best Biceps Builders," "Better Sex—10 Ways to Drive Them Insane," "7 Super Shakes for Peak Energy," "5 Awesome Back Wideners," "5 Ready-Made Seduction Dates," "20 Hospital Survival Tips," "6 Moves for Bigger Arms," and "50 Ways to Improve Your Life—Guaranteed."

I'd never paid much attention to this kind of thing before the winter of 1998, when at the age of 37 I embarked on, well, a quest (one whose early months I chronicled in Outside in February 1999). I decided to spend a year training pretty much full-time to be a cross-country ski racer—I knew I wouldn't win any races, but I wanted to understand my mind and body in new ways, before age closed certain doors. Maybe I was tired of living mainly through my head; maybe I was just freaked to be growing old. In any event, I found a coach, Rob Sleamaker, author of Serious Training for Endurance Athletes, who drew up a yearlong program that called for more than 600 hours of training—daily two-, three, four-hour runs and skis, long bouts of uphill sprinting, my heart-rate monitor bleating softly all the while. Add to that endless sets of crunches and biceps curls and triceps extensions, and before much time had passed, muscles—not underwear ad–size muscles, but still—actually began to appear on my formerly smooth body.

And vanity began to infect my formerly oblivious consciousness. I found myself posing in front of the mirror as I shaved—flexing my pecs so they'd pop up and down, tensing my butt (my glutes, I mean) when I showered, feeling the indentations in my upper arm that marked the birth of my triceps. You couldn't really make out my washboard abs, but I could count the ridges of riblike muscle whenever I tightened my stomach. I read Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1977 autobiography, Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, with new understanding.

Unlike Arnold's, however, the veins in my arms bulged like phone cords, not tug lines; my forearms bloomed from celery stalks to broccoli stalks. My wife, Sue, was the only one to notice I was sprouting muscle mass, and even she, in my opinion, paid far too little attention to the details of my emergent triceps. Of course, endurance athletes are not supposed to Popeye up—more muscle takes more blood to feed it, eventually reducing your efficiency. Still, self-image matters, I was finding out. As a boy, resolutely unphysical, I supposed I should exercise in order to get girls. I got girls anyway; eventually I got married and fathered a child and so fulfilled my genetic mandate, and the fact that I couldn't reliably open pickle jars did not prevent my DNA from passing down yea unto the generations.

And yet did I measure up to my forebears, those sturdy small-town Westerners, on the manliness scale? My father, growing up, had spent his summers at a log cabin on the edge of Mount Rainier—a place without lights or running water, in the shadow of the great Douglas firs. We'd visit the cabin every few years on some vacation driving trip, and usually we'd find my cousin Craig there. A mountaineer, Craig was forever heading off to Pakistan or Baffin Island or some other place with high icy cliffs to conquer. Sometimes he'd open his pack to show us his collection of carabiners, pitons, and ropes. Dad loved it—this was his fantasy life, long before Everest-mania. But he'd reared us in the cushy suburbs of the East, where SATs counted more than sit-ups, and sometimes it seemed to me as if I was devolving, defying Darwin.

That summer, as I roller-skied and ran and lifted and interval-trained in preparation for the winter race season, Mom and Dad celebrated their 40th anniversary. Dad had recently retired after a lifetime as a journalist, and the whole family joined them at a slightly down-at-the-heels resort in the White Mountains that offered a shaggy nine-hole golf course out back. It was a great pleasure that summer to head out onto the green with my dad and my younger brother, Tom. I'd never played before, and I had no swing; they had to show me how to grip the club. But when I connected I had power—the ball would sail away into the middle distance. It didn't bother me that it went left or right or onto the neighboring fairway. I just liked the idea that it went long and strong.

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