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

IF I NEEDED A metaphor for my autumn, it came in early November. Back in the Adirondacks for a week, I noticed some fresh new pavement on a back road on the far side of the Hudson River. Fresh pavement, to a roller-skier, exerts a nearly gravitational pull—smooth and fast, it's the next best thing to snow. What I hadn't noticed was just how steep the hills were. I was, as always, wearing a bike helmet, but I'd forgotten my knee pads, and the light was fading. Predictably, I went for it. For an hour I skied the hills, tucking for fast descents, powering up with short, choppy kicks, feeling pretty damn strong. And then, predictably, a dog ran out at the bottom of a hill just as a car passed on my left—and I was down in a second.

Predictably, I jumped up, in the way that guys do when they've fallen, as if to say, Oh, I meant to do that. I waved off the stricken driver—and as soon as he was out of sight I sat right back down to consider. True, my knees were bleeding dramatically, soaking my shredded tights, but on the other hand I had 90 minutes left in my workout. I'd snapped a pole, so I clearly wasn't going to keep skiing, but I had my sneakers in the car. And so—predictably?—I ran, knees bleeding and stiff. It was clearly stupid. Perhaps I just wanted to hurt, and to keep going through the hurt.

My road-scraped knees healed just in time for me to return to Lake Placid and the giant treadmill at the Olympic Training Center for the final readout on my year's training. I'd passed through this particular crucible in the spring, establishing my baseline numbers and learning just how much the test could hurt—you ran until you couldn't run anymore, or at least until you thought you couldn't. This time, rubber bit clenched in my mouth to catch my exhalations, I lasted two minutes longer than I had in April, but it didn't cheer me up. Because I knew I'd had another minute in me, if only I'd fought the pain a little harder. But when the treadmill tilted toward the gut-check stage, I couldn't keep going. It hurt, that's why.

My coach, Rob, professed delight. "You've had a 45 percent improvement in body fat, your lactate threshold is 25 percent better—your engine is burning hotter at a lower lactate production. It means you can ski at a faster pace longer." Part of me did feel exhilarated. It had worked the way it was supposed to, all those hours and miles. Mine was not the physique of a champion, but what I had done was maximize my genetic potential, grown about as powerful as my ancestry would allow.

But the day left me feeling unsettled. When things had gotten really tough, I had looked for a way out. My heart might have become more efficient, but my heart seemed no stronger.

Maybe it was because I was beginning to question whether endurance was such a grand goal anyhow.

From the moment I'd learned of Dad's first conversation with the surgeon—Scotch or scalpel—part of me had been wondering whether we should be keeping him alive. We'd press the specialists with questions about whether his condition would improve, and all we'd get was the Ph.D. equivalent of shrugs. In the meantime, he was home, enduring, and Mom was, too. The HMO professed to believe that a couple of hours of nursing assistance a day was all Mom needed; never mind that Dad outweighed her by 80 or 90 pounds. She hired extra aides to come in the evening and help her get him out of bed; the next-door neighbor's son slept upstairs now just in case he rolled out of bed and she couldn't get him back in. New pills piled up almost daily; dosages changed with every visit to the doctor; Mom was awake by six to give him his first medicines, and still up at midnight to feed him the final batch. When I thought about the burden she was under, I doubted I could handle anything like it. And yet she kept going forward, forward, forward, like—well, like an elite athlete. In her case, though, it wasn't uphill intervals and mental imagery that had laid the base. It was year upon year of loving, so consistently that the giving had become instinctive.

As for me, if watching someone die could perform the same kind of magic, I wasn't sure I was ready for it. When the treadmill got steep enough, I started looking around for someone to turn it off.

Whenever we were with the doctors, no matter how much of a fog he seemed to be in, Dad would ask that they treat his cancer "aggressively." But one night, when I was talking to him very late, he said, "If it's going to be like this all the time, then there has to be a cutoff somewhere." Amen, I thought. Where's the guy with the switch?

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