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

MY OWN JOURNEY seemed all but irrelevant, dull even to me, but by now the training was so ingrained that I kept with it almost automatically. And Rob, the one person besides my wife whom I'd trusted with my resolve to mount a supreme effort in some race, kept trying to help me find the right venue.

The trip to Lillehammer seemed less likely than ever, but I came across a brochure for the annual Keskinada races in Ottawa, in late February. The theme for 1999 was Norway; they were trying to duplicate parts of the Birkebeiner in Canada, including sending off one wave of racers carrying eight-pound backpacks. Ottawa was only a quick trip from Boston; this one I figured I could make. And so the images that filled my mind on training runs were suddenly Canadian: the pine forests of the Gatineau Park, the 50-kilometer trail. There was finally a little snow on the ground, and Rob told me to prepare with a four-hour time trial two weeks before the race. Four hours is a long time, especially with none of the adrenaline of a race to distract you; I headed to the ski tracks and did the same five-kilometer loop 11 times, till I knew every soft spot in the snow. Every lap brought me by a pigpen filled with noisy hogs; I'd stop there and choke down some energy gel. When the clock finally stopped, I'd gone 55 kilometers, and proved to myself that at the very least I could manage the distances in the race ahead. And I'd done it with my pack on my back, like a true Birchlegger.

Almost in spite of myself, I could feel my body starting to peak. As the really long workouts of the fall dwindled in number and distance, and the brutal intervals built up my speed, power began to accumulate. I imagined that I knew what a racehorse felt like in the gate, pent-up energy ready to express itself. Long, hard uphill skiing left me feeling spent but not wasted; my body craved fuel and burned it evenly; I was eager for a test, impatient for the Ottawa race to arrive. I was, in fact, in the best physical shape of my life.

In the middle of all this, my friend John Race came to visit. We'd met when he guided me up Mount Rainier five years before. Intellectually curious the way I was physically curious, he'd nonetheless spent almost all his energy on things of the body and the spirit. He'd spent months on Mount McKinley, gotten within 500 feet of the top of Everest, climbed 26,000-foot peaks like Cho Oyu. Now he was hungry for intellectual growth, and he wanted to write about his experiences. He was playing on the path I'd been following since I could first remember, and I was playing on his. It made me think of the first notion Rob had taught me when we'd started working together a year before—each of us born to be balanced physically, intellectually, and spiritually.

It hadn't taken me long to figure out how linked all three could be. If exercise was about being physical, then racing—being willing to hurt, to go harder than you wanted to—had an obvious spiritual quality. But the neat progression of my idea ran into trouble when Dad got sick. He was clearly operating at some higher level now, but it wasn't because he was trying. Instead, it seemed to be because he was letting go. Not giving up, not dropping out, but slowly, methodically, patiently letting go of his life. Every so often, I kept trying to ask serious questions, to find out what was going on inside. Partly it was just my curiosity, but I sensed, too, that he enjoyed talking about it, liked the fact that someone acknowledged he was dying and that it was an interesting process. One day he muttered that he was trying to figure out if there was something beyond this "make-believe" world, if there was something beyond "next week." His metaphors, like the drawing of the river, tended always toward the outdoor, the concrete, toward the joys of the Western boyhood that had filled his imagination ever since. "I feel like I'm climbing," he told me slowly one day. "Like I'm climbing up a cliff."

"Are you near the top?" I asked.

"Getting there," he said, with a grin.

I thought of all the climbs we'd taken when I was young, in the mountains of Maine and New Hampshire; of the pleasure he'd taken in the Adirondacks when I moved there; of the long trip we'd taken with his brother and my brother around Mount Rainier. Every time I'd looked at him in those weeks on the Wonderland Trail, he'd been grinning. Climbing wasn't a struggle for him, didn't represent a battle or even a test. It was a great joy, because it carried you higher, to where the view was clearer. And more than that—though the grand view may have started you slogging in the first place, no one kept hiking for years unless they came to like the slog. Sometimes it's bittersweet to reach the top, because there's nothing to do but linger for a while and go back down. This time, however, he wouldn't need to descend.

I'd started this exercise of exercising in an effort to try on a new identity, the way a high school boy might try on meanness, or a college boy might grow a goatee. But now, watching Dad, I realized what a solid thing an identity is. He was unchanged even by this catastrophe—he remained as decent and egoless a man as I'd ever met. As for me, I'd examined my core from a different side, or placed it under light of a different wavelength, and found it to be much as I'd always known it: curious, eager, tempted by deep commitment but afraid of the effort and pain.

I could live with that—it had served me well so far—but now I wondered if I could die with that. Wondered if I could go as gracefully as my father was going, as bravely and yet as peacefully. What would it be like to reach the end of my life without regrets?

Dad took one last trip into the hospital, for one last MRI. The tumor had fired up again, the doctors said, started once more to grow. Don't even bother calling the ambulance if something happens, they advised—you don't want them sticking a tube down his throat. Mom listened, asked Dad if he had anything to say.

He looked up, and in a clear, conver-sational tone announced, "I have this fascinating vision of a white line along the edge of a riverbank."

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