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

Bill McKibben

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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.

THE MORE I TRAINED, and especially the more I began to race, the more I understood that my mind needed toughening at least as much as my body—that endurance was about going until it hurt, when the natural impulse was to slow down, and then deciding whether to listen to that impulse or not. Not long after my golf date with Dad, I went off to Australia, which has the planet’s best August snow, eager to test out my hepped-up lungs. I’ll never forget the morning of the Paddy Pallin Classic, a 25-kilometer race through the twisted snow gums and eucalyptus trees on the shoulder of 7,310-foot Mount Kosciusko, the continent’s highest peak. I remember exactly how good it felt when the gun went off, how I bounded up the hills on my new legs, how I fantasized about catching the wave of skiers who had started five minutes before me—and how immediately I lost all that sweet focus at the first real sign of adversity. A racer came blowing by me, my chest tightened, and suddenly I was just plodding along, concentration gone. I still had some work to do.

But there’d been enough glimpses of transformation—races where for a few minutes I’d drop into the inescapable now of competition—to keep me going. When I came back from Australia, I began the longest, hardest month of my training schedule, an endless September that peaked one Saturday morning with a 238-minute run. My parents were visiting our Adirondack home, and they offered to watch my six-year-old daughter, Sophie, while I worked out. I ran and ran and ran some more, finally stumble-charging up the last rise, congratulating myself that from now on the whole year was downhill. I was peeling off my T-shirt and savoring the smug aura of finishing something hard when I noticed Dad. He was about a hundred yards away from Mom, walking back and forth, and he was lurching a bit. “He’s testing himself,” she said, with a frantic edge in her voice.

Slowly the story started to come out. In August he’d been hiking hard in the Cascades, feeling fine. But when he got home he’d begun stumbling a bit—and once fell right over. Some days, Mom added, he slurred his words. Dad had chalked it up to the late-summer humidity, or perhaps a sinus infection, and had rallied (and reassured) himself by walking faster, working up a sweat. But when I took him aside that afternoon he confessed that his right side felt weak. Could I have had a small stroke? he asked me. As soon as he said it, I felt myself starting to panic—it had never even entered my mind that at 68 he’d start to decline. But I knew it must be true; it would explain the balance, the speech, even a few recent mild displays of uncharacteristic temper.

I bade my parents good-bye with a sour taste in the back of my throat. The next day Dad phoned from home in Boston to say that his doctor was convinced that indeed he’d had a very mild stroke. He’d scheduled an MRI for later in the week just to make sure, but he told Mom and Dad to go ahead planning a trip to Mexico; I could tell from his voice that Dad was immensely relieved.

And I was too. I spent a little time thinking about the Meaning of It All—how your body would eventually betray you no matter how fit you got—and then I went back to work, because racing season was coming into distant view. The weather began to change; a front came through one of those early autumn nights, dropping temperatures down into the low thirties, threatening the tomatoes. The weatherman talked about “the possibility of sleet or snow on the high ridges.” The S word hadn’t been heard in these parts since early May, and it made me quiver inside.

I started stacking firewood in earnest that week, and while I was working Friday afternoon I looked up to see our dog, Barley, trotting toward me with something in her mouth. At first I thought it was a shoe, but when she dropped it for me I saw it was a hawk—dead, but utterly unmarked, a broad-wing, all strength and sinew. Sophie and I spread its strong, gray feathers, examined its powerful beak and talons, and then wrapped it in plastic and put it in the freezer so that she could take it to school. I went back to the woodpile.

When I looked up a few minutes later, Sue was standing there in the fading light with tears running down her cheeks. My mom had just called. Dad had a brain tumor, “an aggressive nonbenign tumor.” They were operating on Tuesday. Just like that.

I hugged her for a long time, and then headed straight out into the woods, cursing and crying and carrying on. Mom said the doctor had told them that even with the operation “the long-term average survival” was 12 months, which put a new spin on the whole idea of long-term. For me, 12 months was a “training cycle.” I was still sobbing when Dad came on the phone. “This is ridiculous, isn’t it?” he said with a rueful chuckle. He’d been shaving when I called, and for some reason that made me even sadder. How do you manage to look in the mirror when someone has just told you that in a year you won’t be there?

A couple of weeks before, I’d visited some actuarial Web site that let you calculate your likely life span. Didn’t smoke, long-lived relatives, plenty of exercise, low cholesterol—when I tapped the final button it told me I was going to die at 93. I’m certain that Dad would have gotten the same result. He was strong and active; he’d just written his first book. But there was no little button on the actuarial table for something called glioblastoma, the most virulent form of brain cancer.

When we got to Boston the next day, the change was obvious. Six days earlier his speech had been a little slurred. Three days earlier he’d driven to church and chaired a meeting. Today, Saturday, his triumph had been walking the 20 yards to the Adirondack chairs in the backyard. His world was shrinking with incomprehensible speed. He told us about finding out the bad news: The surgeon had pronounced his death sentence, and then said he should choose. “I could get a big bottle of Scotch and have a wonderful last night before going into a coma, or I could have this surgery and that would keep me going a little longer.”

THE NIGHT BEFORE Dad went to the hospital, as I was taking off his slippers to put him to bed, I could see the hard, veiny calves that only a month ago were powering him up high mountains in his native Northwest. They were useless now. Was he useless? What did it mean to lose your body in a week? And what would it mean, 24 hours hence, to lose some large chunk of your mind?

That next morning, at the hospital, Dad passed into another, yet-smaller world, where his abilities meant nothing. When the surgeon finally came for his pre-op visit, Dad asked only one question: “Will my personality change?”

“I hope not,” the doctor said.

We watched as they wheeled him out of his room to the operating theater. It was after lunch before the doctor appeared to give us the news. Dad had come through surgery OK, but the pathology was exactly what he suspected: glioblastoma, grade four. The worst grade. He couldn’t get it all, it had already spread to both lobes. Sorry. The next few months, the doctor said, would be “the good time,” a phrase that would come to haunt us.

When they finally let us up to see him, Dad looked…beautiful. A turban of bandages wrapped his head, but beneath it his face was eerily young, as if he were in his twenties. The sparkle was back in his eyes. When we turned on the TV the Red Sox were leading the Indians in game one of their playoff series behind seven RBIs from Mo Vaughn. Dad was making jokes—he whose head had been sawed open and then the two halves pulled apart by traction. This much was clear: His personality had not changed, not one whit. Doubtless it would darken when the tumor recurred, when the swelling built up again. The hope, though, was that we’d bought ourselves a few months, a window of time to make peace with his passing. Nothing more.

And so we settled into the pattern of small victories and somewhat larger defeats that must mark most terminal illness. They shifted Dad to a “rehabilitation hospital” in the suburbs, where after daily morning trips by ambulance to the radiation ward he would return for afternoons of physical therapy. The therapy rooms reminded me of the world where I’d spent much of the last year—they were filled with weight machines, parallel bars, treadmills. But here, in place of the ersatz philosophy of the gym, real struggle prevailed. Dad’s workouts, as tightly scheduled and as exhausting as mine, involved batting a balloon back and forth with the therapist, folding washcloths, unscrewing a jar top, kicking a ball. He could swing his right foot perhaps an inch, enough to nudge the ball along the floor, but no more. When he tried to steer his wheelchair, it inevitably drifted to the right till he hit a wall, reflecting the now-distorted architecture of his brain. His major triumph: learning to apply and disengage the wheelchair brake.

Through it all I kept running. I suppose I should have stopped, if only because it seemed in such poor taste, calibrating my body’s improvement as Dad’s withered away. But Dad had been the most interested in my project from the beginning. And there was nothing else to structure my life. No one expected me at an office. I was commuting between the Adirondacks and Boston, between my adult and boyhood homes (I was sleeping on the bed I’d slept on as a boy, the same bed Dad had slept on in his youth). There was no way I could write—when I tried to still my mind enough to string two thoughts together, I invariably began to weep. Only motion seemed to relax me.

I’d begun this compulsive exercising on the premise that I was at the tail end of my youth. Now it was all too easy to calculate that if I lived as long as my father was going to, I was already halfway used up. But I could feel the second half of my life starting in more complicated ways too. Identities long fixed shifted back and forth. Sometimes I was still his son. But then the next morning would dawn, and we’d need yet again to make some impossible decision: more radiation, say. Dad would doze off while the doctor was explaining the options, and we’d be left trying to figure out what he might want, what we might want. The goal of all the physical therapy diminished. Instead of teaching him to regain real function in his muscles, the single aim became training him to help in the process of transferring himself from bed to wheelchair, and vice versa. If he learned that, he could go home and Mom could take care of him by herself. The technique, as detailed and precise as a good cross-country skiing kick, involved lifting his butt an inch up off the bed and then sliding himself in two stages about a foot and a half into the wheelchair. He would push himself up on his knuckles, slide ten inches, rest 30 seconds till the panting subsided, then make the next assault. Each time he’d forget the sequence and need to be reminded; each time it left him red-faced and tired.

All this training, and for what? It wasn’t like my training. I knew I was getting steadily stronger and fitter. Not Dad. He worked all afternoon stretching his rubber bands, lifting his tiny dumbbells, and yet his body decayed faster than he could build it up.

I went in to the rehab center one morning and found him in an uncharacteristic rage. Some doctor had wandered through that morning (one of the glories of managed care was that unknown doctors constantly drifted in and out of our lives) and remarked to him, on the basis of a handshake, that he was getting weaker. Dad was outraged, agitated. He didn’t want to go to therapy that afternoon, but I talked him into it.

You followed your schedule no matter what; sometimes that seemed about all my year had taught me.

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?

WE MADE IT TO THANKSGIVING, and I spent the week in West Yellowstone—my longest absence from his bedside so far, a guilty vacation—at the annual cross-country training camp that fills the town with gaunt, wax-obsessed nordic racers trying to cope with the 6,600-foot altitude. I flew home on Friday, though, for a delayed turkey dinner, where we managed to convince ourselves that we had much to be thankful for and that, with Dad propped up at table’s end, all was joy. After the pie settled, I went for a run and instantly understood why athletes are so eager to train at altitude. My body had compensated for the thin Montana air by adding extra red blood cells. I ran through suburban Boston on a high—no matter how hard I pushed, I couldn’t make myself hurt. My heart-rate monitor showed I was working reasonably hard, but I could have been out for the lightest of jogs. I felt out ahead of my body, as if I was outrunning my feet.

Sadly, the corpuscles quickly disappeared, and with them the sense that I had become a minor deity. Worse than that, the East was still warm and bare as December began. The temperature hit the seventies on the first of the month. The pond by our house was filled with summery ripples. No need for the woodstove; we slept with the windows open.

It bothered me on many levels. For ten years I’d been a nearly full-time student of global warming—worrying, tracking the rising sea temperatures that were bleaching coral reefs, writing about the increase in the strength and frequency of hurricanes. But I felt it most personally come winter. Always my favorite of seasons, it had become deeply unreliable. As the man from Fischer Skis had told me in West Yellowstone, global warming had already damaged their business, interrupting every winter with long stretches of mud and thaw. Business would doubtless carry on; in fact, I’d just come across a series of economic forecasts proving, in the smug fashion of economists, that increases in the greens fees from golfers would outweigh the losses from declining ski sales. But I didn’t want to play golf—I wanted to speed sublimely through the woods, riding on an outstretched ski, pushing with every muscle in my body. I wanted the annual remission from friction.

Rob had been pushing me to pick a final race to aim for, something grand enough to be worthy of this whole experiment—and he’d been urging me to think about the Norwegian Birkebeiner, the mother of all cross-country races, held each March on a course that runs over the mountains from Rena to Lillehammer. Open to all comers, it attracts thousands of Norwegians, and most of the world’s best marathon skiers. As they race, they commemorate the pivotal event in Norway’s 13th-century civil war. The Birkebeiners—Birchleggers—were the underdogs, “often in such dire need that they had nothing but the bark of birch trees as footwear.” But they were determined that the rival faction, the Baglers, not capture Haakon Haakonsson, the toddler son of their dying king. So on Christmas Day 1205, two Birkebeiner skiers spirited him away on an epic journey across the mountains. The boy grew up to be King Haakon and to finally rout the Baglers, raising Norway to its medieval glory. And hence, each year in late March, racers pound those same grueling 58 kilometers, about 40 miles, mostly uphill, each carrying an eight-pound pack to match the weight of the young king.

I doubted I could go. With Dad dying, the prospect of a trans-atlantic trip seemed unlikely. And I wondered if I could even finish the race. But I still logged onto the race Web site and clicked the button for an application. Maybe Dad would get better for a while—maybe the “good time” would arrive. I knew I wanted to go; it sounded crazy, hard enough to justify this crazy year.

This crazy year in which winter seemed never to come. By mid-December we’d set up the Christmas tree at church and gone caroling in shirtsleeves. Finally, December 17 brought a little snow to the Adirondacks, and a few phone calls established that the Olympic trails at Lake Placid were partially open. They were barely covered, but it was skiing, and I kicked around and around the same short loops with the junior biathletes, guns strapped to their backs, and the local masters skiers, all of us desperate for snow. The next day warm, foggy air melted big tawny patches in the snow, and it was back to the damn NordicTrack. December was shot.

We got through Christmas Day in Boston just fine—a lot of the ornaments hung at wheelchair height, testament to Dad’s pleasure in the work—but then, tired from the strain of this last big celebration, Dad was all but comatose for a couple of days. “Were it my dad,” said the surgeon, “I wouldn’t do much more.”

At which point Dad emerged from his fog for the first time all day to ask yet again that he be treated “aggressively.” Which annoyed the hell out of me—some part of me wanted him to go away and stop bothering us. Stop making me feel guilty for not being more help to my mother; stop pulling me away from my family; stop stop stop being so damn needy, so unlike my father. Which, of course, left me feeling twice as guilty as before.

A snowstorm might have righted me. It usually does. A couple of hours alone in the woods, gliding along, pushing up hills and carving down them, breaking out into the open on Adirondack lakes and tucking back into stands of hemlock, reminding me of the proper order and scale of things.

BY LATE JANUARY THE GROUND was still bare, and Dad was setting off on a major journey. Each day he seemed to grow a bit more abstracted from his shrinking world. He was never short with any of us. If his grandchildren were on hand, he would watch them playing around his bed with deep delight, and he never ceased following Mom with his eyes.

Sometimes the world he was visiting seemed inscrutable. Once I asked him what he was thinking so deeply about, and he replied, in a loud voice, “Insects!” But he did tell Mom several times that he constantly saw a white line in front of his eyes. One morning, when he was more alert than usual and when we had the house to ourselves, I asked him if he could describe the line to me. He asked for a pencil and, gripping it tightly in his shaking hand, drew a wavering line about two-thirds of the way across the page and labeled it R. On the edge of the paper, he drew a wavering circle and with great effort wrote “W. Ocean” across it. (In a lifetime of writing, they were the last words he ever wrote.) The picture represented, he said, a “typical Western river” leading to a “Western ocean.”

“And what does that ocean mean?” I asked.

“Infinity,” he said. “Completeness.”

He nodded off for a few moments and then woke back up. Why didn’t the river connect to the ocean? I asked.

There were, he said, necessary tasks still to be done, but he couldn’t find the words to say what they were.

“Is death more scary to think about or more peaceful?” I asked.

“More peaceful,” he said emphatically, and then drifted back to sleep.

That night at dinner he seemed happy—we’d been discussing “ultimate truths,” he told Mom, with just a little smile to let us know he knew how unlike him it was to discuss ultimate truths. But a new man was clearly taking shape before our eyes.

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.”

SO THERE WAS DAD, cheerful in the face of a brain tumor. And here I was, gloomy because I’d caught a cold two days before the big race in Ottawa, and was reduced to obsessively guzzling tea, sucking on zinc tablets, and fretting about compromised respiratory efficiency. But on race morning I was up at 5:45, and I was the first to arrive at Gatineau Park. I splurged $30 at the ski-waxing booth and watched the ski techs patiently iron on purple and red and then a coat of klister because the tracks were icy. I took my skis outside, tried them for a few strides, and instantly felt my mood soaring—I had rock-solid kick and lustrous glide. They felt like perfect extensions of my legs, each twitch converted into forward momentum.

The starting pen for my wave filled with other backpack-carrying skiers, about 40 of us among the hundreds of more conventional racers. An official weighed the rucksacks, making sure they topped the infant-king-Haakon line on the scale. We shuffled back and forth in the tracks for a few minutes, trying to stay limber, until the Norwegian ambassador to Canada sounded the ceremonial horn and we took off.

Because of the packs, it was easy enough to keep my competition in sight. We hit the first long uphill, and my legs felt so strong I had to consciously rein myself in a little, remind myself I’d be out on the course for a good three hours. One by one I picked off the guys in my wave—a fellow carrying a blaze-orange knapsack, a fellow in camouflage Lycra, a fast-looking skier who somehow managed to fall on the first small downhill. Twenty minutes into the race, a fellow in a brown rucksack was in front of me, and I was pretty sure he was either second or third in my wave—in other words, if I passed him I’d be in the money. I stayed on his tail for a few minutes, pulling abreast occasionally, even chatting for a while to let him know the pace wasn’t hurting me. And I passed him.

After that I was skiing by myself. The hills just kept on coming, and my form began gradually to erode; by the halfway point I was laboring. I stopped for a drink of water and a ClifShot, and the people manning the table seemed concerned. “You’re shivering,” said one. “Are you hypothermic?” Before they could ask again, I skied off.

At some point along the course, a photographer crouched, taking pictures of everyone coming by so that he could try to sell them at the banquet that night. Through his lens, I was just one more tired-looking guy stuck somewhere in the middle of an unimportant race. And yet for me it was an epic. I crouched down in my tuck and let my muscles recover for a few minutes as the trail tilted downhill. Then came a long flat. Finally, at about 40 kilometers, the trail turned back on itself, and for about 500 yards you could see the skiers right behind you. Oh, God—one had a brown backpack, the same fellow I’d passed nearly two hours before, now right on my tail, maybe 40 seconds behind. Worse, my limbs were slowing down—I couldn’t muster more than a sluggish kick. I could feel myself about to give up, about to be passed, about to turn normal.

And then I didn’t. I made it up one hill and coasted down the other side; after that, though I was shaky and absolutely drained, I managed to go hard. Not fast. But fast enough, because I was still passing people. Fast enough, because every time I looked over my shoulder, the tracks were clear. Eventually there was a sign by the trail and it said: “Finish 1,000 Meters.” Did a thousand meters mean a kilometer? Ten kilometers? My hypoxic brain fuzzed the question around until suddenly the trail spit out onto an open field, and the finish was only a few hundred good old English yards away. I sprinted, I fell across the line, someone picked me up and wrapped a wool blanket around me. They said I’d come in second in my wave.

MY FATHER’S RACE finished on March 3. Though his sickness had lasted barely six months, half the impossibly short “long-term average survival” the doctors had given us at the start, he had endured. He’d kept going.

I had spent a year thinking about endurance. Trying to understand it as a function of physiology, of lactic acid and capillary networks. Trying to understand it as the ability to fight through the drama of pain. But now I understood it, too, as a kind of elegance, a lightness that could come only from such deep comfort with yourself that you began to forget about yourself. Something no heart monitor would ever measure.

Dad died in time to let me go to Norway for the Birkebeiner. Once I’d thought that this would be the epic end of my saga, but now I knew that whatever epiphanies I’d been allotted had come at the edge of his sickbed. Now there was just the pleasure of enduring in a great crowd of others doing the same—old men, some of them 80 and 85, a little stiff in their Lycra, but still elegant. They’d been skiing these hills 50 years ago, tracking down Allied airdrops in the woods, and they did so still, for the sheer joy of it.

The course was brutal as advertised, and I was in no danger of letting loose another epic performance. But never mind. I went deep inside, kept track of my weakening calves and my tightening chest, measured my resources against the distance left to go. And it all came out just fine—a little over four hours of hard skiing, ending with a series of sharp downhills into the Olympic stadium filled with brass bands and cheering crowds. I finished just above the middle of my age group, which I declared a great victory, considering they were all Norwegians. But I took my conquest as quietly as everyone else—there was no whooping or hollering on the bus to the showers, just satisfied and tired smiles. The year was over, and it was time for a smoked salmon pizza and a bottle of Ringnes and some Tiger Balm to rub on my aching thighs.

The next morning dawned clear and cold, and Sue and Sophie and I went for another ski. And for the first time in along time, it meant nothing at all.

Longtime contributor Bill McKibben is the author of Hope, Human and Wild, among other books. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, which will be published next month by Simon & Schuster.

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