So What Did You Do Today?

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Outside magazine, May 1997

So What Did You Do Today?

Seven extraordinary reasons to start getting up a little earlier in the morning
By Paul Kvinta

You’ve trained 12 grueling months for your first marathon, only to have a guy with the stride of a Thomson’s gazelle leave you hacking in his dust. Frustrating, certainly, but tolerable. What’s utterly unacceptable, though, is learning that this fellow runs simply to keep in shape for the sports he’s “serious” about (transarctic snowshoeing, say), that he plays first viola for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and that he’s translating Beowulf into seven Mayan dialects. Oh, and he raises millions of dollars annually for children with incurable diseases. What’s worse, you can’t even get up the bile to hate this maddeningly proficient Renaissance person. He’s nice, unassuming, thoroughly likable. And you’ve been noticing more of his kind lately: folks like the seven lauded here, who not only succeed ridiculously in their outdoor pursuits, careers, and virtually everything else, but do so with good humor and bona fide humility. It’s not them you want to ship to Singapore for a caning — it’s you. Maybe what they’ve got is catching.

James Martinez
Olympic rower, fluid mechanics engineer, modern-day Johnny Appleseed

“I’m not doing anything that unusual with my life,” insists James Martinez. “It’s just simple stuff, things that everyone could really be doing.”

Point well taken, though few of us seem likely to go to the same lengths as Martinez. After all, the 32-year-old from Newport Beach, California, holds a degree in fluid mechanics engineering from Stanford. He spent seven years helping launch satellites for Nichols Research Corporation. And since 1994, he’s consistently dominated the American lightweight single-sculls division, winning four national titles and a slew of gold and silver medals in international events. In fact, so smooth is his stroke that the 160-pounder — not deterred by the fact that the Olympics excludes lightweight rowing events — earned a spot on the U.S. team by taking second place in open competition at last year’s trials.

Martinez abandoned his heady career track in 1995, opting instead for a more down-to-earth field: He now teaches kindergarten through eighth-grade science at Our Lady Queen of Angels. It seems he decided he could make a greater impact by molding the environmentalists of the future, preaching the green gospel as faculty adviser to the school’s Saint Francis Earth Club. And this month he has a special treat in store for his students: He plans to break the world 30-minute distance record on a rowing machine, in class, to demonstrate the practical side of his life’s great passion. “I’m trying to teach them all I know about using energy efficiently,” he explains.

In fact, it’s just this sort of ecological leadership-by-example that has become the central tenet of Martinez’s life. He so disdains motorized transport that whenever he is “forced” to set foot in a car, train, or airplane — he exclusively rides his bike around town and chooses the more energy-efficient Amtrak over airlines when traveling domestically — he employs a tortuous formula to determine how many trees he needs to put into the ground to offset the carbon dioxide produced. “I’m 190 trees behind,” Martinez laments. “There’s really no excuse.” He is also working on a device that will allow him to power the lights in his home with a rowing machine, which he intends to market with the help of rowing-machine manufacturer Concept II.

All of which tends to make his peers shake their heads and smile. “He’s obsessive, all right,” says training partner John Cullicott, noting that Martinez “adopted” a half-acre along Georgia’s Savannah River during training for the Games. “He was constantly planting trees, and he had the rest of us out there cleaning up trash.”

Mark Pfetzer

High-Altitude Climber, Karate Black Belt, aspiring doctor, High School Senior

When Mark Pfetzer sets out to climb one of the world’s highest peaks, there’s a key difference between him and the rest of the alpinists on the mountain:

The other climbers’ mothers aren’t in base camp dogging them to do homework. “He wants to be a doctor,” explains Chris Pfetzer, almost apologetically. “He needs to make A’s.”

At 17, Pfetzer’s list of extracurricular activities doesn’t read like that of a typical high school senior. Two seasons ago he became the youngest person to summit Nepal’s 22,493-foot Ama Dablam, and a year later he topped Tibet’s 26,749-foot Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest mountain. Only last May’s infamous storm stopped him from finishing Everest (he was at Camp Four on the South Col route when the disaster unfolded). Pfetzer pumps iron every day except Sunday, runs three miles in the morning and ten at night, and does 1,000 sit-ups before bed. He earned his black belt in karate at age 11, a reputation for expert fly-fishing and fly-tying at 13, and his emergency medical training certificate at 14. An honors student at Rhode Island’s Middletown High, he was recently nominated to attend the 1997 National Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine in Washington, D.C. As Pfetzer succinctly puts it, “It’s nothing, really.”

As for his climbing, veteran guide Alan Burgess, who summited Ama Dablam with Pfetzer, bestows highest praise: “He has a climber’s head. He thinks.” Adds ESPN anchor Chris Fowler, who became a climbing buddy of Pfetzer’s after reporting on his exploits for the cable network’s Scholastic Sports America program, “Mark doesn’t take risks. He’s the safest guy around.”

Given his accomplishments, the one truly irritating thing about Pfetzer is his demeanor: He’s a swell kid. After befriending a Sherpa on Everest, Pfetzer invited him to Rhode Island for several weeks to practice English. And after his father was diagnosed with cancer last May, Pfetzer informed his audience at a slide show that he’ll be putting his alpine aspirations on hold. “It’s time to be a son now,” he said. “Not a climber.”

Marla Streb

Mountain biker, molecular biologist, classical pianist

“I’m trying to ease up, but my training tends to be very structured,” says professional downhiller Marla Streb. “It’s a holdover from my days in the lab. I had to be methodical and perfect all the time.” Streb is referring to the long hours she spent elbow-deep in brain tissue at the Scripps Research Institute near San Diego, doing her part in the fight to find a cure for one of humanity’s most lethal diseases. “Marla helped develop some very novel protocols to isolate AIDS-infected cells out of the brain,” says Scripps biologist Howard Fox. “This process has become very useful in studying dementia caused by AIDS.”

Burned out after three years of nurturing fuzz in a petri dish, Streb, 31, temporarily shelved her AIDS investigations two years ago. Which, her friends say, seems to have signaled not a change in careers, but simply a shift in research priorities. “Have you seen her training logs?” wonders fellow fat-tire racer Jeff Bicknell. “They’re unbelievable — pie charts, bar graphs, statistics. She’s a walking science experiment.” Along with recording virtually every bead of her own sweat, Streb’s “lab books” also document some impressive empirical results: a top-ten ranking internationally, champion of the 1996 Downhill Mania series, and a second-place finish in ESPN’s Winter X Games, where she topped 70 mph on a snow-covered course. And though no longer trying to outwit microscopic life forms, Streb certainly still puts her deductive-reasoning skills to use. When a spate of wipeouts prompted her to investigate the problem, for instance, she produced the following analysis: “After crashing, I’d get back on my bike pissed off and finish perfectly. I figured I simply needed to get the crash over with earlier.” Her solution? Just before a race, Streb hurls herself headlong into a tree. “Kinda weird,” she notes.

Well, yes, but really no stranger than, say, a downhill mountain biker who’s also a piano virtuoso. “I’d heard she played,” recalls former Marin Racing teammate Lisa Sher. “But we were sitting around in a hotel once, and Marla busts out with this complex piece of Chopin or something. It blew me away.” To keep her training “adventurous,” Streb, who studied classical piano at the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore for 12 years, pedals back roads beneath full moons and sneaks into churches to play. “Usually no one minds,” she says. “Unless I play some really loud Rachmaninoff and wake someone up.”

Neal Beidleman

Mountaineer, champion ultramarathoner, aerospace engineer

“Honestly, I’ve always thought he was a better cyclist than anything else,” says triathlete Dennis Coombs of Neal Beidleman. “No one is better on steep climbs. He could have been incredible.”

A frightening thought, to be sure, since Coombs is basically arguing that Beidleman — a 37-year-old rocket scientist (yes, we mean that literally) from Aspen who has summited two of the world’s five tallest peaks, won seven ultramarathons, and was a top slalom skier at the University of Colorado — hasn’t taken full advantage of his athletic prowess. “Seriously,” insists Coombs. “The year I qualified for the Ironman, Neal smoked me on the hardest climb. And the guy doesn’t even really ride.”

Talk to anyone who knows Beidleman about his talents in any mountain sport, and adjectives like graceful and elegant spew endlessly forth. And the same words have been used to describe his photography — a mere hobby, mind you — which has appeared in numerous national magazines, including a cover of Life. What’s worse, Beidleman is universally well liked for his soft-spoken, self-effacing nature. “I’m fortunate to be from a place as incredible as Colorado,” he says, straight-faced. “If I’d grown up in inner-city Detroit, I couldn’t have done any of this.”

Right. Anyway, though Beidleman spends 35 hours a week as a consultant and subcontractor to a number of aerospace firms, creating “autonomous sun-tracking solar array drives” and managing “spacecraft electrical power subsystems” used by NASA, he still finds time to pursue offbeat athletic events with his pals. In 1995, he and a friend biked 30 miles from Aspen to the trailhead of Capitol Peak (14,150 feet), ran 11 miles to the mountain’s base, climbed the Northwest Face, and returned the same way, all in 11 hours. His climbing rësumë describes — in his typically understated, ain’t-no-thing style — a similar challenge on Nepal’s 27,824-foot Makalu in 1994: “Tried speed ascent of mountain, climbing from base camp to high camp (8,500 vertical feet) in 11 hours, reaching summit in 45 hours. Missed 24-hour goal due to strong winds that destroyed Camp III.”

Peter Skinner

Whitewater paddler, scientist, environmental watchdog

To get a feel for the impact Peter Skinner has made professionally, all you need to know is that as a scientist in the environmental bureau of the New York attorney general’s office, he played a major role in prosecuting the most high-profile toxic-dumping case in world history: Love Canal. But to really understand the perpetual, do-gooder motion that defines him, take a look at his schedule over a recent weekend. After stuffing his van with kayaks and computers, the 50-year-old raced 14 hours from Albany to Summersville, West Virginia, for the annual Gauley River Festival, where — in addition to acing the Class V rapids — he managed the 3,000-person gathering’s gate receipts, oversaw a squad of volunteers, and raised $30,000 for river conservation projects. Then he motored 15 hours to Saratoga, New York, where he unveiled a new computer model that calculates the effects of a proposed dam on each of the Sacandaga River’s various user groups. By Tuesday he was back at his desk, fighting to maintain a consistent flow of water through Niagara Falls.

Skinner’s devotion to the nation’s whitewater started humbly enough, during what he now terms his “self-indulgent river-runner years.” After graduating from Lehigh University in 1970, he quickly developed a reputation for plunging fearlessly into the maw of ferocious rapids, collecting first descents on rivers everywhere from the Moose River in upstate New York to Chile’s Bìo Bìo. Since then, he has given most of his spare time to various river conservation projects. In 1984, for example, he obtained $10,000 from Patagonia to save the then-penniless American Whitewater Affiliation. Infused with this cash, Skinner was able to attract thousands of new members to AWA and launch dozens of river initiatives nationwide — on more than one occasion kayaking over a waterfall to prove to a judge that a given river is runnable and thus should be spared from the hydroelectric menace. “I don’t think what I do is particularly special,” Skinner says. “It’s just that when an idea comes to me, I feel compelled to get other people as excited about it as I am.” Says former New York Attorney General Bob Abrams, who used the evidence unearthed by Skinner to win $128.5 million in civil damages from Hooker Chemicals and Plastics in the Love Canal case, “Along with being incredibly smart, Peter’s a unique spark plug who completely energizes his colleagues. He bursts with enthusiasm.”

That may be, but he’s got to have at least one flaw, right? Sure, says the person who should know best — his wife. “He just can’t sit still,” sighs Bonnie Skinner, sitting in the 1890s farmhouse that her husband, naturally, refurbished himself. “I mean, he plants a half-acre of corn every summer. Do we need a half-acre of corn? No, we don’t.”

Barbara Warren and Angelika Castaneda

Endurance athletes, movie stars, entrepreneurs, identical twins

If Don Mann had any reservations about selecting 54-year-old Angelika Castaneda as the requisite female member of his Raid Gauloises team last January, they vanished soon after the two first talked. “I knew I’d like her when she said she wouldn’t need much food because her body would start eating itself,” recalls Mann, one of three Navy SEALs on the five-person squad. “She knew more about this stuff than any of us.”

High praise, coming from a SEAL. Of course, Mann might have done well to jettison another Seal in favor of Castaneda’s twin sister, Barbara Warren. Over the last 13 years, the two have scorched the ultraendurance racing world, finishing one-two at the Triple Ironman Triathlon in France (421 miles in 46 hours), tying for first twice at the Badwater 146 (from Death Valley to the 8,800-foot mark on Mount Whitney), and taking second and third in the Marathon des Sables (across the Sahara on foot in seven days). Each has finished more than 150 distance events, and it’s not uncommon for them to complete ten Ironman-length triathlons a year.

“We seek out a challenge, explore it fully, and move on,” Castaneda notes, by way of explaining the sisters’ athletic rësumës. In fact, the same could be said of their diverse yet successful professional lives. Born in Austria, the lithe, platinum-haired siblings — who both speak four languages — moved to Florence in their twenties, studying art at the Academia Di Belli Arti while also working as runway models for Christian Dior and Oscar de la Renta. Then they moved to Mexico, where Warren starred in 25 feature films and Castaneda did battle with sharks as a diver in 18 undersea documentaries (and served as Farrah Fawcett’s aquatic stunt-double in Sunburn). The two also started families (Barbara has two grown girls; Angelika, two teenage boys), opened a chain of boutiques, designed their own clothing line, and choreographed fashion shows before “fleeing public life” and moving to southern California in the early 1980s.

The twins now devote much of their energy to, well, nearly killing themselves, but still manage to squeeze in careers. Warren runs a thriving psychology practice in La Jolla — in 1978 she somehow found time to earn a Ph.D. — while Castaneda is now a motivational speaker with a sideline developing and testing bicycle components for San Diego-based Novator. What keeps them going at a breakneck pace, at an age when most begin to contemplate retirement? “Constant curiosity,” says Castaneda. “We went as far as possible with the modeling and the diving and the films. And we will definitely go on to something else after the sports.”

Photographs by Michael Llewellyn, Kent Barker, Norman Jean Roy, Stefan Ruiz, Greg Betz, Craig Cameron Olsen

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