Taking the challenge
(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reproduced by permission.)When I was a kid, especially around eight or nine years old, it seems there were plenty of times when I faced some form of a challenge, usually self-created.“I wonder if I can hit that sign with a rock from here?”When you live in a small town, and you’re so much the youngest brother that you’re basically an only child, you have to learn to play by yourself occasionally, and to invent your own fun.“I wonder if I can make a game involving throwing the football into the bushes in my backyard?” It worked: if the football stayed in the bush, it was a completed pass.Or, to go deeper into my nerdishness: “I wonder if I can draw and color a copy of that Fantastic Four comic-book cover?”Challenges are one of the ways in which we learn what we’re capable of. We ask ourselves ‘I wonder if?’ and then try to find out. The attempt, completed or not, adds to our knowledge of ourselves, our abilities, and the world through which we move.At the end of last July, I was struck by a whim: why not run or cycle every day in August? It wouldn’t have to be very high-mileage — just enough to make it count. So I took it on.And on August 1, I promptly forgot about it, remembering just in time to hop on my mountain-bike for my usual loop out Breakfield Road. After that day the chalenge went more smoothly. Other than one memorably-stormy day (which I described in my last column), I had fortunate weather and an agreeable calendar, and so I met the goal: running, mountain-biking, or road-biking every single day in the month of August.What did I gain from this project? Well, I didn’t know, on August 1st, whether I could do it. I found out that I could. It’s like, Can I hit that sign over there? It’s not an epic accomplishment; it’s just asking “Can I?” and going after the answer. Ping! Yes!Recently I learned that my nephew, totally coincidentally, had taken on his own challenge: to run 150 miles in 50 days. When he announced on Facebook that he’d succeeded, I was proud of him and glad that we had both sought out a means to push ourselves.As it turns out, one source of inspiration for both my nephew and me was ultra-athlete James Lawrence, known as the Iron Cowboy. Earlier this summer, he did 50 Ironman-distance triathlons in 50 states in 50 days. That’s swimming 2 miles, cycling 110, and running a full 26.2-mile marathon…every day for 50 days straight, each day in a different state. Lawrence has been known to tell interviewers that he wanted to find out what was possible.What challenges do is, they up your personal ante. They ratchet up your sense of what’s possible, what’s attainable. I ran/rode every day for a month; so maybe next time I can shoot for two months, or a year, or another month with higher daily mileage. Or instead of the favorable climate of August, try for every day in February. Foggy, gloomy, 32.5 degrees-and-misting February.Whatever the next challenge might be, it will be another answer to the question, I wonder if I can?