Coverage of last October’s Ironman World Championships from Kona was on NBC this past weekend. I think it is the only endurance event, that compares to what I experience in an ultra, which is covered and broadcast on National TV. Each year’s race is lovingly filmed and the story-lines are artfully crafted and reported – not only that of the elite athletes, but also the efforts of the average folks who participate (the “age-groupers,” as they’re known at the Ironman).
I consider these broadcasts extremely addictive, and get sucked in by them every time I catch a glimpse while flipping channels. No matter how many times I have seen each year’s 90 minute special, I watch it full through to the end and cry and bawl as each runner struggles, triumphs, or fails. They capture so very well what it is like for us "normal" people who take a shot at one of those ultra-endurance events, and I’ve been through all of it: The highs and the lows, the overwhelming heat, the solitude of the after-dark, the pressure of the clock, the failure of a DNF, and the deep, extraordinary satisfaction of a completed race.
There was a short segment at the beginning of coverage for the ’10 championship that focused on those “age-groupers” as they waited in the quiet morning before the race, sitting silently with solemn expressions, steeped in anticipation, trying to control anxiety. The camera lingers on them in half-time speed, the dim light of pre-dawn lining their huddled bodies with a distance glow, and the voiceover poses the question you can see on each of their faces: “Is this possible? Can I do this?”
It’s the question on my mind, too. No matter what you’ve done, no matter how you’ve prepared, you still have to go out and run that race, on that day, and sometime the distance, the course, the weather... sometimes they beat you. Sometimes it’s not possible. The image of the previously omnipotent Paula Radcliffe weeping in pain and frustration on the side of the road in Greece in 2004 is indelibly etched in my mind. Four years later, in China, Deena Kastor was felled by a broken foot just 3.5 miles into her marathon. In 2009, Scott Jurek DNF’d at the Western States 100 only 48 miles into the race – an event he not only finished by won 7 times in a row between 1999 and 2005 (he set the course record in 2004). His quote after the race? "I went to the well, and the well was just dry." And then, of course, there are my own, personal race failures from the last two years...
The fact of that question – Can I Do This? – was clear on those Age-Groupers faces in Kona, and it gave me goose bumps. It is always a legitimate question, and you won’t have to look too closely to see it on my face in the next two weeks, either.
But having the question in mind is one thing. Defining my own answer for it is something else. You know what answer I intend to submit.