If you want to experience all of the successes and pleasures of life... you need to be able to endure the pains and failures that come with it.
~ Mat Hoffman - Extreme Sport Enthusiast
If I were to ask you to think about the most grueling endurance events on the planet, you might name one of the following events (after a quick Google search perhaps):
- The Tour de France
- The Iditarod dogsled race
- Marathon des Sables
- Badwater Ultra Marathon
Now mind you each of these events is indeed an epic feat which will test the extents of human will and spirit.
France hosts what is arguably the toughest cycling stage-race competition, Le Tour de France each July.
The Tour de France consists of 21 day-long segments within a 23-day span covering some 2,100 miles by approximately 200 professional riders from 20 qualifying teams. And while the exact course changes from year-to-year, the overall distance typically remains constant.
A stage may consist of an individual time trial, a team time trial, or a longer mass start stage where a large group of riders (peloton) will travel together averaging 25-30 miles per hour over a 100-160 mile course, often through the steep French Alps or the Pyrenees Mountains.
In great contrast to the hot July summers in France, the Iditarod Dog Sled race is held annually in early March. The race is held on a 1,125 mile course between Anchorage and Nome Alaska. A race entry consists of one musher and a team of 16 dogs.
The race attracts some 50 teams who will brave sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds for a chance to win a $50,000 prize.
Between 12 and 16 specially bred Siberian Huskies pull a musher and sled over the course with a winning time of less than 9 days including mandatory stops and rest breaks.
If extreme running is more your style, then there are two events worth noting.
The Marathon des Sables is a six-day ultra-marathon held in the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco each April. The race is 156 miles which is the equivalent of six regular distance marathons.
The race is run in a stage format not unlike that of the Tour de France with the cumulative winning time of just under 21 hours for six days of racing.
Each of the 1,000 competitors must carry their own food and more importantly water with them during each stage where Saharan temperatures can easily reach triple digits.
Moroccan legendary ultra-marathoner, Lahcen Ahansal has won the race an incredible 10 times over its 25 year history, with his brother Mohammed winning 3 additional times.
If Morocco is a bit out of the way, then perhaps you should think about summering in California where each July, the Badwater ultra-marathon is held.
The race is by invitation only and pits the best 100 or so ultra-long-distance runners against one another and the extreme elements.
Runners begin in Death Valley at an elevation of -282 feet and typical July temperatures exceeding 120 degrees (as measured in the shade... not on the much hotter black asphalt).
The race ends in Whitney Portal, a small town nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at an elevation of 8,360 feet. The distance between the start and the end is 135 miles and the total elevation gain over the total course is over 13,000 feet.
Winners will finish the race in just under 34 hours with about 30-40% of the runners unable to reach the finish line.
Although all of the above races are testaments to the human spirit and sheer will, they all pale in comparison to what is arguably the toughest of all races, the Race Across America (RAAM).
RAAM is a 3,100 mile bicycle race from the Pacific Ocean in Oceanside, CA to the Atlantic Ocean in Annapolis, MD.
Unlike a stage race format like the Tour de France, RAAM utilizes a "continuous clock" format where there is only one beginning and one end point with the clock running all the time.
And while certain conditions of the ultra-marathons might be considered more extreme, those races are typically held in a stage format (running a bit each day) or are completed usually within a day and a half.
RAAM racers ride around the clock for 9-12 days straight, sleeping for only 1-2 hours each day (one REM cycle) before they are hoisted back on their bikes by crew members and sent back to the road.
The terrain varies from coastal mountains (~4,000’) to the scorching hot Mojave Desert, through the high deserts of Arizona, up and down the Rocky Mountains (~12,000’), through the humid heartland of Kansas, Missouri, and Indiana, into the Ohio Valley and over the Appalachian Mountains (~3,000’).
Over the entire course of the race, riders will have climbed (and descended) a total of close to 190,000’, burned more than 100K calories, and pedaled at an average speed of just over 15 miles per hour!!
Toward the end of the race, many of the racers will experience hallucinations, severe dehydration, joint swelling, saddle sores, complete numbness of their extremities and muscular failure (to a point where they are unable to keep their head propped up).
This past week, I went to Oceanside to watch the start of RAAM. For a great majority of the riders, this was not their first RAAM. Even after all of the great physical pain and mental anguish, these same racers have come back to do it all over again.
As I stood at the starting line watching one rider after another begin their journey, I wondered to myself, just what it was that drove them to push themselves to the absolute limits of human endurance.
I thought about all of the pain that they must suffer through and the sheer determination and will that drives them to ignore the pain and keep going... mile after mile...
There is nothing that will stop them from completing their mission...
...not the sleep deprivation
...not the mountains that they must scale
...not the scalding heat of the desert
...not the stifling humidity of the Midwest
They are solely focused on one thing... crossing the finish line.
Nothing else matters...
There are many times when I wish I had the mental make-up to ignore the pain... shut off the distractions... stop worrying about the multitudes of obstacles in front of me...
However... there are those times when I feel like quitting... giving up... taking the easy road...
...but it’s at those times when I conjure up images of those who have continued to push themselves... taken themselves to the limits...
I know at that point that I can take just one more step... do one more thing... try just that much harder...
It’s within us all to go that one more step...
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