Monday, February 4, 2013
5:53 AM | Edit Post
Inevitably, I wrangled my way through the frustrations and back onto my bike. I rode home and wrote the preceding entries. I don't believe I've come to any conclusions that are of any value to anyone beyond myself. Perhaps there aren't any, and even if there are they wouldn't feel authentic to someone until they arrived at them in such a way that was so personal they wouldn't conceive of them as extending beyond themselves. At any rate, this is what I believe.
When I look at people like Bruce Lee, Nikola Tesla and Ernest Shackleton, I see greatness. I believe that people can be good, and therefore great, at all kinds of things, from kung fu to chess to flying squirreling. I believe that, beyond a certain limit, a person cannot be "good"-- let alone great-- at things. I don't believe that limit is defined by miles or minutes or any other metric. It's the intangible precipice of the human condition. I can't measure the edge of that frontier. I have had life experiences that have allowed me to put my toes over the cliff and watch the pebbles crumble and hurtle down into the endless abyss beyond. But it's a ragged edge. From wherever you stand, it's not an equidistant journey out there.
I believe the Ultraman champions achieve greatness. That race is within the sphere of humanity. I don't believe Ernest Shackleton did, though. His ordeal of Endurance depended as much on the currents and winds as his own human strength. In the same way I think that the RAAM champions are unable to achieve greatness. Once you commend your fate to forces you cannot even conceive, let alone plan for, you are in a battle for survival. To survive is noble, but there is nothing noble in casting one's own life into circumstances that challenge our survival. It's not enough to survive. You have to be worthy of survival. The greats show us a far more important dimension of our humanity than its edges. They lead us to new heights. I believe that's the essence of why they're so free from our expectations. They're not connected to the edges. They're climbing, and the first rule of climbing is to never look down.
Therein lies the longitude and latitude of accomplishment, I think. We all do things in our life that are dangerous and even threatening to our mortality. What starts as a dare winds up as a harrowing revelation. We seek thrills and find wisdom. That's the "spiritual epiphany" I think everyone gets out of extreme endurance events, or rock climbing, or full-contact fighting. Your life flashes before your eyes, and suddenly you can see the curvature of your existence like an astronaut breaking through the atmosphere. I think a lot of people walk away from those moments saying to themselves there's got to be more to it than just that. You know the breadth. You become curious about the height.
I will never be one of the greats of ultra-distance bike racing, or any kind of bike racing for that matter. I am sufficiently happy to do 35mph on the straights through the Arizona desert. I take no pleasure or wisdom from bombing down the Alps at 60mph. I don't want to spend the time required away from my bed and on the bike to compete at those distances. The edge of my human condition is much closer on that line than it is for others. There is no greatness in it for me. But there is goodness. I see these events as a means to get out there and peer over the edge. At times when I have, I've seen the bottom of the abyss. There's a reflecting pool down there, and it shows me something about myself.
You have to aspire to heights, though. If there is no greatness to pursue in bikes, I'll look elsewhere. I'm getting to be a pretty good writer (or a published one, at any rate). I've been pursuing that for a while and I think I'm coming into my own with it. I used to be good at chess, too. Won a state championship, believe it or not. I started playing again a few weeks ago as I was struggling with the crisis. Now I know why. I turn 33 next month. Science says my physical prime is behind me. Mentally, I'm still okay. My memory is pretty good. I remembered how to spell Viswanathan Anand's name without having to look it up. If he can be at the top of the game at 44, I should be able to achieve the goal of becoming an officially rated chess master by that age.
I think that's ultimately the balance of it. You can't just spend all your time going out to the edge. You wind up like some caricature of an energy drink commercial. But you can't just spend your whole life climbing, either. The result of that is you never really have a perspective for what you're doing up there. Survive so that you know you can. Seek greatness so that you know you're worthy of survival. I'll keep probing the edges of my being on two wheels. New heights await on the familiar landscapes of the printed page and 64 black and white squares.
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