A FEW YEARS ago I watched a movie based on the true story of Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest. He was born with a disease that caused him to go blind by age 13. He went on to complete the Seven Summits in September, 2002.
Today I read about Simon Wheatcroft, a blind runner who is in training to complete an ultramarathon with a distance of 100 miles, the equivalent of almost four standard marathons. Damn. Some people have a lifelong goal to run a marathon, but four? At once? Simon’s first attempt at an ultramarathon came in the Cotswolds 100 in the UK. Below is a graph of distance vs. elevation. Mile 80 doesn’t look pleasant.
During the first few miles, Simon said,
We ran through rarely used country roads, keeping a constant pace, but at this point no one was in sight. This did cause us to get a little lost, but within a minute we were back on track.
I’m not sure if “at this point no one was in sight” was an intended joke or not, but if it was, he’s got a great sense of humour. Simon runs with guide runners, but for his training he ran alone. On his website, Blind100, he said that after he lost his training guide runner, he spent a lot of time memorizing a route and ran on a closed road .15 miles long for weeks to build his confidence.
During the Cotswolds 100, not only did Simon have to contend with steep hills and 100 miles of pavement, it rained for seven hours straight. Then he and his team got lost.
We knew the route for the race had small arrows placed on lampposts at random intervals. On this particular section, there seemed to be a real lack of location markers. We were told that if we were ever in doubt to just keep running. This turned out to be our downfall. We were lost, and not by a small distance, either. We had missed a turn way back. I tried to stay positive, but the rain began to hit us hard.
He hit a low at the 30-mile mark, deflated by the big detour they accidentally took. But rather than quit, Simon took a rest, changed his clothes, and hit the pavement again. I think any athlete will tell you, the mental aspect is more important than the physical aspect. This is usually what separates the top athletes from each other. They might all be physically equal, but the toughest mentally will be the one that comes out on top.
Further on, Simon was forced to take another rest, again coming close to throwing in the towel:
I wasn’t at the point where I couldn’t move forward anymore; I was simply at the point where I thought I couldn’t.
With a change of guide runners he was inspired to continue on. Down the road though, another obstacle. They thought they only had 25 miles to go, but the distance they kept included the part where they got lost. They were one checkpoint further back than they thought they were. They pushed on, but he was again forced back into the van to try to recuperate a little.
When he emerged he found he couldn’t even walk; his muscles were seized up. He tried to take a 20-minute nap but when he awoke, he knew he was done. He’d lost weight and was visibly skinnier.
In tears, I made the difficult decision to call it a day. Unable to support my own weight I was carried to the support vehicle and we drove to the finish line. On the drive to the race track I thought back on what I had achieved.
What he had achieved was something that most people on the planet — blind or not — will never achieve. As disappointed as he was for not being able to complete the race, he said he was satisfied. He understood what he had accomplished and had found his limit.
We are a goal-driven society, and when we don’t hit our goals we feel like failures. I believe this is wrong. As any good traveler will tell you, the journey is the goal.