When I was in the seventh grade, I tried out for the basketball team at my school in Racine, Wisconsin. I was an awkward, skinny kid, but I was also six-two, six inches taller than the other boys. And, my older brother Gary was a friend of the coach and Gary had been the star of his high school team. So I thought I had a shot. I was cut after the first practice.
The coach told Gary, “Your brother is the most uncoordinated kid I’ve seen in my life.” Gary repeated that description of me to our mom. She broadcast it to her bridge club. They all laughed. I was humiliated. I felt like a failure. Gary was a basketball hero. I wasn’t worthy of a seat on the bench. The “uncoordinated kid” label became stuck in my mind. It haunted me. When I finished college, I was desperate to leave the cold of Wisconsin for a different life in California.
Fast forward 25 years. I’m 45 and married to a beautiful, generous woman. We have two great kids and a successful p.r. business. I don’t think much about my childhood disappointments. I call my mom every Saturday morning. On trips to Wisconsin, my wife and I get together with Gary and his family. We have fun. Sure, I’m getting older—I’m putting on weight and sometimes have back spasms that cause me to drop to my knees—but, on the whole, life is good.
One day, I leave the house to pick up a bagel from the Bagel Factory. I run across Robertson Boulevard, a distance of ten yards, and suddenly double over, wheezing and out of breath. No, I’m not having a heart attack, but clearly I’m out of shape. Memories of seventh grade come flooding back and I realize: I’ve become an uncoordinated middle aged man. Surprisingly, that revelation doesn’t defeat me. Instead, I decide to make a change.
That same day, I join Bolder Fitness, a small gym on Pico. I step onto a treadmill and promptly fall off. But I get back on and walk for 30 minutes. The next day, I do it again. I begin lifting weights. A week or so into my new routine, the owner of the gym walks up to me. “You’re an idiot. You’re doing it all wrong.” I’m undaunted. I pay that asshole to train me.
I work out at the gym six days a week. I never miss. I also run—a lot. I tire of the treadmill and begin running on a track near my house. I join the Santa Monica Mountain Goats and run on fire roads in the mountains. I run 20 miles a week, 30 miles a week, sometimes 50 miles a week. I run hard. I run as if I’m chasing something. Even as I get faster and stronger, memories of the uncoordinated kid gnaw at me. He won’t let go.
I compete in races…10Ks, half-marathons, marathons, ultra-marathons. I get to be pretty good. I sometimes take third in my age group. I’m shocked by my success. Who would have thought this was possible?
Then I take part in a 50-mile race in Wisconsin on the famous Ice Age Trail. I see it as a triumphant return to my boyhood home. And it starts great. I run the first 26 miles in under four hours, but then I break down. I can’t run any more. I am forced to walk the last 24 miles over an endless series of short, sharp hills, feeling more fatigue and pain with every step.
When I get back to my mom’s house, I can barely walk. She pleads, “Promise me you’ll never do that again!” But, I am no longer her uncoordinated kid. I am fearless. Two days later, I’m back running.
A few days before my 56th birthday, I hear a story on NPR about the Polar Circle Marathon, a 26.2 mile race in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. The conditions are extreme ... only hard-nosed athletes dare apply. The reporter interviews the female winner. She’s gleeful. “It’s the best race ever!”
A thought pops into my head. “I can run that race!” I tell my wife, and she, god bless her, approves. “Knock yourself out, but no way am I coming along.” And my running pals have no interest in joining me. Nonetheless, 12 months later, I’m on a 10-hour flight to Copenhagen and from there I board another plane for the 5-hour trip to Greenland.
The Polar Circle Marathon is a point-to-point race. On the morning of the event, a bus drives me and 61 other competitors along a 19-mile road to a spot near the Greenland ice sheet, a frozen ocean that covers 80 percent of that enormous island. Our task is to run a 5K loop on the ice, then scamper down the road to Kangerlussuaq.
Picture this: It’s one degree above zero. The wind is gusting to 30 miles per hour. The wind chill is minus 22. We begin by running uphill into the wind to reach the ice sheet. We’d visited this place in calm weather the day before and witnessed a paradise of undulating mounds of ice stretching to infinity. Now, we can barely see ten feet in the swirling ice and snow.
Running on the ice is hallucinatory. My thoughts are confused. I have no idea where I am on the course. I’m just trying to make it to the next thin, red pole that marks the way. I experience odd sensations. “My tights have slipped! My ass is hanging out!” “My dick is frozen!” Still, I push on and make it through that first, treacherous 5K loop.
As I leave the ice and head downhill, conditions improve. By the time I reach the 12K marker, the wind disappears. The sun comes out. The temperature soars to 15 degrees. I’m elated. I have to run another 19 miles, but I feel as though my race is already over. I have not only conquered the ice sheet, it feels as though a frozen part of my heart has begun to thaw. Something has changed—the nagging voice inside my head that for 40 years has been ranting “No you can’t!”—that voice is GONE. I could run to Tim-buc-fuckin-tu.
With 3 miles to go, the road tops a knobby hill and the ramshackle town of Kangerlussuaq comes into view. There’s no brass band waiting to welcome me as I cross the finish line, no big brother, no mom, only a pair of race officials who check my name off the list. But that’s okay. I’ve accomplished my goal. I am happy and I feel great!