How Tough Are You?

There are many good strategies to use when running the New York City Marathon. Throwing up at the start is probably not one of them. My friend Syd was in for a long day after he puked early in the 2011 race last November. He never got back the nutrients and water he’d lost, but kept running until Mile 18, around 96th Street on the course, when he felt like a bag of garbage. Then he started walking. It wasn’t his first marathon—it was his sixth, interspersed with 23 half-marathons—but it was maybe the hardest.

Syd’s dad, in his 70s, met him with a cold, wet towel, and they walked together, to mile 19. It was a 14-minute mile. After mile 19, he told his dad he’d see him at mile 22, and then he started running 11-minute miles. I know this because I was sitting in a coffee shop in Monterey, California, tracking him and texting his wife Debi updates every time he hit another mile marker, remembering how he had said he was worried about the race in the weeks leading up to it. Debi texted back, “His calf injury is killing him.”

When we had talked on the phone a couple weeks earlier, I said to Syd, The thing I like about all this stuff we do—running, climbing, mountaineering, cycling, all this suffer-filled, sometimes painful stuff—is that it’s just a way of repeatedly asking ourselves the question, “Am I tough enough?” And the answer is almost always yes.

I think what I like about toughness is that it’s not quantifiable, other than in the form of a story. Lots of people can have a faster race time, climb a couple letter- or number-grades harder than you, stand on the next-higher place on the podium. But nobody has a measurement system for toughness. Usually, when you talk about how tough someone is, you start out with,

“This one time”

and then you tell a story.

A guy breaks his leg descending a 20,000-foot mountain in the Andes and when his partner cuts the rope, he crawls all the way down. Someone is paralyzed in an accident, then decides they’re going to walk again, then bicycle again, across the country. Maybe you’ve never chopped off your own arm off in order to walk out of the desert alive, but you have probably had one or half a dozen moments on a trail or a rope or a bike somewhere, where you experience an overwhelming feeling of doubt.

Then, usually what happens is you give yourself an out. You tell yourself, I could stop running right now, sit down and have a beer. I could get off my bike and call my significant other to drive the car over and pick me up. I could lower off this bolt/cam just below the crux without even trying the move because I’m scared, or I could have my partner continue to lead all the hard pitches. When you don’t take the out, though, something happens and your threshold moves a little, or a lot. You collect enough of those times not letting yourself off the hook, and words like “can’t” disappear from your vocabulary, and you replace them with “won’t” or “haven’t yet.”

Maybe you have a habit of finding your way into those moments, because maybe you tend to collect them when you spend your weekends getting cold, tired, scared, and far enough away from your car that it takes all you’ve got (or what you think is all you’ve got) just to get back safely. I feel like I do. When I was driving the Outdoor Research truck a couple weeks ago through rural Nevada, some folks who were unfamiliar with the company asked, “What kind of research do you guys do?” I joked, “Pain and fear. I research pain and fear.”

My friend Syd ended up finishing the 2011 NYC Marathon, proudly in 21,500th place (as he jokes). But it doesn’t really matter where he finished, and he knows that. What matters is that he finished. And he said in an e-mail a couple days ago:

“I also really do remember thinking of your ‘Are you tough enough?’ question when I was out there trying to finish last year’s marathon. No lie.”

Of course, I knew he was tough enough, the whole time. His entry in the 2011 marathon was deferred from 2010, when he had to cancel because of a stress fracture in his foot. So instead of running the NYC Marathon that year, he ran the 2010 Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon, five weeks after his broken foot was diagnosed. I still remember him saying, “It doesn’t really start hurting until after about 10 miles … ”

(photo by the talented and handsome Lee Smith)


13 replies on “How Tough Are You?

  • Andrea Hilderbrand

    So true Brendan! I know my most proud physical accomplishments are those I’ve simply finished despite adversity, not the ones that I’ve made the podium. Persevering allows us to inch closer to answering that question ‘how tough are we’…and I love the search! it’s the best win win system ever! =) Take care and keep up the great work!

  • Tim

    With a birthday coming up I’ve been mulling over the continuum between fitness and toughness for the last few weeks. At 43 it seems unlikely that I will ever have that seemingly effortless fitness that I had at 21. I know I hike and ride slower than I did then. But the things that turned me back then (crappy weather, endless uphill slogs) don’t seem so hard now. Remembering some of the excuses I made for turning back kills me, but it was so much easier to rationalize throwing in the towel back then. I think that if there’s any grace to aging it comes in toughness. And, at the end of a sufferfest, the sheer delight in having persevered.

    • Jeff

      Tim: “I think that if there’s any grace to aging it comes in toughness. And, at the end of a sufferfest, the sheer delight in having persevered.” I gotta steal that. With attribution of course!

  • Greg DuPey

    Dude – great mantra to remember …….. thanks…….I’m in year 3 of being passed on by the NYC Marathon lottery (never lucky w/lotto) ….will know next week if I’m in this year – then I will use this story/mantra…….without the puke, o-course…great story – as usual – thanks!

  • Drew

    That thought crossed my mind today on the Monument Peak race. Three PBR’s, two Advil and one bag of ice later I can say F-yes. Like Fitz says there are three types of fun.

  • greg petliski

    Eastern Montana in March with the Montana Conservation Corps. Five days of willow and dogwood planting, wading in streams, plowing through mud, soaking-wet-then-frozen-the-next-day boots, sideways snow, all while camping out and working hard. We suffered, but we suffered together. And its one of the proudest moments of my life, when the BLM project leader handed us our eval sheet with glowing marks. We did that.

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