Thursday, June 11, 2009
Mutually Assured Destruction
After our 17 mile run two weeks ago, buddy John and I were talking to a neighbor of his as we rode up in the elevator of his building. The neighbor asked how far we had run. We told her about the upcoming Seattle Marathon and our long training runs. We explained our long term goal of doing the Arizona Ironman in November. "Whose idea was that?" she wondered. I replied that it isn't a question of one person convincing the other to do these long endurance events, but more of a policy of mutual assured destruction. If I'm going to put my body through the hell of training for these events and risk a death march in the Arizona desert, I'm not going down alone. If I crash and burn, someone is going down with me.
Isn't that how we choose our training buddy? Someone as dedicated (or as foolhardy) as ourselves to sign up for an event, go through the rigours of training, and see the event through from starting gun to finish line. Most of us know Sir Edmund Hillary becoming the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Nine other expeditions had tried before and didn't make it to the summit. People had died trying to get to the summit. Did Sir Hillary attempt this crazy expedition by himself? No way. He teamed up with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Could Sir Edmund have made it to the top by himself? Perhaps. But when we attempt a task that is sure to test the limits of our endurance, it somehow helps to have someone else along for the ride (or swim or run for that matter).
Before you finish your first marathon, there is a real doubt in your mind as to whether you will be able to finish the 26.2 mile run. Your longest training run is usually 20 miles. I know I had those doubts in the back of my mind before I ran my first marathon in Athens in November, 2002. I was hedging my bets so much that I signed up for the Miami Marathon scheduled for the following January as a backup in case I didn't finish the Athens Marathon. Or course, I did finished the race. So I convinced my brother to train and run Miami as his first marathon. On the way to the expo, the exchanged refrain was, "I'm not worried about you, I'm worried about me." My brother had the first timer doubts about being able to finish. I was trying to improve on my first marathon time, so I was worried about pushing myself too hard and possibly blowing up. I knew my brother had done the proper training, so I was confident that he could finish. He knew I had run a marathon before, so he was sure I would be fine.
I think that goes to the heart of the buddy system. Having trained together, each buddy knows the other guy (or girl) is properly trained and is capable of completing the endurance event. But these endurance events are long enough that a crash and burn is always possible. The psyche remains a doubting Thomas constantly calculating the risks of problems and failure. Doubt and anxiety about completing an endurance event never goes completely away. The solution? Get your buddy to sign up for the event too.
I'm sure Sir Edmund knew the Sherpa could make it to the summit, but wasn't sure about himself. I'm guessing that either Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin could have done the first moon landing solo, but neither guy wanted to try that crazy landing and takeoff by himself. I can picture Neil Armstrong drinking beers with Buzz one night in a bar in Coco Beach saying, "If I'm risking dying on the moon, you're going down to the surface with me." "What about Mike Collins?" asks Buzz . "That sissy can stay in the Command Module as our support team," replies Neil as he drains his glass. "OK, I'm in."
So, while we joke about the buddy system being a policy of "mutually assured destruction," its really a policy of "mutually assured success." Shared hardship equates to shared success. Knowing our buddy is getting up before dawn for a workout, forces us to get out of our warm beds. Set up a ride or swim with your buddy and you are more likely to make sure you are there on time. The loneliness of the long distance runner is not so lonely when you've got a buddy to share a conversation with along the way.
Doing endurance events teaches us that you can accomplish just about anything you put your mind to achieve. You just need to break a big task down to into managable parts and creat a plan to get the parts accomplished. We can climb Mount Everest, land on the moon, run a marathon or do an ironman event. It just helps to have a buddy crazy enough to be the Sancho Panza to your Don Quixote. See you this weekend for that last 20 mile run, Sancho.