Our lives are defined by a few significant
experiences- a few days or hours out of a lifetime of
years and decades. These are the moments that make the
mundane and routine worthwhile. They are what we live
for and why we endure the day-to-day monotony and routine.
The things we remember.
The late tightrope walker Karl Wallenda
said, “All of life is walking the wire, the rest
Wallenda risked his life to earn his living
as an aerial acrobat. He eventually died in pursuit of
his vocation and passion. As a result of his work he was
intensely introspective. He frequently had to reflect
on his motives and reasons for risking his life. His insights
had the clarity that defines the thin margin separating
life and death. Wallenda valued life because he was intimate
with its frailty and ephemeral quality. He knew his life
could be revoked at any moment, and as a result he tended
to revel in every living day as though it were a reprieve.
“Life is not an easy matter.... You
cannot live through it without falling into frustration
and cynicism unless you have a great idea which raises
you above personal misery, above weakness…”
Wallenda was right. With this in mind I
look back over a collection of precious experiences that
revitalized my spirit and validated my life. These were
the things that made me realize it is all worthwhile-
the personal “great ideas” Wallenda talks
about. Looking forward to the rest of my life I try to
picture similar moments and build them into reality. It
is, in the most literal sense, what I live for. It is
what defines you and I as individuals.
What do you aspire to? What are you doing
to get there? What are your “great ideas”
that raise you above personal misery and weakness?
It’s the beginning of a new season.
This is the time of year when the preparation for next
year has begun. The temperature drops and the days shrink
to long months of longer nights, just ready to break into
springtime. You prepare for next year. With last season
in the rear view mirror this is the time that will determine
the quality of your experiences next season. The time
for work has begun. It is now, between the summers.
Getting ready for the next season without
the promise of an event over the immediate horizon takes
dedication and discipline. It also takes imagination.
You have to imagine what it will be like for things to
go the way you want them to. You have to see the favorable
outcome and connect the dots in time between the “now”
of difficult, rigorous preparation and the favorable outcome
of a wonderful day sometime off on the horizon of a another
day yet to come.
You can also look into the rear view mirror
of your life for the moments that defined you so far,
and use them as sustenance during the long, tough phase
of hard preparation and dark nights.
That is what I’m doing here:
I don’t know the name of the road,
I can’t speak French and I passed the sign at over
35 M.P.H. so I couldn’t read it anyway. Unloading
off the final climb in the 2004 Isostar Nice Triathlon
in Nice, France I traced a ballistic trajectory through
the alpine corners from apex to apex. They are narrow
and dangerous. I am a poor descender. Complete concentration.
Around one bend the road was littered with victims of
a mishap. A European ambulance horn beeped and wailed
up the canyon in the distance. They flashed by in a blur;
one man’s face, streaked in blood. Toward the bottom
I glanced down on a river, hurtled into the valley and
shot across the flats to a widening road. The course dumped
me down a freeway on-ramp. I was on an empty freeway headed
back to the Riviera. They had closed an entire freeway
for us to race on. Only in France. I was with three men,
none spoke English. Racing down into the yawning maw of
a two-story high underground freeway tunnel, the longest
in France, we would complete the final miles underground
on a bike course that already crossed over the tops of
two mountain passes. We were swallowed by darkness. Once
inside the tunnel we became projectiles. The coastal wind
fed the tunnel like exploding gunpowder pushing human
bullets along a three mile rifle barrel. Like cannon shells
accelerating along their rifling grooves our velocity
accumulated; 28 M.P.H., 30 M.P.H., 35 M.P.H. It was effortless.
And it was oddly isolated; just three other racers and
I in the closing miles of the bike headed back toward
T2 to begin the idyllic run along the most beautiful coastline
in Europe, the Cote d’ Azur, on the French Riviera.
The strange acoustics in the dark tunnel amplified every
mechanical whir and whiz. Between my sunglasses and the
dark tunnel I was a human bullet traveling toward the
blinding gold light at the muzzle.
And then we surfaced.
The underground freeway tunnel canted abruptly
upward and we rocketed into blinding sunshine on the spectacular
coastline. The noise hit us like running into a white
marble wall. There must have been 100,000 of them, and
they were all screaming for us. The roar was deafening.
Women in bikinis, people with white dogs. Men in dashing,
light colored suits and rakish sunglasses, spectators
dressed in sports clothes and bathing costumes. And there
were the cameras. When we burst from the dark tunnel up
into the burning French sunlight a hundred cameras hit
us. In under a second I had my photo taken more times
than in the entire previous year. After the oddly quiet
tunnel the eruption into sunlight and exaltation was so
powerful it startled me. I felt an adrenaline infusion
like never in my life. They screamed at us, “Allez,
ALLEZ!” The coast opened up to a brilliant, crystalline
Mediterranean. The road along the Promenade Des Anglais
was flanked by crowd barriers and behind them the spectators
were three deep for miles. Welcome, My Friend, back to
Nice. It is time to run.
No one spoke on the bridge and that was
ominous. Except for the red lights from the instruments,
it was dark. The man at the helm did not wear a uniform
and that, along with his position at the controls under
these conditions, denoted his significance and skill.
Two search lights traced forward through the black night
into the wind driven gale from the superstructure above.
It was snowing sideways. I felt the deck plating rise
and angle forward under me as the Akademik Ioffe climbed
backwards up another 50 foot wave and began the wild descent
again. The man brought the throttles back. Black, solid
steel water filled the two white pools of search light
as the shipped angled downward, bow first, stern rising.
She began to slide down the gigantic Antarctic swell for
an inevitable collision with the wave trough at the bottom.
Everyone on the bridge braced themselves. There was a
titanic crash and an explosion. The ship came to a shuddering
stop, impaled on the wave trough, threatening to pitch-pole.
Dark green, angry water burst over the bow and swamped
the fore deck. Anyone on deck would have died instantly.
The ship’s bow shook the water off like an angry,
wet dog as we recovered from the impact. The radar screen
next to me traced an infinite number of ice contacts through
its eerie green sweep. The 400 foot long Russian ship
began to rise again, sliding up on another massive polar
swell on a black night at the bottom of the earth. We
were on our way to a race; the Antarctic Marathon, called
“The Last Marathon” since it was said to be
the last race anyone on earth anyone would think of doing.
But before we could race we had to live through a storm
in the roughest ocean in the world. When I first saw the
Akademik Ioffe tied to the dock in Ushuaia, Argentina
she looked like an aircraft carrier; enormous. Now she
felt like a pair of water wings rapidly loosing air. The
enormity of this suddenly hit me: If something happens
tonight, there will be no rescue. We might as well be
on Pluto. We were out of helicopter range by hundreds
of miles. The only rescue would come from an Argentinean
Naval vessel at least a day’s steam at flank away.
Since we could survive maybe a few hours if we made it
into our survival suits, a couple agonizing minutes if
we didn’t, the hope of a rescue was nil. It would
be a long night on the way to this race.
“Would you like to trade flags?”
the tall Iraqi asked me. “No, thank you.”
I said to him as I smiled at the Associated Press and
BBC photographers and held my United States flag up. “We
will have all the Iraqi flags we want in a few months…”
I was counting on his sense of humor. Lucky for me, in
a land so inhospitable a legend told of a man trading
a cup of diamonds for a cup of water, the Iraqi was in
a joking mood. The first week of November, 2001 was an
interesting time. Three days before I had flown over Manhattan
and marveled at a gaping wound between America’s
eyes that belched smoke and seemed destined to never heal.
“That,” I thought to myself, “will leave
a scar.” Now, in the deserts of Jordan where Sir
Lawrence of Arabia once slept in Wadi Rum, I smiled for
the photographers as a big Iraqi and I demonstrated a
bizarre kind of sporting détente with a man who
offered the flag of our nation’s enemy. I did not
accept. Instead, we shook hands for the cameras and started
our 105 mile running race from Wadi Rum, Jordan through
the deserts of the Middle East to an ancient town called
Petra. The subterranean gates of Petra were buried by
sand storms in antiquity, and unearthed in a sensational
archeological excavation. We would race there; 105 miles
of running, non-stop, across two desert mountain ranges
and then down the 700 steps that descend into Petra. It
is said that as you descend the steps into Petra you are
stripped of all illusions of yourself. It is a process
of distillation, physical and spiritual. And in our case-
He said his name was “Potoho”.
He only had one name. And he laughed when he told the
story of how he and his friend had drunk too much, argued,
and his friend shot him in the stomach. He showed the
scar. They were still friends. His boat had no name because
it was too small but he was taking me to a place called
“Shark Ray Alley” at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve
off the coast of Ambergris Caye island in Belize. The
day before I told Potoho I had never seen a shark in the
wild. He simply laughed and said, “I will take you….
Tomorrow.” I loaded my SCUBA gear into his boat
at the dock at 7:00 AM outside the grass hut I was renting
on the beach in Ambergris Caye. Idyllic. His little white
dive boat levitated on transparent water above white sand.
I’m sorry, why should I ever go home?
“Potoho…” I asked him,
“Do you think we will see a shark today?”
He looked at me with a strange smirk, turned to his two
deck hands and, presumably, repeated my question to them
in whatever language men in Belize speak. They looked
at me and burst into laughter. “Shit,” I thought.
“They probably haven’t seen a shark here in
30 years.” I was so clearly the stupid tourist.
It took 10 minutes running at 15 knots to reach the Hol
Chan Marine Reserve, an underwater game preserve, one
of the most revered in the world. Shark Ray Alley was
inside, about another five minutes. Potoho told me to
gear up. After pulling on my fins, buoyancy compensator,
tank, regulator and my underwater camera I sat at the
rail of the boat skimming along the diamond-bright water.
Potoho shouted over the engine noise, “You have
to get in while the engine is still running….”
Curious. That violated all safety protocols of recreational
SCUBA diving. The propellers would still be turning. As
we pulled into the area we saw other dive boats at anchor.
Then I looked over the side.
If you took an area of water about the size
of a YMCA swimming pool and projected that same volume
of water into the clear sea next to me then the pool would
contain about 50 sharks. 50 big sharks. I had never even
seen anything like this even on TV. There were so many
sharks under our boat there was really no room for me
in the water. But Potoho assured me there was room for
me in the water. Between the sharks. Turns out, he was
I stood in the courtyard and looked at the
sky. There was a high rise on the right, and the Asian
city sounds came from over the wall. Something here made
my skin crawl horribly. I was in hell, or the most earthly
version of it. This was the main lobby of the Hanoi Hilton,
Hoa Lo Prison, Vietnam. If anyplace on earth is truly
haunted with the tortured souls of humans hideously mistreated,
this place was it. The macabre museum was the prisoner
of war camp that housed U.S. Airmen shot down in the Vietnam
War, or, as the Vietnamese referred to it, the “American
War”. A placard proudly announced the dank hole
of a cell than once housed Senator John McCain. I wager
he hasn’t bothered to make a return visit. Looking
toward the sky in Hoa Lo Prison I tried to imagine what
the U.S. servicemen imprisoned and tortured here must
have felt. I tried to conjure the incredible strength
required to endure years of captivity in such awful and
hopeless surroundings. I tried to understand why such
awful things repeat themselves in human nature when, it
would seem to me, no human would wish this upon another.
For years that patch of sky above the courtyard in the
Hanoi Hilton represented the only slim promise of freedom
to a few desperate and tortured souls. They never gave
up, but some of them did not survive. I hoped to God that
for their sakes, their souls levitated above the walls
and to the freedom the skies above offered. I walked out
the front gates into the busy streets of Hanoi, a new
city bustling with a vibrant Asian economy despite the
latent oppression of a Communist government. When I crossed
the street and looked back at the iron gate of the Hanoi
Hilton I realized that after traveling to seven continents
and seeing marvelous things all over the world, this was
the most frightening monument I had seen.
It was a long time ago but I still remember
it quite vividly. The ceiling was vaulted and high. The
soft, white drapes blew gently on a Pacific trade wind
and the ocean feathered onto the rocky coast just outside
the patio. It was vibrant green, blue and white. Geography
aside, it was a place where Cleopatra would be perfectly
at home reclining on a chaise while being fanned and attended
to. This was opulence. And elegance. What beauty man could
not create was provided by nature as the architecture
of each melded together on the Hawaiian coast. The day
after the 1986 Bud Light Ironman Triathlon World Championship
I was having brunch in one of the most beautiful settings
on earth with some of the finest athletes in our sport.
I can so clearly remember thinking, 20 years ago, “It
will never be better than this…” I had just
finished the Ironman World Championship. It was the pinnacle
of the sport. On that day, 20 years ago, I could not have
imagined the adventures and ordeals I would experience
on all seven continents: From the depths of the ocean
to the highest peak in the western hemisphere, from the
polar ice cap to the Sahara desert to the deep Vietnamese
jungle. I thought I had arrived, but I had just begun
Looking back on the things that define us
give us a clearer vision of the future. They help to guide
and direct our dreams and goals. These are the things
that make us who we are. They recharge us, fortify us
and are steps on the staircase of ambition to higher goals
and a life lived fully.
This is the time of the year to take a look
back before we begin to move forward once again, toward
a new tomorrow, a new set of experiences that further
try us, further define us, get us closer to the ultimate
definition of who we are, and why we live.