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The Definition.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.


Man Jumps from boat.

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 is waiting.”

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. Wallenda said:

“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- political too.

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 right.

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 the journey.

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.



© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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