By Tom Demerly
Endurance sports are an abundant source of revitalization
and a ruthless arbiter of our own frailty.
Our sport gives and takes away, but it is always
steadfast, always honest.
As sure as there are roads to ride and run and
oceans to swim our sport is there. It is the greatest gift we
I often wonder about and feel sorry for those
who squander the roads on mere transportation and the oceans
with only a passing glance when there is such rich adventure
to be had with them. That our sport allows us to turn the banal
into a playground and the simple into a ruthless crucible is
its greatest wonder. Give me any day in any weather on a stretch
of pavement or trail, and our sport gives back a revitalizing
workout that improves our fitness, lets us feel the air and
reminds us that, no matter how strong we are, there is always
something stronger. It is these gifts our sport gives to us.
No other single activity in my life has been as
significant as my involvement in endurance sports. Everything
that I have in life can be traced back to an ethos learned as
an endurance sportsman. It is the abundant gift that never ceases
Of course, there are few true “gifts”
in life, that is to say, things given without attachment or
want for recompense. Our sport demands much but it returns more.
If you are an endurance athlete you know suffering. You suffer
with physical discomfort and mental anguish. It is this suffering
you give back to our sport in return for its gifts of fitness
and adventure. The suffering is the vessel through which we
pass on the way to the greatest gift, a better vision and version
of ourselves. It is another part of the gift.
I have seen the world because of our sport, and
in that I have learned so much. The greatest lesson is that
there is so much to learn. A secondary lesson is that the external
world is less boundless than the internal world of our own character.
As I reach the back half of my life, a life lived very fully;
I know that there is no time to see everything there is to be
seen, do everything there is to be done and learn everything
there is to know. Such is the vast nature of what we do and
the scope of the gift of endurance sports.
A French journalist named Gerard Fusil once opined
that the endurance athlete is one who truly practices sport
in the natural arena; that the true endurance sportsman is one
who competes not against human adversaries but against nature,
the terrain and the most daunting of all opponents, ourselves.
Fusil founded an event called The Raid Gauloises, named for
the rugged Gauls who ran riot over Europe just before the historical
birth of Christ. The Gauls, for whom the Raid Gauloises is named
(it isn’t named after the cigarette company) practiced
a religion that worshiped this natural arena: the lakes, the
streams the mountains, the sky and the ocean. They gave divine
status to animals that displayed cunning and tenacity, like
the fox. The Gauls understood the gift of nature and endurance,
and celebrated this gift in their everyday life. Gerard Fusil’s
tribute to the Gauls, The Raid Gauloises, was once the longest
adventure race on earth, spanning time and distance more befitting
a siege or continental invasion than a sporting event. I raced
the last great Raid Gauloises at the turn of this century, a
sweeping event from the Chinese border south through northern
Vietnam to Haiphong Harbor. It was over 1000 kilometers of non-stop
racing through jungles, mountains, rivers, lakes, caves and
the ocean. The Raid Gauloises was one of my very greatest gifts.
To this day I remember the adventures and misadventures of The
It is an odd contradiction that our involvement
in endurance sports is essentially free. We spend a fortune
on equipment but the activity itself- going out the door to
do a ride a run or a swim in the open sea, is without monetary
expense. This gift that validates us is free, there for the
taking. Perhaps you have tried to explain your involvement in
endurance sports to a non-athletic friend. It is likely they
will never truly understand the romance until they have felt
the fitness rise in their own body and seen the distance disappear
under foot or under wheel with increasing ease. Until they understand
the gift they will never understand why. Once you receive the
gift you spend a lifetime wanting it again and again.
When I think of the things I have owned, the things
I’ve been given, the things I’ve earned, the places
I’ve been there is no one thing as valuable as that which
was earned through physical and mental toil. This filter of
effort and difficulty removes the superfluous and leaves only
I once did a race in Jordan, a 105 mile running
race through the desert and over the high Middle Eastern mountains
near Iraq. The race finished in the historic city of Petra after
descending 700 stone steps. It was said that as you descended
these steps you would be distilled into the purest version of
yourself, and that once you reached the bottom all that would
be left was your true character. 105 miles of running in tough
sand and over freezing desert mountains does have a way of stripping
away our illusions about ourselves, and I recall many lasting
revelations during that endeavor. The greatest may have been
that all humans are weak and frail, but the human spirit is
more persistent than almost any force in nature.
This is the time of year when we think about
giving and getting gifts. It is a fine but somewhat superfluous
gesture when you consider that, as endurance athletes, the greatest
gift is the one we give ourselves through our involvement in
a sport that never ceases to be generous, both in difficulty
and in achievement.