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The Gift.
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 give ourselves.

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 to give.

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 Raid.

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 the genuine.

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.

 

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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