The crying Tough Mudder and the wicked art of Someday

It was just after 10am. I was midway up a California mountain and standing in a group of 200 people so pumped up on testosterone and adrenaline that the simple act of guttural primal screaming wasn’t an effective exorcism. They had to jump up and down, shove their hands in the air, and pound their fists into other fists.

And I was crying to the sound of the National Anthem. A recorded version of the National Anthem.

I feel the need to get that out of the way at the beginning of this. I don’t want to wrap it into some ridiculous revelation at the end–that I was the weeping guy at the beginning of the Tough Mudder, an event that calls itself “Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet.”

And let’s just get this out of the way, too. When I crossed the finish line and grabbed my celebratory beer (the first beer in more than four months), I had tears in my eyes again.

So, there’s that.

Well, it’s more than that, and I can only explain it like this: just before all the wet-eyed silliness began, I thought about my friend Dan’s advice he offers before every race: “Remember how lucky you are to be able to do this.” And then I thought about my dad who had died just ten months earlier. And then I looked to my right and saw my brother there beside me. And I looked back and saw the rest of my team—old friends, new friends, people aching for adventure and achievement unlike any they’d experienced before.

“Remember how lucky you are…”

So, a few hours before my shoulder nearly got ripped from my torso, I was already a teary mess and thankful the dry-dust ski runs turned my face into a muddy map before too many people noticed.

Up until that moment, and frankly maybe not until much later, I wasn’t entirely sure why I was there risking grievous injury.

I know now.

Top of the mountain

Some days later, Colin, an ultra marathoner I met through the poker business who went on to become an inspiration, said via Facebook “There’s a revolution going on right? Of people challenging themselves, conquering their fears, doing amazing things. Or is it just the people I’m lucky to know?”

It was something I’d wondered myself. Was it simply selection bias—that I’d chosen to pay closer attention to people who were pushing themselves to their limits instead of waiting for sure atrophy? Was it that many of the people of my age are facing a form of midlife crisis that results in marathons, ultras, adventure races, and whatnot? I didn’t know. It was probably good deal of both.

Something was, indeed happening, though. To wit: Mastodon Weekend—an irregular party of irregular people here in Greenville, SC—began as a weekend bacchanal bent only on finding new and creative ways to combat age and sobriety at the same time. The only thing we raced back then were street rickshaws—and, yes we both paid off the drivers and gambled on it. It was something to behold and a four-day marathon in itself.

In 2011, we didn’t host Mastodon Weekend. Instead, we went on our annual trip to Las Vegas with a whole new idea in mind. And as we stood around the bar at the Aria in Las Vegas after the half marathon we ran down the Strip, a few of us stood looking at each other—sober, elated, and pumped up on so many endorphins that…well, I won’t lie. There were expressions of love that night.

By and by, the man who goes by the name Badblood suggested some weeks later that we turn Mastodon Weekend—an event so completely anti-fitness that we were drinking in bars that served shots with bugs in them and ordering 20oz steaks because the pound-sized ones were for wimps—into a weekend in which we would run. Far. What’s more, we would try to get as many of our friends as we could to run with us.

And so it will happen in about ten days. For the past several months, people who might never have considered running started getting ready. Before the weekend is over, there will be people celebrating their first 5ks, half marathons, and full marathons. One of them even got so involved that he changed his race registration from 5k to half marathon in mid-training.

Still, it didn’t answer Colin’s question as well as I wanted. I may never really know if it’s a full-on revolution of will and grit, but it forced me at ask myself, “Why am I doing it?”

I thought about it for days, and then this afternoon, my three-year-old kid answered the question for me.

***

The garage looked as though the producers of “Hoarders” had staged an episode at my house but abandoned the project when it became clear we were more of an “Intervention” family. I was standing in the middle of the mess with that typical hand-on-the-forehead, I can’t believe this has happened again posture. My post-work, 5pm, let’s-make-the-most-of-this-day gusto withered like a too-cold fall blossom.

I know there was a time we cleaned the garage. Spring-cleaning day. It’s such a clear memory. I remember turning to my wife and saying, “Agree with me now: if either of us messes this up, the other can use shame as a weapon.” She agreed. Shame worked as long as shame usually does, which is—by my experience—about a week, unless nudity or arrest is involved.

But forward I trudged into the mess, an adventure race all its own, a place where I find gas cans capped with latex gloves, balls of damp Silly String, and, oh-we’ll-never-speak-of-that detritus. I remembered that shame had failed as a weapon, and I was in a full-on suburban dad sharpening-his-anger-spear froth.

“Daddy?”

It was Dos, my three-year-old kid behind me in a Missouri Tiger shirt, Pittsburgh Steelers pants, striped socks, and camouflage sandals.

“Daddy? Can you shoot hoops with me?”

I looked at the bigger new mess I’d created out of the old mess and started to speak. He cut me off.

“Can you shoot hoops with me Sunday?”

It was something he’d been asking a lot. Can we go to the zoo Sunday? Can we go to the pumpkin patch Sunday? It was seeming like Sunday was going to be a really busy day.

“We might, buddy, someday…”

I stopped talking, because I realized he wasn’t asking to go Sunday. He was asking to go Someday. And he was asking to go Someday, because too many times, my response to what he wanted was, “We might someday.”

There, in the middle of the disaster in the garage, I felt like crying again. The kid was so conditioned to hearing “someday” that it had become a verbal crutch for him, a bit of hope that they thing he wants to do will happen someday. And I was responsible for it.

It’s probably very common for a kid to hear it. Someday you’ll be older. Someday you’ll understand. Someday you could be President.

And then they start to think it themselves. Someday I’ll be a baseball player. Someday I’ll ask that girl on a date. Someday I’ll be a rock star.

And then, by the time they are adults, the great lie of Someday has manifested itself into a false-faith-reality. They aren’t going to be a baseball player. They aren’t going to be President. They aren’t going to be a rock star.

Here in middle adulthood, a place that feels more like adolescence and puberty than adolescence and puberty did, we find ourselves discovering that we’ve fallen into the cult of Someday so badly that we forgot that someday almost never comes on its own, and the longer we sit and wait for that elusive day, the harder it will ever be to find it.

I’ve learned some late lessons in the past year about the uselessness of waiting. It’s folly at almost every turn. Although there is pride in patience, the act of waiting is one of weakness, fear, and laziness. I know this because I’m guiltier than anybody I know.

I looked at that little boy and wondered how I would convince him that there is no Someday, or if I should. I didn’t have an answer. I walked in circles looking at trash and broken lawn equipment, and I tried to promise myself that I would never say it again. But I couldn’t do that, because I try not to lie to myself. The only thing I could do, it seemed clear, was live as an example. Even if I haven’t to this point, I can only hope that if I’m true to myself that it will somehow trickle down to my sons.

I still don’t know exactly why I’ve spent that last couple of years trying to be better than I was before. There are lots of reasons, but few that are easy to articulate. That understood, Badblood said something the other day that rang true:

“There’s a certain pleasure in doing things you never thought you’d be able to do. Pain goes away eventually,” he said.

I’ve spent several days trying to define what that pleasure is, and tonight I think it has a lot to do with the realization that someday doesn’t have to be some ethereal, no-calendar day in the future. It can be now. The path to it doesn’t have to be a road race, or a mountain, or some muddy obstacle course. It only has to be the thing you want, the thing you are afraid to admit to yourself that you can do.

I cried a little bit on that California mountain because I realized I’d let too many Somedays pass. I cried a little bit because I was doing my best to make good on the time I’d wasted. It wasn’t about that race. It was about the people beside me, my brother and friends good enough that they might as well be my blood.

I’m never, ever going to be a pro runner. I don’t care to be. That’s not why I’m doing this. I’m doing this because I’ve wasted a lot of my life on Someday. I’ve wasted a lot of other people’s time in the same way.

And so for each step I take along the road, or for each new seemingly impossible thing I try (and I feel confident there are more to come), it’s about more than the miles, the endorphins, or even the feeling of accomplishment. It’s about convincing myself that I can do the things that I’ve always doubted I could do.

I may have some real regrets in my life, but they’re almost all based around how long it took me to realize the lie Someday tells. The peace I’ve found, however, is that I can’t count on anyone to fix that for me. There’s no waiting around for someone to take charge and fix the problem.

It’s up to me alone to run Someday down and turn it into today.