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Brent and I didn’t race together much in 2009. Sure, we talked about racing together a lot… worried about racing together a lot… wondered (a lot) whether it was worth it for us to race together when it seemed to be the only time in our relationship that something wasn’t quite clicking.
And yet we couldn’t quite give it up.
There was the two-day snowshoeing race in March that had more emotional highs and lows than the ski resort that served as its home base.
And the 12-hour orienteering event that we decided to do to celebrate our two-year wedding anniversary and that left us both wondering if we should have gone out to dinner instead.
The thing was, it’s not as though it was all bad. Probably 85% of the time, we had a blast together. It was just those moment, those few instances where something would go wrong, and we’d find ourselves on shaky ground. It seemed like there was too much at stake. We couldn’t (and didn’t want to) be just teammates… which made trying to be teammates, well, complicated.
As I wrote after that 12-hour race,
Brent and I seem to have developed a bit of a pattern in racing together.
(1) Something happens at the start of the race. We’re not totally sure what that ‘something’ is, and I suspect it changes from race to race. But generally, it’s not a good something, and it invariably leaves me feeling anxious, out-of-breath, and ill-equipped.
(2) Somewhere between hour one and hour three, I feel my chest contracting and my voice faltering. Around that time, Brent usually asks how I’m doing. And when I attempt to answer, I cry. I always cry.
(3) We feel like we’ve reached an impasse, and try to figure out what’s not working. We come to the conclusion that maybe we shouldn’t be racing together. We hug.
(4) We continue on our way, pretty sure that this will be our last adventure together. And then something shifts. It may be immediate, or it may take another hour, but suddenly the mood changes. We start clicking. And we end up having a solid – and generally successful – rest of the day together.
After that anniversary race, we seriously considered retirement. It just didn’t seem worth it. If you can pinpoint what’s causing stress in a relationship and know that it can easily be eliminated, isn’t it stupid not to do so?
We had plans to give it one final shot, one last adventure race. Why the final attempt, you ask? Well, because we’re both pretty stubborn when it comes down to it.
We headed to the southern Catskills with Bruce, Jon, Chris, and Keith for NYARA’s 2009 Longest Day. It was a 27-hour race, 15 hours longer than anything I’d done to that point. GOALS was fielding two teams, but no one knew for sure how the lineups would ultimately play out.
When we got to the start line the next morning, I was racing with Bruce, Jon, and Keith in the premiere coed-4 division. Brent and Chris were a 2-male powerhouse built for speed, with their sights set on a high overall finish.
The day began with a paddle section (and I decided that if I had my choice, all races would begin on the water – it’s so much easier to stave off the rush of adrenaline and control your breathing in a boat than on foot or bike!). From there, we set off on a 50-mile bike ride, a combination of technical trails and smooth rolling roads that dropped us off on the banks of the Esopus Creek.
It was here that things didn’t quite go as planned. You can read the full report here (I get chills, reading the whole thing again). To summarize, I nearly drowned at the start of a rough river tubing section that ended with Bruce and Jon calling it a day and me and Keith continuing on unofficially.
But something happened to me during those 27 hours in the woods. Something happened during the overnight slog up a mountain and the hours we spent bushwhacking through stinging nettle. Something happened as I pedaled with tears in my eyes through a painful strained quad, and pulled myself one-handed across a Tyrolean traverse, wondering whether the swelling in my other hand was actually a hairline fracture from a fall off my mountain bike earlier that day.
I began to fall in love with adventure racing.
It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it before. It wasn’t that I was out there under coercion, or that I spent all my time thinking about how miserable I was.
At the Longest Day, though, I finally began to approach the sport on my own terms. A year and a half earlier, I had dived/been thrown into a situation where I couldn’t help but feel like I was in over my head. By virtue of circumstances, my introduction to adventure racing had been with some of the strongest competitors in the country. It was amazing, but it was also incredibly intimidating. And I couldn’t separate myself from the pressure of the situation.
But that day in May, when the pressure was off and I was able to race just to race, I finally understood what this crazy sport, what this crazy community, was all about. And I wanted more.
Of course, I hadn’t been racing with Brent that day, and so we didn’t know whether my own change in perspective would translate into a new dynamic between the two of us.
Soon after the Longest Day, Brent and I headed out of town for a ridiculous summer of traveling. We didn’t race together that fall, and I had to sit out the Snowgaine in 2010 to prepare for the interview that would land me my current job.
It wasn’t until March of 2010 that we got to test the waters again, with a 12-hour adventure race through the South Carolina swamps.
Brent and I both approached the event with a healthy dose of nerves (though mine had as much to do with the alligators in the swamps as with us racing together). We didn’t know what to expect from each other, but we did know that this was the make-it-or-break-it moment.
You can read about the race here (including our run-in with a ‘gator!).
But let me tell you…
It was glorious.
Brent, Chris, and I clicked on every level. I had reached a new level of competence and confidence, Brent had figured out how to channel his competitive drive differently, and Chris was strong as ever. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I was totally hooked.
Brent and I raced together several times throughout the 2010 season. Of course, it wasn’t perfect. Some races were rough (and some were fantastic). But we stopped worrying about own personal dynamics, and were able to focus on what we were supposed to be focusing on.
Some might say that it was the season where Brent and I learned to leave our relationship off the race course, that it was the season we discovered how to be teammates.
But I think it was something different.
I think it was the season where we learned how to channel our relationship, how to turn it from a complication on the race course into an asset.
Two years ago, I wrote that an adventure race was a nice metaphor for a marriage.
To finish successfully, you have to support each other and challenge each other. You have to communicate effectively, and be comfortable in the silences. You have to pay attention to your own needs, and be mindful of your partner’s. You have to know when to follow, and when to take the lead.
Last year, I think we learned to embrace the metaphor.
And this year?
Who knows where that’ll take us?