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The Longest Day

"You won't need press credentials at the race" I heard her say. "We'll give you and the other journalists maps and you can make your way to the checkpoints". There were several disconcerting words in those sentences. First off, I had never been called a journalist before, I'm not very good at reading maps, and I had no idea what a checkpoint was. Of course, that just made me all the more eager.

I will admit right off the bat that I didn't get it before I went. Even now that I've had the benefit of time to reflect, I'm still not sure I get it. But, I saw it, I felt it, and for now I suppose that's all that matters.

The "it" was the Endorphin Fix Adventure Race held in the area around the New River Gorge in West Virginia. This two-day event required the competitors to mountain bike, orienteer, kayak, rappel, and scramble up and down some of the scruffiest land I had ever seen. In the case of the team I was covering [I was a journalist, remember], it was a 42-hour odyssey into the vagaries of time, distance, direction, and personal dynamics, set in the context of the limits of mind, body, and spirit.

The race began at midnight. The day began at 7:00 am. The preparation began months before. The principle of the race began centuries ago, when people first decided to move past their own comfort in search of something more. More land, more freedom, or, as was the case with Team SynTerra, more insight into their souls.

My first observation was that adventure racers get really good at packing and unpacking. This one skill, this ability to cram everything you need to survive for 42 hours into a backpack and then remember where you put it, may be the most critical of all the skills. In an event where the temperature swing was almost 40 degrees, where each competitor needed two pairs of shoes, extra socks, kayak booties, bike helmet, rock climbing helmet, knife, whistle, fleece top, gortex jacket, food, water, snacks, and enough medical supplies to save a small nation, PACKING was a KEY skill.

The skill that I got really good at was waiting. I had no idea just how long it takes to find your way around the woods in the middle of the night. Being a runner, I guess I thought there'd be people standing there pointing the way. Not so. There are no signs, no course workers, no flags and no arrows.

I had my own introduction into the mysteries of dead-of-night land navigation trying to find the rappel site at about 3 AM on the second day. The race director, a wonderful woman who has lived in the area for nearly 20 years, described the route as a piece of cake. "Just follow the path to the right until you get to the second path on the left. You can't miss it."

YES YOU CAN. And yes I did. After an hour of wandering aimlessly in the wilderness with only the light on my head, I reconciled myself to spending the remainder of the night lost in the woods with creatures I could barely imagine. Much to my delight, a group of competitors appeared about 30 minutes later. My joy turned to panic when I realized that they were as lost as I was.

In the end, though, I found my way around to the check points, and got to observe the team as it went through the inevitable highs and lows of a 42 hour race. Individually and as a team, they struggled against the course, the geography, their equipment, their bodies, and their minds. One by one, and together, they fought to stay in the race, and inside themselves.

Seeing them ride up the final hill together—now galvanized by the experience—I began to understand. In their eyes I could see the value of their fatigue. In their smiles I could see the value of their effort. And in their closeness I could see the value of their teamwork. Each, in their own way, had lost a measure of themselves but had gained a greater measure of each other.

And I had lost and gained something as well. I lost a small piece of my contentedness and gained an appreciation for the need to continue to find ways to uncover the still untapped potential of my body and soul. I doubt that it will come on the hills of West Virginia. It's more likely that it will come in the preparation for a 5K, 10K or a marathon.

But somewhere in the darkness I discovered once again just how much fun it is to stare into the unknown.

Waddle on, friends.

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