Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Looking for heroes

Here's yet another Alaska thing I haven't become accustomed to yet: The compounding daylight. At a rate of five more minutes every day, it doesn't take long to stack up. Today I came home from work much later than I had planned. It was 5:30 p.m. and overcast, and I just assumed it would be dark in another half hour. Not really feeling motivated to attempt a night ride, I crawled on the trainer and started cranking out minutes, thinking I'd probably just stop as soon as it got dark. But then 6:00 came. Then 6:30. I was feeling good and decided to go long, and before I knew it, 7:15 came with usable daylight still lingering outside. Who knew?

The Iditarod dogsled race is going strong. It's immensely popular up here, so it gets a lot of ink. Consequently, I've found myself following the mushers' progress, grazing through statistics and reading about people in a sport I never thought I'd be interested in. But, when I think about it, these long-distance mushers embody a lot of the characteristics I admire most in people.

You know what they say - you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can't always pick your heroes. Because when it comes down to it, you're going to look up to the people who have mastered qualities you'd like to see in yourself, who have skills or status that to you is just a distant potential. But that's just it - potential. Those who want to be fast look up to Lance Armstrong. Those who want to be immensely successful look up to Bill Gates.

Me - I'd like to be strong. And not necessarily strong in the raw, athletic sense that defines those who stand at the top of their game, because that's just not me. My envied strength lies more in mental toughness, and the hard, mind-over-body decisions that people make when they want something badly enough. I think that's why I've become drawn to ultra-events, and why I usually find myself rooting for people who may not necessarily be the leaders - and who may never be the leaders. It's in these people that I see pieces of myself.

I'm not a natural athlete. I'm actually somewhat of a klutz, "built to spill" as they say, and my athletic gifts lie somewhere on the talent level of Madonna's acting skills. I'm so pale-skinned I'm practically allergic to the sun; I'm also painfully allergic to grass pollen and mosquitos - basically, I'm allergic to going outside when it's nice out. When I was born, I'm fairly certain my genes had me all mapped out to be a librarian or a book editor, but I developed an unflagging sense of adventure that I just can't shake. That single quality has taken my weak, uncoordinated body to places I never imagined I'd see, given me skills I never dreamed I'd have, and yet still I want more. Still I want to be stronger, tougher, more able to master a body that was never designed to conquer mountains or cross continents. And so I ride, and admire those who do the same.