A buddy of mine used to be in the USSA XC development pipeline and spent a season racing World Cup before an injury he was hiding turned to a spiral fracture and a torn-up knee. His career as a Nordic skier was over at 22 and he became mortal at the most immortal of ages.
We met up one night to watch a game of mutual interest and have a beer in Park City. We were at a bar which serves peanuts for the main course and PBR in 40 oz. chalices for $3.50, probably the only way to get a buzz going for under $10 on the shadowy side of the Wasatch.
As the table began to resemble some kind of beer glass concerto, I leaned in for the secrets of life as a professional athlete.
What I was looking for, and what he wasn’t willing to give, was the whole athlete-as-rockstar narrative: Nordic skiers, after all, are the NASCAR drivers of Europe, only in DayGlo Spandex and Santa’s Helper booties. I wanted to know all there was about Femme Bot Scandinavian women racers and their completely unguarded and not-at-all provincial look at post-race nudity, group hot tubs with a Goldschlåger chaser and indiscriminate race-morning sex. The boozing and the blackouts. The thumping to a techno beat with lights and tracers and leaving it all on the snow only to catch a quick snooze on the team bus and do it all up again that night.
The thing about athletes is they don’t like to be interviewed. It’s boring. It’s horrible. Whatever they say comes out wrong or out of context or not funny when it was supposed to be. Our conversation that evening was probably more me-as-buzzed-interrogator than drinking buddy. That, plus our significant others at the time were friends, caused him to withdraw from my line of questioning.
We spent the fourth quarter in silence.
Thinking better about driving down the steepest stretch of freeway in the US back to Salt Lake, he followed me across a field back toward the house. As we arrived on my street, the November snow resembling ice flecks atop a frozen dinner, he tapped me on the shoulder.
“What I miss,” he said, “is tasting the pain.”
He got it. That sounded cheesy. But all the same, “You know, like that Red Hot Chili Peppers song. I’d always listen to it before the race.”
The tune is about a breakup, or maybe being with the wrong person, or maybe being with the right person at the wrong time, I think. That’s what I told him.
He mercifully ignored me and kept going.
“It’s like so few people,” he paused. “…Let me start again. I consider Nordic racing the hardest sport in the world. But there are so few people, even the best guys, who can taste the pain. Who can push themselves beyond whatever their body’s telling them and just fucking keep going no matter what. Beyond hunger or collapse. Beyond euphoria or injury. That’s the pain. I got there once or twice. I got there to the point that it probably ended my time being competitive. But I got there. And that’s what I miss.”
So, that’s it. Taste the pain. That’s the secret.
My racing career never went and never will go beyond age-grouper. Sometimes, shorter races, when I’m feeling good, that’s a top age-grouper. Sometimes, like Saturday’s Santa Barbara Half-Marathon, it means just trying to finish in the top third. Putting down that primer to see what the baseline is and what I can color on top with a full race calendar and a new head of steam in 2015.
The return to the starting line left room for improvement. I got smoked like a brisket Saturday by my brother-in-law, who came off the couch three months ago after a 10-year racing hiatus (kids, he says …I think he was just sand-bagging) to pass me without remorse around mile eight.
He finished. I finished. The determined mother of my child finished and my sister finished. We were happy. We took a selfie. We showered up and got burritos. It was a good day—a great one even. I got to hold my son in the finish area and he got to blow his mother kisses as she strode down the chute with the extra kick that only the little ones can conjure.
But I didn’t get there Saturday. I didn’t get beyond hunger or collapse. Beyond euphoria or injury. Truth told, I never have tasted the pain, even though it’s written on my hand every race. I’ll get there someday. Someday when it’s right. When it’s earned.
Meantime, I skipped the banana table and pulled a fresh Twinkie from a stack in the post-race corral. Drenched and spent, I bit into it like a soot-covered orphan.
It tasted delicious.