Two years ago I signed up for an Everest Challenge. It was simple: get 29,029 feet of elevation gain, the height of Everest, in 50 days. That's a little over 580 ft of elevation gain per day, which is challenging in the midwest. And challenging day after day. And challenging for me. The short version of this story is that I finished it. But the story, of course, is in the long version, and the long story really happens on the very last day.
The challenge was this: You had from September 1st - October 20th to complete the 29,029 ft. The struggles for me, which weren't totally clear to me yet (but were to my coach), were discipline, procrastination, and pacing. I had declared at the beginning that it all needed to happen outside, not on an incline treadmill. My close outside elevation option was a very small ski hill about 15 minutes from my house, and the steepest hill there is about 140 ft. On the last day I had close to 5000 ft of elevation gain to complete by midnight. It usually took me about 2-3 hours to gain 1200 ft, so at that rate I would be done in 5-7 hours, which seems like a hard but doable day. Except I had already been cramming in the elevation because I had not paced myself. I had 7 day gaps in those 50 days when I didn't get any elevation, so the three days leading up to this final day became oh s**t I'm in trouble kind of days. Point being, I could get 1200 feet in 2 ish hours when I was fresh, which I was not. Plus I had more than 2 times that to do. And there was a storm brewing.
October 20th in Minnesota isn't necessarily early for a snow fall, but it is early for an all out snow storm/ blizzard-esque event. When I started out in the morning it was balmy and 70 degrees. I couldn't believe that we were going to have snow later in the day, and I had convinced myself I'd be done anyway. But all day long the weather changed and the drama on the hill was palpable. First the clouds rolled in, which was a blessed relief. Then the winds came, which was really, really cool. At first. There was no one on the hill but me. It was dramatic and lonely and really hard and I put some kind of romantic spin on the whole thing. It began snowing and I soldiered on, until about 3pm. 3:11pm, to be exact. The snow was coming down hard. It was clear it was going to be epic. I texted my coach:
I just did short of 2 hours with only 1076 of gain. I have to go change again and charge my watch. Is this possible without the treadmill? I have 1198 to go. I know this isn't helpful but I'm having trouble getting past the fact that I should have done more earlier.
Coach back to me:
There's only one way to feel good about this--and that is to finish what you started. Regroup and finish this thing out on that damn ski hill.
What I wanted now was an out. It was snowing. It was blowing. It was cold and my body was shot. I wanted to believe that I could just go finish at the gym, that vert is vert. But what I wanted most was to wake up the next day and know that I finished, even though I put it off, the way I said I would--outside, on the 20th, no matter what the circumstances. I wasn't really after 29,029 ft of vertical gain, I was after discipline.
And that's been the deal with running and these big challenges all along: they would provide the curriculum for outcomes that were never about PR's in races or vertical gains on a ski hill. The goals were always courage and confidence and discipline. It was always about learning how to pace my life and how to be brave so I could own who I am. I just didn't know that in the beginning. I still like the actual running goals, too--but the fact that my whole life can change for the better from learning about discipline in a blizzard on a ski hill is pretty cool.
At 6:45 pm on October 20, 2020, without another soul in sight, I was making my last trek up the hill. I had to go sideways and use my boot to carve out snow-steps every inch of the way up the slope. The snow was blowing and swirling and the wind was stinging and that last climb up felt impossible. Insurmountable. I was done in, I was wet, I was frozen, but I was going to finish. I got to the top of the hill and made my way over to the slightly less steep downhill. I stood there for a minute and felt this swell of some emotion--relief? Pride? Joy? I knew something had happened for me--something more than the Everest Challenge, something that matched climbing (and descending) 29,029 ft of elevation--but I didn't know what that was yet. I didn't know that my coach helping me trade what I wanted now for what I wanted most was going to have such a deep and lasting impact, and frankly it wasn't an immediate lesson learned. It's only been recently when I have been sorting out how to pace my life that the memory of that day has surfaced and resonated. My coach held my feet to the fire, and I walked away with the most beautiful picture of discipline to draw on for the rest of my life.
Choosing what you want most is a bottomless well. Choosing what you want now is an 8 oz glass of water. And finishing the Everest Challenge in a blizzard was a lucky, serendipitous bonus.