Last year my wife Jenny completed the Wisconsin Ironman Competition in Madison. In case you are not aware, an Ironman involves a 2.4 mile swim in open water, a 112 mile bike ride and a marathon—a 26.2 mile run. That is not all. There are cut off times for each of the competitions. The participants need to finish the swim in two hours and 20 minutes. They need to finish the bike ride in eight hours and 10 minutes. Their whole race must be completed by midnight. If they miss they cut, they are pulled out of the race. Simply put, it is one amazingly tough competition. It is probably the toughest endurance race anyone can do with the exception of some freakishly difficult elite races.
I was captivated by the race the whole day. I felt like I was watching some grand, complex, rich, beautiful opera. This was especially true at the cutoffs. The deadlines were unforgiving. If someone was one second late, they did not get to complete the race. I watched jubilant, whooping cyclists cross the deadline 15 seconds before the deadline. I also watched several families eyes get red and tears flow when their loved-ones were not able to make the cutoff. The volunteers given the tough job of pulling people from the race were given the heart-breaking nickname, dream killers.
The race of course is not the whole story or even the main story. The race is the final accomplishment of a year of dedicated work. Many were the times when Jenny got up and completed an 18-mile run, a 60, or 80-mile bike ride before I had finished breakfast. Every competitor in the Ironman had his or her own version of this story.
As she prepared for the race the one thing Jenny heard more than anything else was the question she first heard from our friendly, retired electrician who asked, “What in the world would provoke you to do something like that?” I think though that a better question is, “Why don’t more of us do something like that?” I say this because what I saw in the Ironman was people who were profoundly testing their limits, who were living fully and who seemed to be saying “I only have this one life to live and I want to see what I can accomplish.” It was a beautiful thing to see so many people doing everything in their power to do something amazing.
As I watched the competitors I was reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s famous quotation:
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake.
Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.
Of course Shaw did not race an Ironman and neither will I, nor will many people who read this column. The issue is not what race we run. The issue is to make our lives burn as brightly as possible. There are so many ways we can do that. As parents. As teachers. As artists. It does not matter what we do. We can write a blog, or a help a child feel loved and inspired, or volunteer in our community, or fight for rights, or respect, or equality. What matters is that we give it our all.
Life is short, but the opportunity to live it fully is there for us to us every day. Making the best of that opportunity, to burn as brightly as possible, that is really in many ways what life is all about.