Sometimes you see something that makes you rethink what is possible. In the world of sport, moments like these aren't uncommon, but some stand out more than others. I wasn't yet walking the earth, but Bob Beamon's long jump in Mexico City, I'm assuming, fell into the stratospheric category. Usain Bolt's shattering of the 100-meter record just a few short years ago certainly hit the mark. In both of these instances, the sheer athleticism was staggering and evident to any who bore witness.
What really impacts me, however, are not these singular moments, these small windows in time. For me, it's demanding feats of utter endurance, arguably of survival, that hit me the hardest. This week provided at least two of these examples (feel free to inform me of others), the first of which came from the unlikely arena of tennis.
At Wimbledon, the relatively unheralded John Isner and Nicholas Mahut carved out their respective places in history with a tennis match that carried on for over 11 hours and resulted in more games played than I can bring myself to type. I'd attempt to go into greater detail, but I couldn't dare do the match justice AND Ross Tucker of the blog The Science of Sport has gotten as close as possible to capturing the scope of the athletes' achievement:
A few days later in the High Sierras of California, runners toed the line at the start of the 37th Annual Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile event that should garner respect for anyone who dares attempt much less complete it. The field for the event was jam-packed with the brightest stars of ultra-running but the sheer demands of the course (absurd amounts of elevation gain, the thin altitude of 8700+ foot mountain passes, and highly-technical terrain) made Scott Jurek's course record time of 15:36:27 a daunting goal.
Right from the start, a blistering pace was set by four favorites, Colorado's Anton Krupicka, Alaskan Geoff Roes, Spaniard Killian Jornet Burgada and two-time defending champion Hal Koerner.
Ultra-running is traditionally a sport for those in their mid/late 30's and 40's, perhaps requiring the long, slow build of endurance and a psychological development to withstand the suffering. Not only had Anton and Killian never competed in Western States, the dates on their birth certificates (26 and 22, respectively) seemed to suggest that they were at a disadvantage. At 34 years of age, Hal and Geoff better fit the template for ultra-running success.
Nevertheless, Anton and Killian pulled away from the pack prior to the middle of the race and kept adding to their shared lead, trading places at the front but hitting most of aid stations in tandem. This continued through the 79.8 mile aid station which found them still maintaining a sub 9-minute mile pace. Hal had bowed out of the race while Geoff lingered about 15 minutes behind.
Summoning astonishing reserves, Geoff began reeling in the leaders and, as Killian finally began to flag, he had only Anton to catch. Over the last few checkpoints, Geoff drew within sight and eventually passed by Anton to cross the line in 15:07:04 nearly a half hour ahead of Jurek's former record! Anton finished just 6 minutes back and still well ahead of Jurek's best time.
It's unlikely that either man could have covered the distance without the other driving him on. Every poet needs a muse and here's hoping that Usain Bolt finds one in the next year or two, so we can see what he's really got!
Again, my understanding of human endurance has been redefined.