-William Wallace in "Braveheart"
I’ve had the topic for this post swimming around in my head for about a month now—ever since the death of pro skier and Tahoe local Shane McConkey, who died in a skiing accident on March 26 in the Dolomites of Italy. I guess I’m not sure what the topic actually is, or what I truly think about it, which is why this post has remained unwritten until now. I’ve learned, however, that sometimes it is the act of writing itself that helps us figure out just what it is that we are thinking. So…here goes.
In my own writing, I frequently return to the question “why do I run?” It’s not so much that I don’t know the answer (although I’m not always sure that I do) but that I want to make sure I don’t forget it. I’ve been at this running thing a long time, and one of the bonuses that come with age is a little thing called perspective.
In case you’re not familiar with A.E. Houseman’s poem, To an Athlete Dying Young, I’ll post it below. As a teenager, this was one of my favorite poems. Yes, I was a runner even then, and I had an affinity for the author’s cynical sentiment that glory is fleeting. It did, in fact, seem better to “slip betimes away, from fields where glory does not stay,” rather than to become a runner “whom renown outran, and the name died before the man.” I don’t mean to say that I ever had a death wish. It’s just that, when you’re young, the idea of growing old (and slow) seems…sad. Twenty years later, and the idea of growing old, (and slow) still with the opportunity to run, seems beautiful.
This brings me back to Shane McConkey. Shane was a
I’ve made comparisons before between ultra-running and extreme skiing. I guess that’s what happens when you are surrounded by skiers, many of them pros. I see plenty of similarities between the two, along with sports like climbing and mountaineering. The biggest thing I think these sports have in common is the reaction of the rest of the world. When people hear of our exploits, we are most often met with the response, “you’re crazy!” And while most people mean this in a positive and often even respectful manner, it still tends to make one feel somewhat misunderstood. We are all pursuing a passion that is a bit outside the definition of what most consider normal. Interestingly, this also has the effect of causing me to adore the ultra community itself because I feel so much like I belong. These people share my passion, understand what it’s about, and never call me crazy. For skiers like Shane, living in a ski town has much the same effect, and allows one to thrive in the community.
Accidental death seems to strike a special note of tragedy, and often leaves us wondering if the victim could have, or should have, done something to change his circumstances, perhaps avoiding his fate. Earlier this winter,
I don’t just say this to shut him up, (although it does typically turn out to be an effective argument). I say it to point out an important truth: I am doing what I love, just as he is doing what he loves, and I could never ask him to give that up. We worry, sure, because we care about each other. We also know that we can’t expect the other one to change who they are, just because we worry. Running is who I am, just as my husband is a skier and patroller. To ask us to live differently, would be asking us to give up who we are.
I don't run for the glory. (In case you haven't figured it out yet, there is zero glory in running.) I run because I love it and I couldn't live any way other than to pursue what I love. Even in more glamorous sports like skiing, athletes like Shane aren't doing it for the glory. Perhaps as a teenager that was part of it, but if you're still doing it when you're 39, it's because you couldn't live any other way. You have gained perspective--you already know that glory does not stay, and that it doesn't matter.
When Shane McConkey died, this community had nothing but praise and admiration for him. People came out in droves to write letters and articles and commentary about Shane’s pioneering skiing, his positive outlook on life, and the great example he set as a father, coach and general role model for young skiers. Still, I know there are those outside the ski community, and even some quietly within, who say that fathers and husbands, mothers and wives, should not take the kinds of risks he took, that they have bigger obligations. I don’t know Sherry McConkey, but I am certain that even when their daughter was born, she did not expect Shane to give up doing what he loved. That would have been asking him to become someone other than the man she married. His obligations to his family were to love them, support them, and help them all live their lives well. I don’t think he could have accomplished that in any better way than he did.
To say that those who take these risks must wish to die young is to miss the essence of what they are doing. People who live with passion don’t want an early exit from this world; they want the most out of it. They don’t want to be left with nothing to live for. In Shane’s 39 years, he lived well, and left us all "townsmen of a stiller town."
If you haven't seen Shane's ski base jumping and wing-suit base jumping exploits from the movie "Seven Sunny Days," you should check it out here and here. It's mind blowing! The clip below however, from the movie "Push" does a better job of capturing Shane.
To an Athlete Dying Young
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields were glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl's.