Saturday, April 25, 2009

To an Athlete Dying Young

"Every man dies. But not every man truly lives."
-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 Truckee local who skied at Squaw Valley. He had been an extreme skier for his entire life, and was respected as one of the vanguards of the sport. He was also loved and admired as a member of the community, a husband and a father. I didn’t know him personally, but I had occasions to see him at events around town, and it was obvious to me that he was a passionate man who was living the live he loved.

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, Squaw Valley suffered another hardship when professional ski patroller Andrew Entin died on the job during avalanche control. Caught in an avalanche that he and his partner intentionally set off, he died of trauma. He was working a route he had covered for nine years, in the safety zone, doing everything right. Sometimes accidents just happen. As the wife of a professional ski patroller, this kind of death hits pretty hard, in spite of the fact that I didn’t know Andrew or his wife personally. And when my husband worries, and tries to tell me that running 100 miles isn’t good for me or isn’t safe, my response is generally, “You hold lit explosives in your hand and throw them to set off avalanches while you’re standing on the slope!”

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.

photo courtesy of

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

-A.E. Houseman

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.


  1. Thanks, Gretchen. For sharing that poem - I wasn't familiar with it, but am glad I now know about it. For saying something about Shane - I'm not as connected to the ski scene as I used to be, but even I could feel a McConkey-shaped hole in it's fabric. And for sharing your thoughts - I know mine too often go unexpressed, and it's really good to get them out there.

  2. I have always loved that poem since I included it in a compilation for an assignment in high school (26+ years ago!). The line "townsman of a stiller town" has always stuck with me. Wonderful poem and wonderful post.

  3. Gretchen:

    Your post just choked me up...

    Just got back from a 'perfect Sunday' touring in our backcountry, and logged on to see what's happening in runner land...and I find a post that 'says it all'. So well written, such a clear picture of who we are, how we live, and what we do (each to our own levels and abilities). I used to define myself as a 'skier' changing that definition by including 'mountain runner'...and hope to one day use 'ultra runner'...and next time someone asks why, or gives me one of the 'crazy' or 'insane' comments...I'm just going to send them a link to this post!

    As far as Shane goes, I was lucky enough to meet him a few times while we both worked for Volant. All I can say is the docmetary of him said it all...'There's Something About McConkey"...he will be missed, and not forgotten.

    Thanks again!!!


  4. This is a very thoughtful post. And thanks for sharing the poem; I never heard/read it before.

  5. Very well said, Gretchen. I can identify with that constant pull between being "safe" with your family or pursuing a more risky passion. It's never an easy call, especially when you hear stories like this. You did a great job expressing all this.