Kendall Ruth knew he had nothing to prove. But he forgot the lesson. Here’s how he relearned it.
When asked what lesson has taken the longest to learn, I heard a man about my age respond, “That there is nothing to prove.” I have, also, taken a long road to learn this truth, and it is probably why I am distance runner. It was knocked back into memory this summer when I chose to run a race with my name on it, literally.
The Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton, CO, starts at 9,300 feet and tops out at 13,030 – six miles up, six mile down. The distance isn’t what makes it difficult. It’s the altitude and the steep graded 4×4 road full of rocks. I signed up for it because it had my name and after turning 40 I thought I had to prove I could still push my limits, if only to myself. At some level I was trying to recall what it felt like to discover again my mettle.
Most men hit their 40’s with unanswered questions or unfulfilled desires that haunt them. The prospect that they are closer to dying than being born can send them into an adolescence that often is more destructive than generative. When I turned 30, I had a crisis of sorts wherein I had accomplished most of what I set out to do, taking the risk I wanted to take so I wouldn’t be that old guy writing ad poetry about what could have been. I was no millionaire or highly successful entrepreneur as those were never things I desired to achieve. Friends joked that I wouldn’t have a mid-life crisis because I used up all those cards. But I still thought I had something to prove.
Can I still push myself physically outside what I think I can handle? At 40, is my body still able to explore the outer edges of acceptable limits and not end up in the hospital? After numerous years as a mountaineering guide, having rock climbed until it became boring, surfed waves that I should have drowned in, running races on terrain too high to breathe, and all the other ways I had grown up pushing myself, I wanted to check in and see if I still had it in me to go to those edges.
I made the 6 1/2 hour drive from Boulder to Silverton the day before the race, rolling into town under fog and rain just in time for a bad dinner at a local dive. Even though I live at 5,300 feet, a jump to 9,300 still makes for sleepless nights as the body isn’t getting enough oxygen to rest easy. With 5 hours of sleep, I joined the other 140 runners in Silverton’s Wild West-looking Main Street. The difference between now and the 1800’s is Main Street is paved and instead of horses and guns we wore compression socks and polypropylene.
The jeep trail switch-backed through mountain pines and aspen trees, getting steeper and steeper the higher we ran. Well, “ran” is a relative term as most of the runners were walking. My legs burned for the whole of the ascent. Half way up, I entered that miserable space of, “Why am I doing this to myself? I don’t have anything to prove.” But then I realized I was actually enjoying the race.
Like waking up from a long sleep, I was remembering that boundary pushing stirred up a different kind of joy that is usually there in my daily life but veiled by busyness and routine. Joy, unlike, happiness is not something to achieve and thus fleeting, but a constant not unlike a river. Rain or sun, murk or clarity, it is always flowing, always there. In the midst of physical exhaustion, I was rediscovering the flow. Along with it, I was shedding the shallow preoccupations I lived under and that hid that joy. And it wasn’t just a runner’s high as I was far from euphoric. By the time I reached the peak at 13,066 I was suffering from a mild case of pulmonary edema – fluid in the lungs.
It had never been about proving something. I had answered those questions earlier in life but I forgot the answers I had come to learn. The surprise of remembering washed away my amnesia and connected me again with a core truth — that everyday is the opportunity to make a choice for joy. About the only guarantee in life is that we will die. So between now and that moment are a million choices that can make for good living and thus good dying.
I made it down in more pain than I had going up. After cleaning up, packing up and swapping a few stories with other runners, I eased into my car and started the drive back home, 24 hours after I had left. I drove in silence for most of the 6+ hours, only stopping for food, coffee, and fuel. I wasn’t rushed. I wasn’t concerned with the tourists in their RVs driving too slow. I wasn’t carrying so many of those petty annoyances that I drove down with the day before. They were left somewhere on Kendall Mountain, along with any lingering anxieties, questions, and muscle tissue.
I set out to see if a 40-year old could still make it through absurd endurance. What I rediscovered was the value of living in joy regardless of circumstance, that I have always had this unyielding river in me that flows whether I pay it mind or not.
Men are taught directly or subtly that we have to prove ourselves. We breathe it in like a fish breathes water. There is a time when proving your mettle has context. Why else would the military be filled with men in their 20’s? Where else would adrenaline sports find their junkies? But the lesson that comes with time is that indeed…there is nothing to prove. There is living each day with the choices we make.
It is far too easy to get bogged down in regrets. Life is too short and fragile for those to make up the majority of our story. Nobody else is going to give a damn about your regret. Get over yourself, get up in the morning and live, even if it means burning the very tissue that holds you together.
As for me I have a run to go enjoy, regardless of the outcomes.