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Original Issue


We possess, declares the document of our nation's founding, the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When you think about it, doesn't that last one kind of go clunk? Can't you imagine Franklin, the old printer and conjurer of Poor Richard's homilies, editing Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration, saying, "Oh, come on, Tom. What's this goofy 'pursuit of happiness"! It sounds like a joked-up license over a bar."

What it is, of course, is a license to be yourself. Jefferson left it in to bolster the case of eccentrics who might disturb the rest of us with their bizarre behavior. Force it a little, and it has a bearing on sport. In particular, it's something that should be kept in mind when looking into the new world of endurance triathlons.

The disquieting athletes who participate in this event have a perfect right to do so, not only the consecutive 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run of the Ironman competition in Hawaii, for example, but the daily six, eight, 10 hours of training that can render an athlete a vacant child in the evenings and thus force decisions on families and employers. One is fundamental: whether to indulge this seemingly compulsive behavior or to depart in wounded frustration.

These are the extreme cases, yes. But endurance sport is by definition a phenomenon devoted to extremity. Triathletes seem the final extrapolation, the limit to where you can get by saying, "Well, if I can't do it faster than anyone else, I'll do it longer. And if I can't do any one thing faster or longer, I'll do two or three." Granted, only the hardest competitors are acting this out. The rest of the pack, knowing there can be but one first-placer, say something like, "Surviving is the thing. To finish is to win." And so they do survive, and upon finishing are profoundly happy, as I can attest, having come near these regions myself.

But those striving for first place can easily do too much, too fast, with too little sustenance, and thereby subordinate survival to winning. Especially when it's hot. Witness Julie Moss. In the February 1982 Ironman, brought to us by ABC, we saw her establish a lead, then in the final stages disintegrate and collapse. And collapse again, three times. The announcers, Jim Lampley and Diana Nyad, repeatedly exclaimed over the heart and the courage of this indomitable woman. Indeed, the moments were heralded in this magazine (TV/RADIO, Dec. 27-Jan. 3) as among the most dramatic of the year, perhaps because Moss was passed, heart-breakingly, as she lay within 15 feet of the finish. ABC showed it all again while covering last October's Ironman.

Watching, I knew what it was like for her. I was overcome by heat in the 1971 Pan American Games Marathon in Cali, Colombia. It was 80° in afternoon sun only a few degrees from the equator, at an elevation of 3,140 feet. At 15 miles Frank Shorter looked at the Colombian ahead of us and said, "He's sweating like a horse."

"So are you," I said.

Shorter looked me up and down. "But you're not," he said.

It was true. My skin was dry, despite my having drunk everything I could get down along the course. "This is either very good or very bad," I thought.

It wasn't good. (Dr. Gabe Mirkin puts it clearly in The Sportsmedicine Book: "[Once] you stop sweating, your body temperature may shoot up to 110° this point your brain is being cooked and can be destroyed.") Within a mile the leaders had left me. I noticed, rather absently, how awkward I had become, how my back wanted to arch, how my heels hit the road before I wanted them to. My mind was made up, though. If I could not win, I would finish.

A mile later I was dizzy, as if bees were swarming around my head. There was no question of quitting. There never would be. Suddenly I was in the embrace of white-coated attendants. It was over, they said. They walked me to their ambulance, where I was cooled with wet towels and made to drink volumes of a mild saline solution. By the time we returned to the stadium and learned that Shorter had won, I was nearly sensible, though filled with ache. "You could have died out there," said the U.S. team doctor. "You're lucky those guys knew what they were doing."

That all came back as I watched Moss fall and rise and stagger on, with no one seeming to help. And as I was told of her courage, it didn't seem like courage to me. It was the simple keeping of a promise to oneself, to finish, to try. Endurance athletes are created by that decision, to keep on. But when they are in danger in the heat, the one thing that can kill them, then the outside world must interfere or risk losing them. It must know that courage is no longer courage after the capacity for rational judgment has ceased. It's only keeping on. It's what we all would do, we who have gotten ourselves into the predicament in the first place.

Knowing this, the Honolulu Marathon, in which thousands run, has nurses and doctors every two miles trained in recognizing and treating heat stroke and dehydration. All runners are exhorted constantly to drink, to sponge. The Ironman Triathlon had similar facilities, but where was help as Moss continued to stagger and fall?

Had I been along the road in Hawaii 15 months ago, and seen Moss in her classic throes of heatstroke, I would have embraced her as I had been embraced and taken her to treatment. Her race was done. Her condition transcended winning or losing because it verged on transcending life, without which the pursuit of anything is beside the point.