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Column: Going the Distance

Montpelier

When I was 15, I somehow conceived the notion that I was short-winded. I have no idea why — my pals and I often took 50-mile bicycle trips over endless Central New York glacial hills on our battered one-speeds, and I rode once from Syracuse to Albany on old Route 20 — but I was nevertheless sure I was deficient in the lung capacity department. I mentioned it to a friend of mine on the school cross-country team, who took me under his wing and ran with me a few times. I still have an old photograph taken that September afternoon in 1950. I was hooked.

A few years later, after several seasons of running cross-country and track, I realized my problem wasn’t lack of lung capacity; it was lack of speed: The longer the race, the better I did. So when a friend of my father’s stayed with us for a couple of days on his way to the Boston Marathon, I ran with him a few times. He was a devotee of a crusty, opinionated English settler in the South African province of Natal who’d taken up long-distance running and set several records, most notably the most miles covered in 24 hours. Arthur F.H. Newton’s uncompromising advice — he wrote a couple of books about his methods that sounded pretty reasonable until he veered off into comments about racial differences — was to train at a slow pace at distances much greater than that of the race at hand. That was easy; my father’s pal and I jogged 30- and 40-mile days, never panting except on big hills.

That led quite naturally to a philosophy based on the motto, “If you can’t beat ’em, outlast ’em.” New England has a steady sprinkling of long-distance races, on foot or skis. From the Tug Hill Plateau out west beyond the Adirondacks to the Carrabassett Valley in Maine, an enthusiast with good transportation — and few family responsibilities — can find at least a half-marathon almost every weekend. Not far north of us, the Canadian Ski Marathon beckons: a two-day, 100-mile romp up the Ottawa Valley that every February attracts thousands of very fit skiers.

Without doubt the greatest long race I ever was in was the 1985 Iditaski Marathon in Alaska. My buddy Dudley and I skied 335 kilometers through the February bush on the Iditarod Trail and along frozen rivers north of Anchorage, skiing night and day and towing pulks. We slept now and then in checkpoints, which were about 25 miles apart. The weather couldn’t have been better: clear and bright, with the aurora and Venus at night for background illumination.

But racing doesn’t all have to be done on foot; there are also canoe races everywhere in season. My buddies Put, Eric and Bob have paddled the Adirondack Classic, a three-day, 90-mile thrash through the ponds from Old Forge to Saranac Lake. I never went, because there are several high-speed portages, and a friendly orthopedist cut off my running in 1977. Put loves that kind of torture; he’s tough as the proverbial boiled owl. Eric, who paddled his bow, recalls one of his typical comments. The third afternoon of the race, Put commented from the rear, “You know, you’re not paddling as hard today as you were when we started.”

One of my disappointments over the years has been that none of our three kids ever took much interest in any of this foolishness. Now and then one or another of them would join me for an afternoon or a day’s outing, but that was it. The youngest, who’s 45 now, did fish with me when she was little, and when she was 10 skied a leg of the coldest Canadian Marathon ever. Her mother was certain she’d freeze to death along the way, but people finishing at the far end assured her the little blonde girl was lying in the snow beside the trail eating M&Ms and making snow angels.

Our son, the middle kid at 52, used to call cross-country “uphill skiing,” and scorned it. He’s finally (we hope) slacked off on difficult mountain bike courses with bone-breaking jumps, and turned to kayaking — mostly whitewater in season. He’s also gotten a 22-foot single-outrigger kayak no wider then his bottom, and he’s been training in it. In July I’ll join him in Kansas City to drive along the Missouri River as his ground crew, while he tackles a 340-mile race almost to St. Louis. I’m really looking forward to the experience: watching him, and getting to the checkpoints with snacks, electrolyte replacement juice and dry clothes. The only drawback is I’ve got to learn to text his progress to race headquarters. But other fathers are in the same boat, so to speak.

Our older daughter, 54, in Olympia, Wash., has been East to climb in the Whites with me, and may come again this summer to paddle. Another chip off the block: On her 50th birthday, she walked 51 miles to raise funds to send poor girls to summer camp, and this year she and her husband will hike the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier.

I guess I rued too soon. The kids are fine. They just had to grow up to exhibit the gene.

Willem Lange’s column appears here every Wednesday. He can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.