Living to complete, completing to live


We did it! Thanks to the support, caring and training assistance of so many good people, my body ran, biked, swam, paddled, (and walked) every last mile of the Tango Adventure Race! And you know what? I can’t wait to do it again…only faster.

Knowing a large portion of my race would be run alone; I had anticipated endless assaults by the twin energy drains of self-doubt and panic. Instead, I was filled with love. Love of the hard road. Love of strategy and physical challenge. Love of sport, momentum and trial. I was especially filled with love for all the hearts and hands – seen and unseen – that supported my effort.

Over the last three years, my experience of the Tango has consisted of chasing racers with my camera and competing on relay teams. Every year, I have been immersed in cheering crowds, rushing racers, al fresco musical performances and transition areas buzzing with activity.

I thought I knew this race and the drive of the athletes who compete in it. However, running the entire race solo toward the back of the pack showed me a different side of the Tango.

Nearly every transition area I approached was a ghost town – minus only tumble weeds – in comparison to the beehives I had known. Racers would emerge waterlogged from three-hour swims, battered from bicycle wipeouts or wide-eyed from hours of exertion to find only a small contingent of well-wishers waiting to cheer and help them prepare for the next leg.

I was fortunate to have a large and supercharged transition team who made me feel like a champion every time I finished a leg. But many racers were met more quietly by concerned eyes that asked, “Are you sure you want to keep going? I love you and I am worried.” The beauty was that though their eyes may have asked the question, the lips of the loved ones never did. Instead they chanted encouragement and praise while hands dressed, fed and caressed the racer in their care.

The Tango participants I met at the race’s tail end – though they may have questioned their own determination throughout the day – did not falter in their resolve to finish. No huge adoring crowds, no awards, no grand fanfare and absolutely no way they were quitting.

Whether racing one leg or its entire distance, competing in the Tango Adventure Race changes you. It challenges you to a staring contest with your insecurities and fears and urges you to triumph. Those who win, find a spacious new freedom as well as a surplus of energy and creativity.

I would say that completing the Tango allows you to think outside the box. However, it is more accurate to say that finishing the Tango blows up, dismantles, pulverizes, incinerates, stomps on and then buries the box!

Racing the Tango redefines what is essential and valuable and builds Tango heart. A Tango heart is filled with self-reliance, determination, mental toughness and a commitment to giving your best. But Tango heart – I believe – is equally about fair play, kinship forged in adversity and sacrifices that don’t make the headlines. Tango heart beats in first place finishes as well as in the quiet kindnesses that transpire in far-flung places where no cameras flash. It is most obviously present when one racer stops to help another…competitor or not.

From all that I witnessed and heard on race day, I know that Tango heart beats strong in Warren County every first Saturday in August.

Tango heart also played a pivotal rolein my journey.

Things were going well during the fourth leg of my race, the orienteer. Two of five points (specific sites on a map you must locate with a compass and map) were in the bag and the third was just ahead.

Coming toward me was my friend Piper. “Tickets!” I shouted her nickname, overjoyed to see her. When we neared one another, she told me that she hadn’t been able to find points 4 and 5, so she had run up the hill to collect points 1, 2 and 3 as confidence builders. (Points 1, 2 and 3 were close to intersecting paths and roads and because of that fact were much easier to find than points 4 and 5.)

Piper had point 3. I had points 1 and 2. So I told her to go get points 1 and 2 while I got point 3. Then I would wait for her at point 3 and – from there – we would shoot bearings to points 4 and 5 together. Now that I think about it, I was being a bit bossy, but if you know me….

Piper asked if I was sure I wanted to do that because it meant I would have to wait for her. My reply was something eloquent and deeply meaningful like, “Yep.”

We met at point 3 and put our wonder twin powers to work, though I can’t remember if she was water and I was bucket or vice versa. We drew on all of our orienteering skills: topography reading, pace counting, contour running, dead reckoning, field search techniques and the confidence of being two.

Without further orienteering distress, the missing points were acquired and we were on our way out of the woods. While ambling toward the transition area – my legs had long since lost their running zip – Piper said, “You didn’t leave me on the orienteer. I’m not leaving you on the run.”

I told her I had to walk the 4.5-mile leg and that she should run it to better her race time because she could. With Piper and two other very strong women competing solo, I was content to be the odd woman out of trophy contention.

Piper repeated that she wasn’t leaving me.

We began the leg running, but that didn’t last much longer than the zoom power of her husband’s video camera. I still cannot be sure whether it was my legs that had given out or my mental strength to drive them. Either way, it was going to be a long, hot walk to the kayaks.

I kept apologizing to Piper. I apologized partly because I felt terrible holding her back and partly because I hoped that if I was annoying enough, she would run to get away from me.

On my fourth or fifth apology, Piper said, “I’m going to explain my thinking. You could have left me in the woods. If I had eventually found the points and then run the 4.5, I may have caught up with you. If I caught you, it likely would have been at the kayaks, and we would have ended together anyway. So this is no different. We’re walking and don’t apologize any more.” I guess that made us even on the bossiness score.

We made it to the kayaks…the final leg of the race. Paddling into the gorgeous Allegheny River, I told Piper, “My legs are shot for running, but my shoulders and core are strong. Let’s do this thing!”

She agreed and we pushed water hard…at last (and once again) really racing toward the finish. We joked and swapped stories as we sought the fastest currents downstream and played bumper boats. I made up a song about the pork sandwiches that awaited us at the finish line and sang it whenever my pectorals and deltoids threatened revolt. My hungry belly will always trump any whining muscle in my body.

En route, Piper and I agreed to finish the race together. To avoid any confusion, we decided to lash our kayaks at their midsection for the final yards of the race so we would finish side by side.

When we reached the spot where we had planned to link our kayaks, Piper hung back. I told her, “Get up here!” She asked me if I was sure. I told her that not only was I sure, but that if she didn’t move up beside me, I would be pissed. She surged forward and we bungeed our kayaks. Then we rowed to the finish, each stroking the water with half of a kayak paddle.

My friend Piper has true Tango heart.

When we landed, I did not feel like the athlete I had dreamt of becoming. Instead – looking at the beautiful, cheering faces bathed in the last amber rays of daylight – I felt loved. I also felt intense joy and honor that these incredible people had hung out long enough to cheer for us and celebrate our finish. It was after 8 p.m. and the awards ceremony was long over.

On Sunday, my eyelids sprung open just before 6:30 in the morning. Lying there remembering what had transpired over the previous 24 hours, I assessed the bodily damage before moving a millimeter. “Soles of feet a little numb, expected tenderness in the calves that had cramped and a surprising soreness in the jaw and cheeks. Hmm?” I stood up. No, I actually bounded up. Nothing else hurt in my body and I felt ready to walk the dog. I smiled very pleased with myself. “Ouch! Oh, so that’s why my jaw and cheeks hurt.” I had smiled all day long.

Then it hit me. If my vintage 1966 body could spring back after a beating like that, I was – at last and undeniably – an athlete. Before this race, I was living to complete. Now that the Tango has been run and my body has not been left a burnt out shell by the side of the road waiting for the junkperson, I realize that I am also completing to live. In fact, that is my new mantra. One that I hope you’ll join me in…I am living to complete and completing to live!

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