A week ago I turned twenty-four, and to celebrate, I decided to run a 24K. To some, that might not seem much like celebrating. I would say: you are equally one hundred percent correct and totally and immeasurably wrong,
The arguably bone-headed concept comes from something called a birthday challenge. It’s a concept that’s gained a recent reissuance in the climbing community and amongst other groups of slightly masochistic recovering athletes. There’s even an early 2000s website devoted to it— birthdaychllenge.com—which lists this backstory:
Inspired by Jack LaLanne, a birthday challenge is essentially a goal, generally in the form of physical achievement, to make your birthday more memorable than the last. Usually the number of your years lends itself to the base of your challenge. For example, on his 70th birthday Jack LaLanne towed 70 boats carrying 70 of his friends across Long Beach Harbor (about 3 miles), handcuffed and shackled.
The challenge combines the two things that I’m a sucker for: obscure traditions and unreasonable, purposeless feats of physical strength. Nothing better. For my twenty-third, I woke up at 6 a.m. and biked forty-six miles, had lunch with my grandparents, and then climbed 230 bouldering problems at the gym. Perhaps guarding my pride against failure, I told no one other than Bekah. I pulled it off, with plenty of time to spare and a few extra miles on the bike to make it to an even fifty. But I found at the end I felt strangely empty. There was no one to celebrate with. No communal go, no team accomplishment.
So this year I invited all my friends to come along. 24K translated to roughly 3.3 laps around Reeds Lake. In between each, I’d stop for a beer to catch my breath and refuel. People were welcome to join for the full hog, for a lap, or for just the beer portion. To emphasize the ridiculousness of the project, you had to come in costume, comically short-shorts, or a birthday hat.
I did it, and friends came out, and it was both a blast and entirely miserable. One friend ran it in cotton shorts, a polo, and a leather hat. Another dug up a track uniform from my high school, two states away. My boss showed up for the last lap. I wore an eye patch and a sailor’s hat, suffering through the full fifteen miles with sunburn and sweat and beer; and wished I had trained instead of just coming off the couch.
I had plenty of time to think about suffering.
A birthday challenge is a ridiculous thing to do. Climbing mountains is objectively nonsensical. These things that I seek to fill my life with aren’t comfortable. They’re mostly a celebration of discomfort, of swearing, of not getting enough sleep or not being able to walk properly up stairs for a week.
I think the reason that I practice ridiculous and voluntary lower-case suffering is that I hope it prepares me well. In life we travel through seasons, as ingrained as the Earth’s transition between spring and summer, autumn and winter. There’s a cyclical nature to our lives that moves us through times of desert and times of abundance. There are times where they blend together. Some people have far more abundance in their lives than desert, and some the opposite. But nothing is guaranteed other than the eventual changing of these seasons. Abundance is a gift and should be celebrated as such, but there’s most likely a desert around the corner.
I recently had a conversation with a member of the US Men’s Whitewater team. He had just come off a speed descent of the Grand Canyon, trying to break the record of thirty-four hours to raft the Colorado River. He told me that while he was paddling down with his team (they ultimately busted the raft and feel shy of the record), he reflected on his father, who was struggling to fight off cancer. That was real suffering. What they we were doing was different. It was chosen, it was manufactured, and it didn’t have to happen. But it was still valuable to try it. To show his kids an example of boldness and courage, to row for thirty-eight hours and prove the mettle of himself and his team down the river. To be in those ancient cathedrals and to experience his smallness in respect to the world.
It’s in the deserts we learn to live well. They can act as a refining fire. They whittle us down to our essence. What I did was no Grand Canyon. Certainly. But it was both a feasting a fasting. I learned about perseverance, and I learned about friends and family who know how to celebrate well. And I learned a small bit more about the patterns of this world and maybe got to practice for what’s around the bend.
So keep an eye open. In a year, you might get an invitation for twenty-five.
Matt Medendorp (’14) graduated with a writing degree held together by duct tape and a few trips abroad. Currently he lives in Grand Rapids, works for Chaco, and claims to be producing a book of writing and photography from his time in Alaska.