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Drew Shannon

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Earlier this year, I ran seven marathons on seven different continents on seven consecutive days – in Antarctica, Cape Town, Perth, Dubai, Madrid, Santiago and Miami. The World Marathon Challenge is one of the most physically and logistically challenging running races. As the January start date approached, I found myself having the same doubts my much more sensible wife had been having, and asking myself the same questions: What on Earth makes me think I can do something like this? Why do I need to do something like this? What is the point of doing something this difficult?

So, in order to answer these nagging doubts, for both myself and my wife, I decided I had better take her questions in order.

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What makes me think I can do something like this?

This was a very valid question. I have run several marathons in the past, perhaps seven or so over the past 10 years. But I honestly have no particular talent as a runner. I have never run a sub-four-hour marathon. I didn’t run my first marathon until was 40, and I would turn 50 before the race started. But running a marathon, more than you would think, is much less about ability and much more about determination. You need to decide you’re going to do it, you need to have a plan, and you need to see the plan through. If you can do that, you’ll be a marathon runner. Fact. Thinking about that, it struck me that this is much like many things in life. It could be trying to pass a difficult course at school, negotiating a change of careers, losing weight. I believe I can do any of these things. I also believe any of us can do any of these things. Decision. Plan. Execution. And so, in some twisted way, this rather insane race was no different to anything else for which I’m not naturally qualified (a generous list). So, why not? I’d decided to do it, I had a plan and I was determined to see it through.

Why do I need to do something like this?

Another good question and a slightly trickier one to answer. My wife is clever, and she knew, technically, I didn’t need to do this race. I also don’t need to run a marathon or try a triathlon or enter into anything else outside my comfort zone. But, like most of us, I also work full-time. I work in an office at a job I enjoy perfectly well. I also have three children who I love perfectly well. But I don’t want that job or those children to entirely define who I am. Perhaps sometimes we should all do amazing or different or difficult things, whether those things are volunteering, mentoring, learning a new skill or language or, yes, even running an ultramarathon. This expands not just our horizons, but who each of us is. And then, as we share those stories and experiences with others, we help to expand who other people are and what they believe is possible. In truth, I didn’t need to do this. But I should do this or something else.

What is the point of doing something this difficult?

In all honesty, I suspect I’m trying to prove something to two sets of people. Firstly, I’m trying to prove something to my three sons. As any parent knows, children are both a wonderful blessing and, occasionally, an inconceivable frustration. In particular, as they get older, they make a point of never doing what you say and always doing what you do. Go into their bedroom and yell at them to pick up their clothes from the floor, and they learn to yell, not to tidy. So me telling them that they can accomplish anything in life, no matter how difficult it seems or how much the odds might be stacked against them, is almost certainly a waste of breath, even if they are, by some stroke of luck, still listening by the time I’ve finished speaking. Much better to do something impossible and make them sit up and take notice. Secondly, I’m trying to prove something to, or at least find something out about, myself. It’s only when we fail at something that we find out what our limits are. And, it’s only when we see how we react to those failures that we really discover who we are.

So, convincing myself of all this, I left Toronto for Cape Town in late January. On Jan. 31, a bunch of us flew to Novolazarevskaya, Antarctica, and ran a marathon at the bottom of the world. We then flew back to Cape Town and ran another in searing heat, and then to Perth, Australia. On it went for seven days. At the end of it my wonderful, tolerant wife and three lovely children met me in Miami. And yes, the boys might have been just as concerned with the hotel room-service, WiFi and heated swimming pool as with the 183.4 miles I had just run. But we talked about the race and they understood that it wasn’t easy, and it took grit and determination and belief.

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At some point, those boys will be faced with a challenge, one they initially think they can’t overcome. It might be getting into university. It might be finding a job. It might be getting over a particularly nasty breakup with a particularly pretty girlfriend. And probably, in the midst of their emotional turmoil, they won’t think of me or remember this run. But at least it’s possible that they will. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll think of their pasty, white, middle-aged, balding father and realize that if that ancient geezer could run marathons all around the world, that probably they can get through whatever it is that currently seems impossible to them.

And if that’s the case, surely the question my wife and I should have been asking all along wasn’t whether it was irresponsible to run this race, but whether it was irresponsible not to run this race.

Mark Angus Hamlin lives in Toronto.

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