They say the journey is the destination. Maybe they’re right.
By Mary Catherine O’Connor
There are a good number of important firsts in the annals of outdoor sports: In 1975 Japan’s Junko Tabei became the first woman to summit Mount Everest. In 2006 Kit DesLauriers became the first woman to ski from the seven summits, the highest peak on each continent (Tabei was the first to climb all seven). In 1993 Lynn Hill became the first person, male or female, to free-climb the revered Nose route on El Capitan in Yosemite. These accomplishments did much to equalize the playing field between the genders and inspire millions of women to follow in the footsteps of these pioneering female athletes.
But for each of these successes, there are many more women who fell short on significant firsts, new records, or other important goals. So did these athletes miss their targets due to a lack of dedication, focus, passion, or verve? Certainly not. A seemingly small ailment mushroomed and forced Flip Byrnes to bail out of a recent monthlong trekking and kite-skiing trip across Greenland. Elite rock climber Bobbi Bensman lost a coveted title due to a twist of fate. And back in 1982, Julie Moss made history for not winning the Ironman Hawaii triathlon. These individuals didn’t bring home the gold, so to speak, but what they did bring back is infinitely more valuable. And the fortitude they displayed, regardless of the outcome, is an inspiration all its own.
Where does it come from, this drive? Research shows that while external sources of motivation might push us toward an athletic endeavor, it’s the stuff inside us that really gets us there.
Philip Wilson, an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Education and Kinesiology at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, has conducted studies into the nature of motivation among athletes. Although his research focused on mainstream sports such as college basketball, some of his findings give insight into the origins of the intense drive shown by endurance athletes as well.
“The assumption has traditionally been that motivation is a simple thing,” says Wilson. “If you look at literature that comes with dietary supplements, exercise machines, et cetera, you would think that motivation is simple, but the opposite is true.
“No magic bullet exists for all people that will magically motivate them to be active and engage in exercise over longer periods of time,” Wilson continues. Some people are motivated more by external factors—a metaphorical carrot in front of them, such as a gold metal or the admiration of their peers—while others are driven by internal factors: they exercise or eat right or floss their teeth because they know it will keep them healthy. But when it comes to the motivation needed to surmount a huge challenge, such as summiting a formidable mountain or breaking or setting a record (especially if that record is a first for a woman), athletes most likely have what Wilson calls intrinsic regulation. “This means you pursue a goal because it is consistent with your sense of self,” he says. To these people the activity itself, no matter what it is, is self-rewarding. “People who are motivated through intrinsic regulation persist more frequently even under extreme challenges.”
For Australian Felicity (Flip) Byrnes, it’s clear that her source of motivation is linked to her sense of self. Adventuring, she learned relatively late in life, is in her blood. When Flip told her family that her plan for college was to become a photojournalist, her grandmother nonchalantly remarked, “Just like my father.” Upon further querying Flip came to learn that her great-grandfather, whom she had never met nor knew anything about, had indeed been a photojournalist. His name was Frank Hurley, and in 1914 he joined the crew of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and a ship called The Endurance, captained by Ernest Shackleton, bound for the South Pole. That trip, and Hurley’s photos from it, are famous not because the adventurers reached their goal—they didn’t—but because they all made it out alive after ice destroyed The Endurance and the crew spent nearly two years marooned in Antarctica and later on Elephant Island.
“It was like meeting a ghost,” Flip says, after also learning that the stark black-and-white image of an ice-choked ship that had always been hanging in her grandmother’s hallway—a picture she had passed a thousand times without ever thinking much about—was taken by her great-grandfather during that famous expedition. As the years passed and Flip, now 33, completed her studies and became a freelance travel writer, she felt her great-grandfather’s presence grow stronger, until she came to a crossroads. “I was newly single and found some liberty in that, so I made a list of things I wanted to do; at the top of that was to start pursuing this heritage of exploring. All these random events started happening. I met someone who had been to the North Pole, and he became a mentor to me; then I started contacting all the people I could find who had been to the poles.”
Flip set a big, long-term goal for herself. It was the same one that her great-grandfather fell short of: reaching the South Pole. But she knew enough to know that a budding arctic explorer doesn’t cut her teeth on a go at a pole. She would start by crossing Greenland, she decided. She would be only the second Australian woman to cross Greenland but, more importantly, the trip would be excellent training because crossing Greenland’s icecap takes about half the time as crossing Antarctica but the conditions are similar. Flip also decided that she’d take along her latest love: a kite-ski.
On April 23, 2008, Flip and four others set out from Nagtivit, on the eastern coast of Greenland, on a diagonal course that, according to their plan, would put them in Ilulissat, on the west coast and more than 400 miles away, in roughly a month. The team fought nasty headwinds for the first two weeks. The wind kept them moving at a glacial pace, each hauling about 170 pounds of food, fuel, and gear on sleds.
They also carried a rifle should they encounter an unwelcoming polar bear.
Flip had been fighting a stomach virus before the trip. To keep themselves fueled, the team attempted to eat about 5,000 calories per day, but Flip’s virus came out of remission and her stomach would not allow it. “I could not keep my food down, and the bug was causing everything that went in to come up again. I would feel fine and then vomit,” she says. “It was so frustrating. I was desperate to keep food down.”
In addition to her nutrition problems, which left her weak and unable to work as hard as her team, Flip developed debilitating blisters on her feet.
When she started seeing blood in her urine, it was obvious that it was time to go. “It was a great deal of common sense to make the decision. Things can go very badly very quickly, and I didn’t want that to be my last trip because I didn’t come off it,” she says. The team called in a helicopter to take Flip to a hospital back on the east coast, where it took 6 liters of fluids and a steady dose of antibiotics to get her hydrated and feeling better. (Soon after Flip flew off the icecap, the headwinds subsided and the team was able to reach a summit after they traveled via kite-ski with the prevailing winds. They completed the crossing safely a week later.) “I guess journalists are good at divorcing emotion from facts. It was a hard decision on my ego and my reputation, but they were never my driving motivations anyway. I did what I set out to do, which was to test myself. It was a perfect reconnaissance for Antarctica because things went wrong. If this same outcome had happened in Antarctica— a two-month crossing—it would have been much worse. For my skills it was fantastic, and more than anything it confirmed for me that, mentally, an icecap is where I want to be. I learned so much on the expedition that I can’t count it as a failure.”
And to the icecap Flip plans to return. After a trip to Beijing to cover the Summer Olympics, Flip hopes to travel to Norway, where she’ll kite-ski and train for another go at the Greenland crossing. And, when she’s ready, she hopes to take her kite-ski down to Antarctica.
Many years before Flip’s foray into the great white yonder, and many miles away, in Rifle, Colorado, a rock-climbing mecca on U.S. 70 east of Denver, Bobbi Bensman ruled the rock. She was the best female climber in town and one of the top competitors on the international sport-climbing circuit. In 1993 local climber Kurt Smith established a climbing route that he called Slice of Life. He rated it at 5.14a (rock-climbing routes are graded on a decimal system from 5.1 to 5.15, though routes from 5.10 to 5.15 also carry subgrades, a for easiest through d for most difficult). Slice of Life was considered an extremely difficult route—perhaps the hardest in Colorado—and no woman had ever climbed a 5.14 in Rifle.
One September day in 1996, Bobbi did it. She climbed Slice of Life. “It was a good ascent on my part,” she recalls of her effort. She was 31 at the time. “It didn’t take very long, and it was really cool to link up and do.” But her jubilation was short-lived. The very next day, the route was rerated—and downgraded to a 5.13d. With that Bobbi’s claim on Rifle’s first 5.14 female ascent was dashed.
The first person to identify and successfully climb a new route gets to name and rate it. When Kurt Smith made the first ascent of Slice of Life, he considered it a 5.14. But when other climbers later followed the route, they found a number of spots, called knee bars, where they could rest during the climb. These knee bars suggested that the route was easier than 5.14, and the climbing community reached a consensus and decided to downgrade the rating to 5.13d, right when Bobbi completed the climb. But she says she did not find or use the knee bars during her climb.
“It was pretty devastating,” Bobbi says, now 44, who retired from her life as a professional climber not long after the Slice of Life debacle and works as a sales rep for outdoor gear brands Salomon and Gramicci. “The climb was so important to me,” she says, adding that the fact that it happened in her home town was especially tough.
But she refused to let the loss she suffered on Slice of Life stop her, and she quickly started working on a new goal: climbing another Rifle route called The 7pm Show, rated 5.14. She nearly completed the climb, but came just short. During her career, Bobbi has climbed more than 125 routes rated 5.13, so why does the lack of a 5.14 cause such a sting? Maybe it’s the curse of the firsts. In Rifle, the 5.14 brass ring remained unclaimed by a woman until 2005, when upstart Emily Harrington, then just 18, sent a 5.14 called Zulu. Bobbi would never have the title. But, of course, she wasn’t the only woman vying for the first 5.14 in Rifle.
A number of other top women climbers had been chasing the goal—specifically The 7pm Show, which made it all the more rewarding to Emily when she made that climb her second 5.14. All these years later, Bobbi’s failure to grab a 5.14 still irks her, but it didn’t get the best of her. “I’ve moved on,” she says. “I had a great career, a great run of it. I’ve inspired a lot of people, I walk down the street and sometimes people still say ‘Oh my God, is that Bobbi Bensman?’ So I had an influence on people—especially women climbers.” In fact, perhaps Bobbi’s enduring reputation as a tenacious climber is somewhat underscored by the fact that she fell short of a single, important goal. People like underdogs, especially if they get an A for effort. Take, for example, Julie Moss, the woman who is credited with single-handedly putting the sport of triathlon on the map (both for men and women) . . . with a second-place finish.
In 1981, Julie was a 22-year-old student trying to wrap up her studies at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, flipping through stations on her TV, when something caught her attention: a broadcast of the Hawaii Ironman. It was just the fourth year of the event, and the second time it had been televised, carried by ABC’s Wild World of Sports. Despite being, at best, a pedestrian athlete, Julie honed in on the race because she saw it as her ticket out of school: she’d finish her degree in physical education by writing a thesis about her training and competing in the Ironman Triathlon: a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, and topped off with a full marathon. So, less than a year out from the February 1982 race date, Julie signed up. Then, she says, she didn’t do much. “I procrastinated with my training,” she says. She didn’t have a coach (triathlon coaches didn’t exist then). “I was so disconnected,” she says. “I bought a cheap bike and then just started swimming back and forth in the pool, but was very bored in the pool. I did run two marathons for training.” Overall, though, her training regimen would make any coach cringe. The marathons were timed far too close to race day, and she was riding her bike way too much on the days approaching the race. There was no pacing in her training, no slow build-up, and certainly no recovery time built in.
“My one saving grace was that I had started surfing when I was 14, so I was comfortable in the water,” she says. (Actually, though, she also had natural talent as a runner . . . finishing both of her training marathons in around three and a half hours.)
On race day, Julie joined 530 other entrants, and she was one of only 49 women. For the first part of the day, Julie just put her head down and cranked away. Her goal: to finish. “It’s such a long day, it wipes the smile off your face. It makes you operate at a level that I had never experienced before,” she says. But then, at around mile 20 of the marathon, she got some astounding news: she was the leading woman. Plus, there was a sizable gap between her and the second-place woman, Kathleen McCartney. This news changed everything. Julie transformed into a competitor. “I got the sense that I was accomplishing something huge, and something that would look good on paper, too.”
She had nearly finished the race, nearly locked in an unlikely victory, when she bonked. And she bonked hugely. Go to You Tube and do a search for “Julie Moss” and “Ironman 1982” and watch the Wild World of Sports clip that shows her crumbling to the ground, then fighting back to her feet, then falling again and eventually crawling, with a startling, steely stare, to the finish line.
It’s no surprise that Julie hit the wall. Sports nutrition was relatively rudimental back then; she was subsisting on water and bananas. “I tried to eat a Snickers during the bike race, but it was melting and I didn’t want to get any on my face, because I could see the TV cameras on me, so I threw it away,” Julie admits. Of course, those same cameras were trained on her throughout the end of the race, as she stumbled and rose and stumbled again, but she paid them no mind. “The world got very small,” she says. “All I could think of was one foot in front of the other, with this underlying feeling that it was worth it.” But it wasn’t enough. Yards from the finish line, Kathleen McCartney closed the gap, passed Julie, and crossed the finish line. But that didn’t stop Julie. She kept crawling, until she collapsed, with one hand over the finish line and a smile on her face. She was soon whisked away on a stretcher.
When the race was telecast weeks later, all the lights on the switchboard back at ABC Sports headquarters lit up at the end of the race, says Bob Babbitt, an Ironman athlete and co-founder of Competitor magazine. Some viewers were afraid she was dead. Days later ABC decided to do a live interview with both Julie and Kathleen. Triathlons had arrived.
“Endurance sports were not something that Americans were familiar with,” says Bob. “People thought Ironman athletes were weirdoes, endurance freaks. Then in 1982 here is this red-haired, freckled girl, who could be your next-door neighbor, and she is trying to Climb Everest. She does not give up. People are watching her crawl. So they ask: ‘Why is this so important to her?’
“Her performance changed the scope of endurance sports from winning to competing,” Bob continues. “It was a human-interest story. People could relate to Julie more than they could to someone who made it look easy.” And what if she had won the race? What if she had finished first? Bob doesn’t believe that Julie would have made nearly as much of an impact. Julie went on to become a professional triathlete, though she admits it took her a number of years to really find her footing in the sport despite receiving generous sponsorships by gear companies from the beginning. She did well in a few triathlons on the international stage and did compete twice more in the Ironman, each time beating her finish time from the previous race, but she never won. The women’s field grew much larger and competitive after the 1982 Ironman.
Now, at 49, Julie is an announcer for world-class marathons and triathlons. “People tell me that I inspired them to start doing triathlons,” she says. “You’d think that my performance would be discouraging, but it was the spirit that got people.”