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The existential moment

For many years - seven or eight now - the footrace up the Mt. Washington Auto Road has been the high point of my summer, a kind of annual yardstick of my physical and moral stamina. That's because in this race what I call ''the existential moment'' is prolonged more pointedly and inescapably than in any other I know firsthand. The ''existential moment'' is a term I employ for that point in a race when you are forced to confront some pretty basic questions, questions that of necessity have simple but not easy answers.

In a cross-country ski Marathon this point generally occurs somewhere around the forty kilometer mark, when the exhilaration of the mass start seems like a remembered dream. Your racing suit, now several shades darker with sweat, seems suddenly to have acquired all the heat-retention qualities of a wet bathing suit. To avoid freezing, you have to keep moving at exactly the point when you feel most inclined to collapse into a snowbank and wait for the St. Bernards.

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It's then that the existential questions - like bubbles in a hot spring - tend to surface in the most involuntary way: ''Why am I out here in the first place? What's the point in putting myself through all this agony? Why not drop out at the next feed station and crawl into a warm car?'' Admittedly, the only thing that has often kept me going is the realization that quitting would ultimately hurt more than going the distance. Other times I've actually welcomed the existential moment, because in the end that's what racing is, for me, all about - not to prove how fast you can go, given x amount of training, but to see how well you can respond to a severe mental and physical challenge.

In a cross-country ski marathon, this moment occurs about two hours into the race with half an hour still to go. In the race up the Mt. Washington Auto Road, it generally commences at about the one-mile mark and doesn't stop until the lunge through the finishing chute in the mist and typically gale-force winds on the summit.

My best times, though, haven't been the result of ferocious teeth-gritting. Three years ago, for instance, whatever head of steam I'd built up before the race got dissipated in desultory chatter with the usual cluster of acquaintances who, like me, make an annual pilgrimage of the event. As starting time approached, I knew that unless I went off by myself and got my dwindling resolve recharged, the race would wind up being a leisurely hike. So I headed over to a Sno-Cat parked near the toll booth of the Auto Road and sat down in its shadow.

Some swallows swooped and darted above a meadow that shimmered in the hot June sun. But it was still cool beside the Sno-Cat. The longer I sat watching the swarm of runners thicken, the more pointless it seemed that grown men and women would drive from all over New England for the privilege of running up a six-thousand, seven-hundred-foot-high pile of rocks. I'd spent weeks, though, getting ready for this moment. Where was I going to find the incentive to go through with it - much less try my hardest?

For some reason I began thinking about my introduction to video games that morning in the den of the otherwise quaint New England inn where I was staying. In this particular game, ranks of enemy spacecraft advance inexorably toward the operator's spaceship located near the bottom of the screen. The operator's goal is to zap the enemy before they literally descend on him - if they haven't blasted him already with their own fire.

That morning beside the Sno-Cat, I decided that instead of trying to keep my body going at a certain pace, I was going to keep the upper hand in the mental video game that forms the invisible race. I was going to hold on to the feeling of freedom and happiness I've come to associate with running and keep zapping the enemy - pain and the fear of pain - that would try to snatch that feeling away. If I could do that - for the whole eight miles - the race could not help being worthwhile.

I strolled over to the starting area and wriggled my way into the pack, and, in accord with a strategy repeatedly vindicated over the years, let it thunder ahead of me over the course's only flat stretch. Three-quarters of them, I knew, would be walking by the end of the first mile. In the meantime, I had my mental video game to play. Without going into details, the approach - with some diligent application - seemed to work. Though the threat of pain rarely fell silent, my joy in the running and in the spectacular mountain vistas remained unscathed.

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In the movie Chariots of Firem, Eric Liddell, the Scottish sprinter, says, ''God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.'' God does not appear to have made me especially fast - though I equaled my best time, I was still ten minutes behind the winner - but through that race I discovered once again the strength that comes of feeling His pleasure.

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