I first became aware of Us and Them as a sophomore in high school. Our baseball team was playing a team from outside the league whose pitcher was a top pro prospect (he later was drafted by the New York Yankees). There was silence in the dugout as we watched the guy warm up. “Can you even see the ball?” someone finally asked. As the game wore on and no one could touch him, Coach Thomas began substituting. Those of us on the bench tried to be as invisible as possible. Finally, in the top of the 9th, coach turned, scrutinized the bench and yelled, “Stamm! Grab a bat.”
Fortunately, I wasn’t Stamm. When the aforementioned Stamm returned to the bench after three quick pitches he was white as a ghost. I asked what it was like, but Stamm was speechless. He didn’t say a word on the long bus ride home. For many of Us, it was our first exposure to Them.
US athletes persist on the notion that if you work hard enough you can do anything. You can do a lot, true, but only Them can do anything. The latter have a gift that no matter how hard the rest of Us work, we cannot compensate for. Some of Us like to disparage Them by pointing out their physical gifts. Lance Armstrong, for instance, has an off-the-charts lung capacity. True, but his lung capacity is exceeded only by his work ethic. Lungs + work ethic = Seven Tour de France titles.
As a golfer some 30 years ago I would have the perfect hole — meaning my drive would go straight and far, my approach shot would hit the green and stick, I’d sink a long putt. Once a season that would happen. One hole out of maybe 25 rounds, or 450 holes. A PGA touring pro, I realized, had to have that perfect hole on nearly every hole. If he didn’t, he wasn’t a pro for long. Us with one perfect hole that would make for a boast-worthy season, Them with 450 perfect holes to survive.
In 2001, Willow Springs cyclist David LeDuc won the World Masters Road Racing Championship. An outdoor adventure columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh at the time, I wanted to write about “The Ol’ Man’s” accomplishment. And wouldn’t it be fun and insightful, I thought, to interview him during a bike ride!
Sure, LeDuc said. I’ve got a 45-mile recovery ride on Monday. You can ride with me then. “Recovery” to a world class master champion and former pro racer, I discovered, means something altogether different to a rec rider like me. I should add that on this recovery ride LeDuc fielded several cell phone calls and took notes from customers of his roofing business. All while maintaining a 20 mph “recovery” pace.
Monday was another Us and Them revelation. I’ve been covering Diane Van Deren’s MST Endurance Run, an effort to cross the statewide Mountains-to-Sea Trail in a record-breaking 21 days. Van Deren began her professional athletic life on the women’s pro tennis tour in the late 1970s. For the past decade she’s been an elite ultra runner sponsored by The North Face. Her race resume abounds: she’s done the Hardrock 100 in southwestern Colorado, said to the the hardest 100-mile race around, seven times. She did the 300-mile version of the Yukon Arctic Ultra, won, had so much fun that she returned to do the 430-mile version.
Monday was Day 12 of her MST quest. Already, she’d covered 388 miles of rocky, rooty, sloppy wet terrain in the rugged Southern Appalachians. Say, I thought, wouldn’t it be fun and insightful to spend a day with her on the trail! After all, I reasoned, she’s been running 11 days straight and her feet are mush. Besides, I’ve got a little trail running experience under my belt, including the 20-mile version of February’s Uwharrie Mountain Run. She was targeted to run 50 miles on the day, from about 20 miles northwest of Pilot Mountain to downtown Danbury, just outside Hanging Rock State Park. A challenge, but I could manage it, right?
Well, I did (you can get an account of the day here). I managed to hang with Van Deren and trail guide Jill Miller, also an accomplished trail runner, and I don’t think I held them back. We started at 5 a.m., finished at 10:24 p.m., ran, with a handful of breaks, for more than 17 hours. But here’s the “Them” part. As we popped out of Hanging Rock State Park in the dark for the last three miles or so into Danbury, Van Deren and Miller began discussing “options.” Maybe another five miles beyond Danbury? Miller suggested. Or maybe grab a catnap and put in another 10, Van Deren said.
“What do you think, Joe?”
I was pretty dang happy that I’d been able to hang with these two remarkable athletes for 17 1/2 hours but I knew my limits and I had only one “option.” “This has been a great day, but I’m done at Danbury,” I declared with Us-like conviction. I’d eclipsed my personal record of trekking 31 miles in a day by nearly 20 miles. I was still moving. I was still coherent. It had been one small step for Them, but one giant leap for Us.
When we got to Danbury at 10:24 p.m., the decision had already been made by Van Deren’s support crew. “Here’s the plan,” support chief Joel Fleming told Van Deren. “I’m going to take you to the hotel and get a good night’s rest. We’ll get back on the trail early in the morning.”
“Early in the morning,” I later learned, would be 4:30. “We’ve got a big day planned for her tomorrow,” John Millsaps, also with the support team, told me. “We’re hoping for 70 miles.” I got up the next morning at 9:10 a.m. My feet were burning, my legs ached in ways new and unimaginable. I made it down the hall to the kitchen, maybe 70 feet. That would be my workout for the day. By the time I’d made coffee, Diane Van Deren had already been back on the trail for five hours.
Us and Them.