Reach For The Stars

[The following is my speech from the 2011 Ironman Canada awards banquet. I provided a copy to several other media sources, so if you have already come across this somewhere else, it is the same speech, and I certainly don’t expect you to read it twice.]
Reading a book about the progress of science over the 20th century, I came upon the Latin phrase, “ad astra per aspera,” (apparently, it’s the Star Trek Starfleet motto) which translates as, “to the stars, through difficulty.” The basic phrase, “ad astra,” meaning, “to the stars,” is a common element (according to Wikipedia) in over 50 different mottos, including my personal favorite, found on the personal stamp of John Steinbeck, which (to save you the Latin), translates to, “to the stars on the wings of a pig.” The phrase has its roots in classical Latin literature in Virgil’s Aeneid and also in a poem about Hercules by Seneca the Younger, who wrote, “non est ad astra mollis e terris via,” which I translated as (thanks Mom & Dad for seven years of Latin…), “it is not an easy road from earth to the stars.” I think that, for everyone here, Ironman represents a star (or, for some of the crazies out there who’ve done some absurd number), an entire galaxy. The road to Ironman is not easy. And that is what makes it special.
I really should say it’s not easy “for most people.” If you are Mary Beth Ellis, it’s really easy. You do 3 Ironmans in 8 weeks and win them all. Way to totally torpedo my speech Mary Beth. But for the rest of us mere mortals, it’s an arduous journey, though it’s one that we share, making the solitary effort of the day seem like common ground, even if we don’t necessarily have common goals. The support of the crowds and the volunteers is as important and essential to me as it is to all of you.
I’ve ridden the Yellow Lake climb more times in training than I can count. Yesterday was my hardest trip up that climb, thanks to the unrelenting wind in the Similkameen Valley that had sapped my legs by the time I hit that intersection with Green Mountain Rd. But it also seemed like the shortest, though I know it wasn’t even close to my best time up that hill, and not just because I dropped my chain in a moment of Ironman-induced idiocy; I guess it wasn’t meant to be a Yellow-Lake-in-the-big-ring kind of day. Maybe that was just a bit too much reaching for the stars.
The crowds of people out in the middle of nowhere had a long day supporting all of us on our equally long day; they made me, ever so briefly, forget the screaming in my quads and helped me to, at least for a moment, say, “shut up legs!” with some conviction. And on a day when Skaha Lake serves as nothing more than a continual tease, ceaselessly inviting you stop running and take a dip, I owe a huge debt to the volunteers with of ice chips who kept me from melting on the way back into town. And to everyone who took time out of his or her own race to cheer me on as I ran by you, thank you all as well. There’s a reason that Ironman started with a group – albeit a small one; it’s something that practically requires the presence of others, if only to have someone else to confirm that you actually did something so unbelievable. And, as seemingly common as it has become, at least within the triathlon community, Ironman is truly unbelievable. Of course, there are downsides to having crowds around; like when someone says, “hey, what were you wiping off your legs right before you came in the finishing chute?” Sorry about that. It mostly coke. I think…
For everyone in this room who isn’t an astronaut – you have to watch yourself with Ironman competitors; they are an eclectic and accomplished group – Ironman is the sort of momentous – but terrestrial – experience that allows us, ever so briefly, to get close enough to the stars to reach out and touch the heavens. Of course, some of that may just be the delirium of a 226 kilometer journey of swimming, biking, and running in a single day. But beyond any heat and gel induced hallucination, Ironman is truly a remarkable feat. I still laugh when people ask, “how many DAYS does that take you?”
As much as we might curse the wind, and the heat, and the seemingly endless miles when we are out there on the day, those very things are what bind us to this race and also to each other. Nobody gets together over a beer and recounts war stories like, “hey, remember that time we ran a 5k in totally perfect conditions?” Adversity is one of those things that truly implants a memory in our brain. According to Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, the meaning of life itself is to suffer. I’m not sure I buy into that, even if it has resulted in some great Blues music over the years.
Personally, I prefer view of Viktor Frankl, the great Austrain psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, that the meaning of life is to find meaning in our lives. I think the “to the stars” part is just as important as the “not easy” part. I don’t think anyone wants to go, through great difficulty, to the grocery store. I don’t think we want our lives, in general to be hard, though I don’t think we necessarily want life to be easy either. What I think drives us to seek out great challenges is that it is a choice that we make for ourselves. We don’t have control over the day, but we have control over our decision to pursue this epic journey. We all, for a variety of reasons, chose to wade into the lake with 3300 other people to undertake something that the typical person would call crazy.
But no one in this room has a burning desire to be, “typical.” That is not why you do an Ironman. You do an Ironman because you want to reach the stars. And you want to do it the hard way. Because that is what makes it special.

17 thoughts on “Reach For The Stars

  1. Nice speech Rapp and huge congratulations. Very inspiring!

    Just a clarification – The Buddhist view is not that the meaning of life is to suffer it is that suffering is part of life (see the teachings on the five aggregates and Karma). Perhaps the meaning of life from the Buddhist perspective is to free ourselves from the cycle of rebirth or the cycle of suffering. We are here to free ourselves.


  2. Andrew G. – I was hoping there were not too many classical or comparative religion scholars out there to take issue with what I wrote. It's hard to incorporate massively complex ideas into a single sentence that's part of a larger overall framework. Many, many very long books have been written about what exactly the fundamental tenets of Buddhism are. While what I wrote was obviously a massive oversimplification, it was also something where really any clarification at all would have been a tangent, so I chose to write it the way that I did, even if it's not – in some people's eyes – entirely correct. In other words, in MY OPINION, the idea of a “cycle of rebirth” is simply not believable. I don't fault other people for believing it. But I do not believe it to be true. Given that I believe that, I do not believe there is any cycle that we can free ourselves from, ergo, my own interpretation of the Buddhist tenet is the the meaning of life is to suffer, because while you may be doing it to free yourself from some cycle, since I don't believe that cycle exists… Well, anyway, as you can see, this is why I just put in a snippet. Likewise, I'm sure some students of psychiatry and/or logotherapy might take issue with what I wrote about Frankl. I hope no one took this is an essay on the merits of various religions or philosophies. It's a bit like saying the earth is round. Technically, it's actually oblong, which has enormous implications for the functioning of our world. But how well would, “the earth is oblong” fit into a short speech about something not directly related to geophysics?


  3. Great speech Jordan! I'm new to triathlons but I don't think you'd get philosophy like that from a winner of any other sport. I will add 'winner is an erudite Latin geek' to my list of reasons to keep doing them 🙂
    Can't wait to talk about the wind and heat with my friends over a beer tomorrow.


  4. I don't want to hijack the comments into a comparative religious studies narrative but here goes…..

    The cycle of rebirth is a very challenging concept for western minds. I think it took me 8 years of reading and contemplation before the my aahhh moment…

    I agree with you that if we look at the cycle of rebirth from a western perspective then it makes absolutely no sense. It seems almost like an afterthought to bring accountability to society. The mistake is to attach the idea of rebirth to the idea of form or the physical body. Our identity does not move from one life to the next because there is NO identity. In Buddhist philosophy there is no self, and no “I”. Consciousness arrises in the presence of the 5 aggregates. It is this conciseness that is reborn (arrises) every moment. Every second. What is left behind when the physical body dies is energy. Our thoughts, words and deed have an effect that extends beyond our physical presence and indeed our life on this earth.

    So the Karma aspect to this is one of self service to remove our “negative” energy from the collective energy field that is life. We free ourselves by not creating negative energy in thought, word or deed. We are reborn every second. We are essentially free when we are no longer adding to our or others Karmic load. This arrises moment to moment. We must put aside the birth to death Christian idea (physical body, self identification and afterlife) if we hope to understand this concept of the cycle of rebirth, Karma and suffering.

    Anyway I really appreciate an Ironman winner giving a speech that extends to far beyond the norm.

    Great stuff!


  5. Andrew – hijack away. While not a comparative religion scholar or any sort of expert on Buddhism, the details of what Buddhists believe, fundamentally, are largely irrelevant TO ME. I don't believe in a Christian idea of death/afterlife/etc. either. I think that, when you die, that's it. In other words, your statement, “Our thoughts, words and deed have an effect that extends beyond our physical presence and indeed our life on this earth.” does not make “sense” to me. I mean, I conceptually grasp what you are saying – I objectively “understand” that belief – but I don't agree with it. That's just my opinion, though, and I certainly don't mean that to undercut a Buddhists faith, belief, etc. It just means I don't share the belief. But I do think that there is some tremendous value – for some people – in believing that or in following those principles. I think when you get down to the, “so how do I lead my life NOW” part of the equation, most religions, according to what they actually teach, are quite reasonable. In other words, the idea of not adding to anyone's “Karmic load” is (probably) a good thing in practice. I just dispute the theory. Not because I believe in some alternative “theory.” But because I believe that life is, basically, a “one shot deal.” But I certainly wouldn't impose that belief on others.


  6. “Our thoughts, words and deed have an effect that extends beyond our physical presence and indeed our life on this earth.” does not make “sense” to me.

    Maybe I did not explain that well.

    “Beyond our life on this earth” does not mean I believe their is an afterlife or another shot at it as in incarnation as a dog, cat or George Bush. I meant that when your physical body dies the things you have done in THIS life still have an effect on the world. Hitler still has an effect on the world and he died over 60 years ago. We share in the collective pain of human consciousness. When a horrific event happens on the other side of the world such as the recent Norway shooting we all feel some effect from that no? We were not present but we feel the effect. No afterlife or reincarnation needed. We are living that (re)incarnation right NOW. That is what I meant.

    Anyway nice to share ideas with you. The older I get the less I know and I am absolutely certain I am wrong about something I wrote above.


  7. Jordan,

    The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) motto is Per Ardua ad Astra – Through adveristy to the Stars.

    Since you are soon to be a canadian, perhaps you can adopt this as your official motto. There were plenty of RCAF competitors racing behind you on Sunday – we'd be happy to adopt you if you are up for it.

    Cheers and congrats.


  8. Excellent race report. Sunday's IMC was my first IM and, man, did I face some adversity. But I crossed the finish line and I wouldn't change a thing.

    Funny that you should mention Frankl. That's EXACTLY who I brought up when describing the race to some people, and the whole idea of finding challenges, as well as finding the ability to survive even when things are at their worst. Pretty powerful.

    Congrats on your win!


  9. Jordan – I saw you win in 2009 and again this year. I'm not from Penticton but it's clear how beloved you are in that community. Having heard you speak now, I understand why. I adored this speech. You offer tons of inspiration in the most humble way. Congratulations to you on your incredible return to Ironman.


  10. Jordan, I have read and re-read this post numerous times since you first posted it. It's powerfully written and concise. I am a huge fan of yours not only as a triathlete, but as an intelligent human being.


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