I am attracted to extreme challenges and impossible goals. I admire the people who take them on, their audacity, their courage, that they embrace what others consider crazy and go on to succeed. I wonder what tackling their challenge has taught them about themselves, about their strengths and weaknesses, and about what’s important in life. I want to be one of them. But it’s taken me a while to find the right kind of challenge to attempt.
When I was a kid, my family used to hike sections of the Appalachian Trail. I was astonished to learn that the trail ran all the way from Maine to Georgia, over 2,000 miles, and that people hiked it straight through. I imagined hiking day in and day out for five months or longer and tried to imagine what you would see, feel, and learn living in the forest and camping for so long. As an adult, I have a better idea now of how much preparation and physical stamina are required for such a feat. While I’m still drawn to the idea, I’m not so sure this sort of hike is for me.
Likewise, I admire marathoners of all kinds. I ran when I was in my 20s, but over the last decade, my bad health has made regular exercise an impossibility. Whether my health was good or bad, I always wondered: what would it be like to run 26 miles all in one go? Could I do it? I have never been a fast runner, but to make it to the end would be a triumph no matter how long it took. Still, the physical demands and preparation required meant this particular challenge wasn’t for me.
When I saw the movie Julie & Julia, I was hooked by Julie Powell’s audacious goal. For those who somehow missed it, she made all 536 recipes in Julie Child’s classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking in just one year (365 days). It sounded completely crazy, so I wanted to do it, too! Only this challenge didn’t work for me, either. I have food allergies and if I cut out everything in that cookbook that I can’t eat, I’m not sure there would be 10 recipes left for me to make. 10 recipes in a year? Big flippin’ deal.
The list of audacious challenges that call to me is endless. I dream about sailing around the world (only I get terminally seasick), walking from Spokane, WA to New York, NY (as Helga Estby did with her daughter in 1896), or spending a calendar year trying to see as many bird species in North America as I can (known to bird-watchers as the Big Year; the current record is 745 species). I’ve even thought I should try to visit every one of the 401 National Park sites in the US. Easy enough to add a time limit to give it some edge.
Fortunately, in 2006 I found the extreme event that works for me: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Every November, people all over the world challenge themselves to write a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days. The first time I heard of it, I had the exact same reaction I did to hearing about the Appalachian Trail: “People do that?” But for once, even as I wondered if I could, I thought, “Yes. I’ll bet I can.” Writing is one area in my life where I am fast and agile, and though I had never written anything that long that quickly, I wanted to try.
I did try, with a half-baked story idea that came to me on October 30th. When November 1st hit, I dove in. And I did it. I wrote 50,000 words in 30 days, and I have done that every November since. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be participating in NaNoWriMo for the 8th time.
Has taking the NaNoWriMo challenge lived up to my expectations of what an audacious goal might teach me about myself? Indeed, it has. I’ve learned that I can be disciplined, that I can find time for what matters, push when I need to even if I don’t feel like, and stick with something over the course of 30 days. For someone who cringes whenever I’m told I need to do something daily, a challenge like NaNoWriMo is daunting. But I’ve done it.
And I will do it again. Like my husband’s friend who recently ran his 99th marathon, I keep going back because every time I do, the challenge teaches me something. I learn more about myself, my creative process, and how to meet the goals I set for myself despite the obstacles life tosses my way.
I’m incredibly grateful that Chris Baty had this crazy idea back in 1999 and that, like me, he couldn’t leave it alone. He threw down a gauntlet that I picked up with glee. And while I may never see hundreds of bird species in one year or hike the entire Appalachian Trail, I can at least say: I wrote a 50,000 word novel in November. I set a crazy goal and I did it.
Are you intrigued by audacious challenges? What calls to you? What have you had the courage to tackle and what did you learn?