Running through the 'River of Doubt'
Lessons from Candice Millard's book on Teddy Roosevelt's journey into the Amazon
If you’ve been following the training plan we’ve been running since the beginning of the year, you’ve probably realized we’re just past the half-way point of our 18-week schedule.
We’ve gradually increased our mileage and now are running more than 20 miles each week — a long way from where we started at the beginning of the year, when we ran about half that distance.
Of course, this also is the point at which many people who train for a big goal like a marathon or a half marathon begin to doubt themselves. Their motivation starts to flag. They start to wonder, do I really want to do this? Am I really up for another 8 to 10 weeks of this? That couch is looking awfully comfy right now…
I know what that feels like. When we commit to something big in our lives, the beginning is always exciting. We feel a rush of passion; at long last, we’re doing something we’ve always wanted to do. It’s glorious! But later, we come to understand the size of the commitment we’ve made, when we realize just how daunting this thing we’ve committed to actually is.
As I write these words, what keeps calling to me in the back in my mind is a single moment from a book I read last year, Candice Millard’s fantastic The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, which was published back in the mid-2000s and which I read and wrote to you about last fall.
Her book tells the story of a long-forgotten expedition Roosevelt led into the wilds of Brazil’s Amazon River basin, to follow the path of the Rio da Dúvida (“River of Doubt”) between December 1913 and April 1914.
The expedition didn’t start out the way it ended, however. Originally, Roosevelt planned to take only a two-month speaking tour through Argentina and Brazil — to help him earn some sorely-needed money and take his mind off his devastating loss in the presidential election of 1912.
But the more he talked about it with friends in New York, the more he felt a longing for a true adventure into what was then still-unmapped territory.
And so he does. Along with an expedition that includes scientists, longtime friends and his son Kermit, he makes the trip to Brazil, where he and his team spend two months traveling hundreds of miles over land before they make it to the banks of the River of Doubt, which they intend to descend and travel to the place where it empties into the Amazon.
When they finally make it there, in December 1913, Roosevelt takes a moment to pause and look out onto the river, on a spot where a bridge had been built by a Brazilian military officer named Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, who had attempted the same journey five years before:
“On the spot where Rondon had abandoned his exploration of the River of Doubt five years earlier, the Rondon Commission had built a simple wooden bridge to straddle the river’s roughly sixty-five-foot expanse. As Roosevelt at last stood on that bridge, listening to the swift, muddy water slap against the warped planks beneath his feet, he peered into the dark stretch of jungle ahead of him. This world, which he was about to enter for better or worse, was strange and utterly unfamiliar, and while his first glimpse into it was exciting, it was also deeply sobering. No one, not even the inscrutable Rondon, could predict what was around the next bend. Roosevelt was about to become an explorer in the truest, and most unforgiving, sense of the word.”
Those words describe an event that happened more than a century ago, and they still send shivers up my spine.
Not because I ever want to do anything as dangerous as a journey on the River of Doubt — not in a million years! — but, it’s exciting to imagine that moment for Roosevelt. What it must have felt like to stand on that bridge and look out onto that river, and peer into the jungle, imagining what might lay ahead.
It may sound silly (and maybe it’s my inner Walter Mitty coming out) but I feel a tiny little bit of that feeling when I imagine where we are — with 10 weeks of training behind us and eight more to go.
If nothing else, we’ve come far enough now that the only way out is through, a realization Roosevelt came to as well, when he looked out on the river and imagined the adventurers before him who had tried and failed:
“The difference between Roosevelt’s expedition and those of the countless rubber-trappers who had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate the Amazon’s wild tributaries was that Roosevelt was going to descend the River of Doubt, not attempt to fight his way up it. This strategy would allow him to harness the river’s great strength rather than oppose it. But it represented a gamble of life-or-death proportions, because, from the moment the men of the expedition launched their boats, they would no longer be able to turn around. The river would carry them ever deeper into the rain forest, with whatever dangers that might entail. When they reached a series of rapids, they would have to portage around them — or mumble a prayer and plunge ahead. In either case, the option of returning the way they came was no longer available to them. They would find a way through, or they would perish in the attempt.”
Yes, I understand the stakes we’re running for aren’t quite as high for us as they were for Roosevelt and his team. 😇
It’s their story I take inspiration from — the story of a group of people who were clearly overmatched, by the natural environment and the predators that lay in wait for them in the jungle. And yet, they still press on.
They found the strength to keep going, even though there were many moments during their journey when their situation got very dark. Even if none of us ever experience anything close to what Roosevelt did on the river — and I pray none of us do — we can take inspiration from how they handled themselves.
All of us, sooner or later, come to a moment in our lives when we stand on a bridge like the one Rondon built over the River of Doubt. It happens when we train for a big goal, when we want to give up.
Another book — The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, written in 1951 by the Scottish mountaineer and writer William Hutchison Murray — sums up this idea in a single paragraph:
“… but when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money — booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”
It’s comforting to know that everyone, everywhere who tries something difficult has moments of doubt. We’re all human, no matter whether we’re attempting to run a marathon, climb Mount Everest or travel through the Brazilian jungle.
Because they found the strength to keep going, we can too.
(I think! I hope!)
I hope you’ve all had a great week and are getting some great runs in — as always, keep in touch and let me know how your running is going.
Our training plan for this week
I hope you’ll forgive me for taking an interlude last week from our plan — here are our miles for this week, which add up to 21 miles (if you run three miles on Sunday):
Thursday, March 17 — 5 miles/50 minutes
Saturday, March 19 — 8 miles/80 minutes
Sunday, March 20 — 2-3 miles/20-30 minutes
Tuesday, March 22 — 6 miles/60 minutes
Let me know how it’s going for you and if you have any questions about the plan, your running, etc. I love to hear how you’re progressing.
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