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Editorial: Solo sailor sets example of grit

At 70 years old, Jeanne Socrates joined the club of people who push themselves to accomplish what most people see as impossible.

At 70 years old, Jeanne Socrates joined the club of people who push themselves to accomplish what most people see as impossible. When Socrates guided her 38-foot sloop Nereida into Victoria Monday morning, she became the oldest woman to sail around the world alone and non-stop. That’s more than 40,000 kilometres of sailing through some of the most dangerous water on the planet.

While climbing the mast of her rolling vessel to make repairs off Tasmania, Socrates could have been forgiven for wondering why people do things like this.

She has described it as the Mount Everest of sailing, so there is the lure of doing the most difficult thing in the world: Climb the highest mountain, sail the longest sea route, run the longest race, dive the deepest water.

For those who take on such challenges, it’s about testing themselves against obstacles that seem insurmountable.

Dean Karnazes, who ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days and won many ultramarathons, wrote: “The human body is capable of amazing physical deeds. If we could just free ourselves from our perceived limitations and tap into our internal fire, the possibilities are endless!”

Reaching such goals requires more than inner fire. It calls on many of the attributes we admire in ourselves and others: planning, preparation, persistence, discipline, focus, courage. Socrates needed all of them in getting ready for her voyage and seeing it through.

As she pushed the age limit in sailing, others are pushing it every area of endeavour. In May, 80-year-old Yuichiro Miura became the oldest person to climb Mount Everest.

The thrill of the test is not just for the elites. Susan Simmons, 48, plans to swim the 34-kilometre length of Lake Cowichan later this month. Simmons, who has multiple sclerosis and is raising money for research, expects it will take 10 to 11 hours. Having swum across the Strait of Georgia, Simmons knows the feeling of setting a difficult goal and meeting it. Looking back can make all the hard work worthwhile.

In Gary Ferguson’s Walking Down the Wild, the naturalist writes: “At the end of any wilderness trip there is always a sense of exhilaration, but never more so than when you’ve come face to face with physical exhaustion. It’s in this elated post-trek state that my mind begins a kind of editing, a myth-making, really — grinding down the sharp edges of the hard times and buffing the good ones to make them shine.”

More of us are striving to feel that exhilarating sense of accomplishment, to look back over a hard road and know we bested it. Just look at the steadily increasing numbers of people who turn out for the Times Colonist 10K, the GoodLife Fitness Victoria Marathon and Ryder Hesjedal’s Tour de Victoria cycling event.

The U.S. National Park Service has tracked the number of climbers on Mount Rainier in Washington since 1950, when 238 people attempted the summit. In 2010, the number of climbers hit 10,643.

Most of us will never know the feeling of being alone on a boat in heavy seas, far from land and far from help. We stand in awe of Jeanne Socrates’ accomplishment and find inspiration in her example.

Our goals might be a little less ambitious, but she has shown us what it takes to say: “I did it.”

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