A lot of things felt like they were on the verge of breaking down in the six months of training for my first 100-mile ultramarathon, and a couple things broke down for real—most often my running shoes, which, let’s face it, are really only good for about 300 miles of running, no matter who makes them. As I ratcheted my running miles up throughout last summer, I began to destroy shoes at a very fast pace.
I ground down the outsoles, ripped the uppers on the insteps, wore through the lining just below my ankle where my feet occasionally rub together, and sometimes finished a 20-mile trail run wondering how I managed to gouge out a piece of the midsole. Some Saturdays, I started my 20-some-mile trail run with a brand-new shiny pair of shoes, only to finish with them filthy, soaked, and already downtrodden after only a few hours’ use out of the box. It was all oddly satisfying. Expensive, but satisfying. Especially since my feet, ankles, and knees lasted through the summer that destroyed all those shoes.
I have used a lot of gear, and broken some of it through misuse and mistakes (who among us has not accidentally ripped a tent or a puffy jacket sleeve). Sometimes I’ve only used a piece of gear once because I basically bought the wrong thing or didn’t end up using a certain thing for a trip (i.e. I really would have liked that bug net on my head, but left it behind at the last minute). But I have truly worn out only a couple dozen items: gloves whose palms have finally sprouted holes, a chain bike lock whose outer covering was finally shredded after a decade of use, a pair of bike wheels that wore out after thousands of miles, locking carabiners that got worn almost halfway through, and a couple old puffy jackets that I thought were still fine but then saw in a photo of myself that the front had turned from orange to a sort of grimy yet shiny brown.
I once snapped a steel bike frame through sheer hard use. It was my first real urban bike, and I rode the shit out of it, probably cranking way too hard on it sprinting away every time a stoplight turned green. One day, I noticed it was shifting on its own as I pedaled, and I looked down to see the downtube completely separated from the bottom bracket. I thought maybe it was some sort of defect that took 29 years of the bike being alive (and a couple years of me mashing the pedals) to manifest—but then I met two other people who had broken steel bikes in similar ways, through years of pedaling. You never want to break your favorite bike, but having to retire it because you used it until it finally died is way better than breaking it in an accident.
Wearing something out gives you a feeling that you’re doing something right. A garage full of gear doesn’t necessarily mean you do anything besides buy gear, but a garage (or closet) full of beat-up stuff means you’re using it, that the dream you had when you acquired that piece of gear was fulfilled in some way. And going through all that dirty, dinged-up, worn-through stuff can be as gratifying as looking through all your old photos of your adventures.
Maybe you tell yourself the bike, or the skis, or the climbing rope had a good life, did its job, and then had to be put out to pasture. And that’s so much more appropriate than it gathering dust and eventually having to be gotten rid of because it’s outdated. And when you do get rid of it, you try to not think of all the big plans you had for it on the day you bought it.
Nobody’s ever going to give you a trophy for all the fun days you had using a backpack, or a bike, or a pair of hiking boots—so those worn-out pieces of gear are the closest you’ll probably ever get to having a mantelpiece that says “I Squeezed Every Bit Of Joy Out Of This Thing.”