There are several things I know that I will never do in this life. I do not say this out of any sense of premeditated defeatism or a lack of self- confidence. I say it with the same assuredness as knowing that I will never ride a unicorn into Big Foot’s lair to rescue the Easter Bunny. There are just some things that won’t happen. For me there are two (three if you count the aborted freedom raid for the Easter Bunny.)

ONE: I will never row a boat across the Pacific Ocean. There are several hundred reasons for this, but a few jump quickly to mind. First, my brain tells me it’s an insane endeavor to undertake willingly and/or for fun. I have an easier time envisioning jogging to the moon than being in a rowboat for 2,400 miles surrounded by Infinity.

Then there is the whole sun thing. Being of Irish descent means I have an approximate fry time of 134 seconds. If I plan to spend a day at the beach, it requires a gallon of zinc oxide and the erecting of a Ringling Brothers’-style tent. Being in an open boat for three months, at best, would reduce me to a potato chip.

But I believe all of the aforementioned reasons (and the unmentioned: fear of sharks, sea monsters, sea snakes, giants squids, and rogue waves) don’t compare to the loneliness such a journey would bring.

I once spent six months living in a log cabin. It was on a 400-acre ranch that abutted the Holy Cross Wilderness in western Colorado. There was no electricity or running water. No phones. A friend and I had stumbled on the opportunity to be “ranch hands” and thought the experience would be “sooo fuunnn”. And it was. Until she moved out two months into it to live in a condo with her boyfriend. Slopeside. In Vail.

It’s true that solitude lends crispness to experience.  But when pretty pictures (sunsets, sunrises, bears in meadows, moose in meadows, etc.) are shared only with one’s self, the peace of solitude begins to devolve into hollow echoes of loneliness; a perfect stillness that causes the ears to ring. My takeaway from the experience: I like having people around.

TWO: I will never know the true nature of dynamical systems and the geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces. I know, I know….sometimes I can be so dense, right? But more of that later.

Twenty-nine year old Elsa Hammond rowed out of Monterey Bay, CA on June 7 as part of the inaugural Great Pacific Race. She was the only female solo from Europe to be competing in the race and had the goal of becoming the fastest and youngest woman to row the route solo. She never made it. Instead, she spent 37 days rowing into screaming headwinds, getting crushed by 30-foot waves, and having three oars turned into splinters.  After rowing for 1,000 miles, she decided it was best to turn around and head for Mexico.

On August 13th Iranian-born Harvard-educated Maryam Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics. It was an exceptional day for two reasons: 1)The historic- Mirzakhani is the first woman to ever receive the honor since it was established back in 1936; and 2) The ironic- A woman received the highest honor for being the absolute best in math. On top of that, a woman whose native country isn’t exactly known for its progressive attitudes toward women.

It would be easy to label these women as opposite, or at least as not living in the same metaphorical zip code. One is an extreme athlete who set out in a race through one of the harshest environments on the planet risking her life to be a “first.” The other, an intellectual who describes herself as “slow”, preferring to take years to solve problems.

Hammond had causes, wanting to showcase during her voyage inspirational women throughout history, and to bring attention to the pollution that is slowly choking the life out of our oceans. Mirzakhani has no desire to be held up as the poster child for women in mathematics. Instead, she would prefer to simply get back to the geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.

It would be easier still to label one a success and the other failure. But that would be a mistake.

Both Hammond and Mirzakhani chose to tackle the most difficult challenge they could find. They charged headlong into a space not knowing what lay on the other side. And both women haven’t let the results of their respective endeavors define them because, in fact, neither really knew where they were going to end up. They simply knew they had to try. And with that simple act, they can be no more alike.