This has been a tough topic for me to get started on – it’s not something that I feel is particularly easy to articulate. But I’ll dive in with the confidences that: one, I’m writing about personal beliefs that I feel are fundamentally true; two, I can compare them to my experience at the races, which I’ve written about a lot; and three, once I get warmed up, if I can stay in the zone by hanging on to my purpose, things always start to flow a bit easier. It will probably take less time than a 20-mile training run, result in less pain, keep me closer to the bathroom, and have me feeling pretty good at the end.
I believe in justice. I believe in doing the right thing, and I believe that by doing the right thing, life will somehow be better. What “the right thing” is is not always evident, and sometimes it’s downright opaque. Sometimes there are many more “right choices” than just one, and so many factors can contribute to what is “right” that sometimes a long period of soul-searching doesn’t even conclude with a definitive direction to head off in. To make matters more complicated, what one person might call “right”, another might find quite offensive. And on and on, through each day in the world, interacting with others, we’re constantly faced with our choices, in how we live our own lives and how we interact with others. At the bottom line, even if it means trying harder or going out of my way, I try to do what’s right.
Along the way, really the only thing I can control in all these decisions and interactions is my own course of action – including my own reactions. It seems that one resource after another about being happy and resilient and healthy focuses inward, on managing one’s own thoughts and reactions to the constant bombardment the world throws our way. I’m on board – though it’s easier said than done. I notice that I can get pretty hot pretty fast when I feel injustice: when I feel pushed, or cut off, or misunderstood, or cheated. All politics or news media phenomena aside, instances where “bad guys” do nasty things and seem to get away with it simply make me feel upset. Maybe their actions impact me indirectly, maybe hardly at all – the notion that injustice exists at all can be enough to wind me up. I’m here going out of my way to try to do something right – and you want to take advantage of me? Push me? Swoop in and claim for yourself something that I have been working hard for? Take a shortcut but still claim the glory? No way.
I bet a lot of us hold certain ideals in our lives that we seldom manage to talk about. They might be deeply ingrained – things our parents taught us, or we have clung to for our whole lives. Things we’re willing to take on faith that must be held on to, because they are simply “the right thing”. If I never cheat, no one is ever going to display a document that shows “zero cheats out of 5,000 opportunities!” to some applauding crowd. Perhaps a talented eulogizer might make a remark like “he was a good and honest man”, or a compassionate peer may say “he is retiring after years of faithful and dedicated service.” Sometimes we hear a welcome and refreshing “Thank you” along the way from someone who notices; sometimes we are recognized because hard work and good work stand out. I suspect even a humble person appreciates the affirmation that recognition brings from time to time – we need the reminders that “good” does in fact prevail. Nobody really knows but us which ideals we’ve managed to uphold, or which ideals we’ve even tried to go after.
On a smaller scale, the races know. The races know whether we’ve been naughty or nice, and they’re not afraid to tell us. The longer the race, the more it speaks up. And for a guy who needs to feel that justice does in fact prevail, I cling to these experiences as supporting evidence. Training and racing for me has become a strength-builder for my sense of faith. We bring all sorts of things with us to the staring line – either the start of the season or the start of the race - and getting started takes faith. Keeping going takes faith – and guts – and training. The finish line gives us proof.
At most of the races, all it takes to toe the starting line is an on-time application and paid-in-full entry fee. (On another level, sure, it takes courage too – that’s another chapter). I guess even a cheater can show up at the race as a “bandit”, without paying the entry fee. The course is the great leveler: we all toe the same line, we all follow the same route, we all aim for the same finish line.
Where I stand in the amateur age-group pack, I race against myself – somewhat against the clock to compare this race’s outcome to other races’, or other years’, but mostly toward the very best I have to offer on that day. The more I race, the more I learn about myself, and so the challenge heightens as I seek to inch ever closer to that thin gray line between personal best and complete disaster. If I get faster, perhaps my thin gray line will go right up next to someone else’s and we’ll be racing each other for first place, but that’s not something I currently have much experience with!
My very best on race day starts many days before. It started at some point when I decided to make that race a priority and go get it. In the case of the Ironman, it started as a dream years before, that finally materialized as I signed up, a year prior to the event. Between signing up and toeing the line, the season was mine to capture or squander. Training decisions can represent those “right” decisions – indeed the most meaningful and effective training plan is founded not just on athletic tasks, but on the personal values that brought you to committing to training to begin with. In this respect, the races aren’t just a metaphor for life’s challenge to make good choices – they are life’s choices. Training and racing become part of our value systems, for themselves, and for what they represent. The most effective training plan is one you believe in – and so is one that starts by defining things like “why am I training” or “what role does this play in my life overall?”
Though I am reluctant to say it, for fear that it sounds like boasting, I never doubted whether I would finish the Ironman. I took a lot of time to carefully draw out my plan, address my limiters, celebrate my strengths, and make the training a positive part of my life overall. Barring any catastrophe – and I was careful to look for my risks as well – my plan would pay off if I were true to it. I don’t mean rigidly following 365 days of workouts, either, because my plan was driven by concepts, including not just exercise, but patience and flexibility as well. When specific workouts, or even weekly plans, fell through, I would regroup and refer back to the fundamentals behind the plan – training periods, training purposes, life goals – and continue forward. Not only that, but the training itself was fun: I met great people, I enjoyed better health, I felt comfort in the schedule – and so I did not spend the whole summer looking forward to one day in the fall, but lived each day for what it was, with the confidence that the overarching plan – the “values” – would lead me to where I wanted to eventually go. This echoes those countless other life situations that ask us to consider our own ideals, and do “what’s right.”
In most cases, the period of training comes to a close and gives way to the race. The day of the race will illustrate how the months of training went: and it tell it to you straight. Whether your training schedule was good or bad – or if you stuck to it – will become evident. You can take shortcuts in training, and they may make those training days easier, but they will probably not make race day easier. Race day is a judgment day, and there’s no hiding from the choices you made in getting there. Sure, you can hide them from other people: most fans and other racers don’t really know what you’re capable of, but you sure do. Sometimes the other racers do indeed help illustrate you choices. I remember starting the Disney Marathon amidst a field of tens of thousands, after a tough season of training gently on the borderline of getting stronger while managing a hip injury. My approach was a slow-and-steady 8+2 run+walk pace, and let me tell you: when my watch beeped after the first eight minutes and I slowed to a walk aside six lanes of bodies rushing past me like the Mississippi, it took a lot of faith to predict the sweetness I would feel three hours later, moving up the field, as the pace that was best for me actualized itself into success. Some die-hards would insist that it didn’t count because I didn’t run the whole thing, but it does: I went 26.2. And I guarantee that among the people I passed were at least a few who made some short cuts in their training, or made excuses to themselves or others, or lost the discipline to rest or eat right, and race day hammered down its impartial gavel in response.
The longer races even call your values to the table within the race. Do you know yourself well enough to spend just the right amount of energy on the swim and bike to be able to run your best? Have you exercised the patience required to do your best – through the morning and through the season? Have you stuck to your plans and also adapted on the fly to the inevitable changes that have come up? In life it can be tempting to make excuses when things don’t go our way; if we sit and pout during a race, the clock still keeps on ticking. I like to see people enjoy success at the races, it’s disappointing to see people’s dreams come apart with cramps, overheating, collapse, GI problems, who knows what else. But there was a certain feeling of vindication halfway through that Ironman marathon run, as I trotted along past other athletes literally falling over, stopping as some earlier impatience came running up and grabbed them from behind. I have no knowledge of their situations, their training, their personal composition, but the notion that some athletes break down speaks loudly enough to me about my own choices. An athlete can stand at the starting line and boast about his or her speed or time or equipment – and some do, and I try to quietly let these remarks just roll on by – but the race will speak for itself. The race will beat up the cocky contestant who fails to respect it, and move the patient believer on up steadily through the field and across the line.Seldom is credit is given out loud for holding true to important values – for maintaining one’s character at a high level, if you will. For trying extra hard, or making choices that aren’t immediately rewarding; for going after the goals that seem ultimately important. On race day, all the hard work and the faith give way to the truth - the proof - and you end up with a medal around your neck that says “you were brave, you did not compromise your values, you achieved your goals.” Each medal, each finish line, is an opportunity to get credit for character.