Looking back at your career in athletics, it is interesting to consider how many labels one adopts and discards along the way.
For example, as an athlete competing for school teams, I have been–in order from middle school through college– a Pioneer, a Knight, a Saint and a Norseman. I have competed in the Blue and White, the Black and White, the Black and Orange and the Blue and White, again.
Post-collegiately, the team and names kept coming. First there was the Wonder Left Racing team, named for a favorite training route in college. That was mostly a team in spirit only. We all lived so far apart that few of us actually got together and trained or raced as a team again. The thought of continuing our college camaraderie and success was inviting, but impractical. The colors were Orange and White, resplendent in Bill Rodgers brand running gear. It was a noble attempt at maintaining the cause, whatever it was.
On moving to the Philadelphia area, I signed up to run for a shop called Runner’s Edge, who sponsored a racing team to promote the store. This was a fairly practical attempt at promoting post-collegiate racing because the team circuit in the Philly market was fairly dynamic. There were probably 15-20 clubs from all over the area. There were actually team competitions and trophies at the local road races. It was fun and gave you a little motivation out there on the course to beat the other teams. A little pride crept into the effort at the starting line. Competitive juices returned. The colors were Green and White. There was no mascot or name. Just a bunch of guys racing for the club.
A year later another shop back in Chicago asked me to sign up and race for the store team. We received Nike uniforms in Blue and White, emblazoned with the store name, Running Unltd. I never like the abbreviation. Something about it bugged me. But man what a team that was for a local store! I fit in well but was not the top runner on the club. that spot was held by a pair of brothers, Jim and Jon Macnider. Both ran 10ks in the high 29:00s as I recall, and Jim competed in the Olympic Trials marathon at least once. Jon was small and fast and had a clipped stride that was deceiving. They had both run for North Central College (Red and White, the Cardinals) a college team that repeatedly won the Division III National cross country championship. In fact my senior year at Luther College we finished second to North Central College in the national meet.
That year running for Running Unltd. was a peak year in a competitive career that had begun at age 12 and lasted through age 27. I raced 24 times that season and won 8-10 of those races, mostly 5ks and 10ks, setting PRs of 14:47 and 31:10. I could check the math on the victories but it is inconsequential. Suffice to say that being a semi-sponsored runner really was a motivator. We received race uniforms and nylon Nike sweats. Our first couple pairs of shoes were free and we paid about 35% of the cost of everything else. It was a sweet deal, yet also a firm obligation. The contract called for regular competition and you basically had to stay somewhat sharp from March through November.
Following that year of sponsored competition I got married and the team folded when the store was sold to another owner. New priorities surfaced and though I kept competing, even setting another PR at 10 miles that season, it was pretty much a Sponsor Yourself effort. With no team to comport with it was a Find Your Own Way year. There was a bit of relief, competing without obligation. It felt real not to be a Knight or a team cog. Which reminds me of the names of teams against which we competed over the years. The Rochelle Cogs. Dekalb Barbs. Sycamore Spartans. West Aurora Blackhawks. Naperville Redskins. Batavia Bulldogs. Geneva Vikings. On and on, the names roll on. All adopted and discarded, except for watery allegiances for Homecoming and such.
Of course there are plenty of people whose allegiances to teams and names and colors grow even more rabid with age. College football is most notable for its monikers and its school loyalties. Yet most of the people who root for those teams, and their professional counterparts, never advanced far in the respective sports for which they root. In fact 99.99% of those who root for college and professional teams have little real knowledge of what it means to compete at that level. So why do we do it?
For the last 7 years I have cycled competitively for a club called Athletes By Design. The club springs from a small chain of stores called Prairie Path Cycles here in Illinois. The store owner Mike Farrell is a longtime cycling and club manager, having run a pro team “back in the day.”
The club is well-run and organizes all kinds of local races, criteriums and even indoor cycling competitions.
The kits for the club are always interesting and colorful. Bright and bold, they sport nearly every color in the spectrum, Blue and Red and Orange and White. Some purple thrown in there too. For the first few years in the club I raced 6-10 times a year.
The last couple years the racing has dropped off, but the club rides and weekly criterium practices put on by the club have held value. Last year the team was sponsored by the pharmacology company Astellas. That sponsor’s gone. Another will likely replace it. That’s how the whole team thing works. Especially in cycling. Sponsorship is almost a revolving door. A team builds up a reputation; T-Mobile, US Postal, 7-Eleven, Astana, etc. and then poof! Either the sponsors or the riders dissipate. It’s a hard sport to root for. The rosters and team names are always changing. Some, at least. That’s the way of professional sports.
Real pros (and cons)
Can any of us really imagine what it’s like to be paid millions to ride our bike, or win a marathon and take home a check for $100K? It really is difficult to know that type of talent, and pressure.
Yet we all seem to want to run for a cause. Many millions of runners and riders sign up to run or ride to raise money for good causes. There is Team In Training. TNT? It should be TIT, but that’s another story for another day. It would not do well to say that you were training for the TITs. But just in case you were curious, here’s the pic they posted at the top of their website. Decide for yourself.
That successful organization has motivated thousands of runners and riders and triathletes to raise money for a good cause. And the good causes are manifold. Breast Cancer (well, now that really is doing
something good for the tits, but I digress…) and many other forms of cancer and other diseases get attention through fund raising and teams that support disease research and “finding a cure.” It all gets kind of exaggerated at some point, don’t you think?
Cure for what?
Although that never really seems to happen. Perhaps there’s too much money being made finding the cure and sponsoring the organization and wherever else the money goes to actually want to find a cure for anything. Sorry to be cynical, but it’s kind of like those high school teams and the homecomings we all sort of attend. So much of our effort seems to pour into the sentiment over the actual result. Then you hear of scandal and political motivations behind some of the organizations and somehow your motivations get undercut by the realities of the worlds. What we are seeking seems to be a cure for the futility we feel in the face of our frail human condition. Our mortality. We feel bad that others must suffer while we ride on. So we ride on with a purpose. To ease their suffering somehow?
Does that make us suckers for symbols, or pawns in the program? A cynic would say it does.
Needing a cause
Yet something in the human spirit seems to need a cause. I recall racing in a 10k one or two years past my racing prime. It was a local race and I signed up because the fitness level was not too bad and figured it would be fun to try to win one more race at least. The course was twisting and winding, hard to sustain any momentum and somewhere around 4 miles I began to lose motivation. It just didn’t matter that much at that point.
At that moment, however, a squat little runner in an I Run For Jesus shirt with a big cross on the back came skritching past. He glanced at me with that feverish look of a guy who does not win many races but suddenly feels victory is within his grasp. I let him go a few strides and glanced down at the ground, trying to muster some competitive strength. It only came in spurts. My training was not deep enough to cover his surge. Finally I edged back up to him but could feel it was not going to last. It just wasn’t there that day. Not in the tank. As he pulled away triumphantly it was weird to watch his shirt and that message splashed on the back. I Run For Jesus.
“What does that even mean?” I thought to myself. Does it mean that he somehow loves Jesus more than me? That Jesus… favored him over me on the course that day? That somehow by winning the race he glorifies the Son of God? More than my shitty effort that morning?
It made no sense to me. It still doesn’t. For I’ve won many a race and too many for selfish reasons to think that somehow proclaiming you run for Jesus does not make it so.
I don’t believe in running for religion in that way. I don’t believe in Tim Tebow or any other public figure pointing toward the sky like they hold a string and a tin can to talk to God. I don’t believe that’s what the bible means when it says, “I have run the good race.”
That’s a completely different brand of victory. In fact, the bible says that in order to win, we really must lose everything for others. Funny thing about that philosophy. It rings through most every other religion on earth. Lose the self, find the victory.
Of course you can lose yourself in raising money for a good cause. That’s supposedly the point. You’re not running or riding or triathloning for selfish reasons alone. And that can be admirable, as can running for Jesus if you choose to do so. It is human nature to want to lose ourselves in these and other symbols, the mascots and colors and teams and causes. All await our attention. But we must be careful about the merit of our own proclamations of good faith and cause.
For to race for a cause is still just a tool of revelation, not the final product of awareness. Because when the race is over, there is still another day to face. And when the Big Game from the Super Bowl to the World Cup to the Chicago or New York or Disney Marathon is over, the inevitable letdown you feel at having won or lost on that occasion is sometimes all too real. It feels like the end product.
Triumph of humility
Ultimately, it is the triumph of humility that makes us all better people. The glory of teams and causes and attention received in the doing are all nice, but they are not the absolute when it comes to enlightenment.
In fact that is the very problem with so much of what we like to call victory in this world. Even those trying to convert America into a “Christian Nation” forget that the kingdom of God is not so confined as that. Nor were the Founding Fathers thinking of such a thing when they drafted the Constitution.
Trying to slap that “label” of morality on America (and its so-called exceptionalism) means no more than calling yourself a Knight or a Pioneer or a Saint. All those are just labels. Because it matters what you do, not what you call yourself.
In fact calling yourself a Christian nation and trying to impose those strictures upon a society is exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught anyone to do. You cannot win lives by branding hearts with the hot steel of politics. In fact the idea of confusing religion with politics goes against the entire message of the bible. Even the so-called Chosen People of Israel were faced with a profound choice when the faith was expanded to include the “hated” Gentiles. We see the same with Islam, and Shariah Law, and trying to turn the world into a religious fiefdom of one kind or another. It’s sickening, actually. But it is an unfortunate habit of the human spirit, reflected in all sorts of other tribal allegiances.
Real revelation occurs in the moment, when you think about what matters, and the answer comes back clear and simple. What matters is not your pride, but your humility, and how it instructs you to treat others. As you would have them treat yourself. The universal rule. Not many exceptions, really.