By Christopher Cudworth
Liberal folks like me tend to think in terms of relationships when it comes to getting along in the world. But there are quite a few categories of existence that live and die by the numbers. In business you’re either making money or you’re not. Those kinds of statements are what make people fond of absolutes. They like the cut and dried world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, supposedly on their own merits.
Not so absolutes
Of course people find ways to cheat and lie to win and beat the numbers. One suspected cheat was Waldemar Cierpinski, the East German runner who beat American Frank Shorter in the 1976 Olympic Marathon. Evidence came out in the 1990s that Cierpinski, who won both the ’76 and ’80 marathons, had used drugs to succeed. He looked pretty smart coming out of nowhere in ’76 to win. Now it looks as if he and the East German system made the rest of the world look stupid by cheating to earn undeserved Olympic glory.
The way of the world
And that sucks. But it happens all the time. Politicians steal elections. Business types game the system and work the loopholes. Somehow these people still are able to sleep at night, even when they cheat their way to success. Can you imagine Cierpinski going to bed each night knowing he had cheated to win? But many people deceive themselves. They feel they have a right to glory even if it is undeserved.
Ignorance and confidence
Then there is that great middle ground where, as Mark Twain once said, “All you need is ignorance and confidence, and success is sure.” Some people succeed in spite of themselves, or because they simply don’t care about the ethics or the principles or the supposed correct path to success. In a strange way, their form of success is an absolute as well. Some call them lucky, but more often than not they’re stubborn enough to succeed in spite of all odds. Perhaps we owe them grudging admiration. Or perhaps not.
Show me my rival
At every level of competition there are competitors to whom you hate to lose. Something about them might irritate you. It might be their running or riding style, or their personality that bugs you. But when you step to the line, you want to beat them more than anything else on earth. I’ve known quite a few such rivals. Some I’ve beaten. Others I could never touch. You live with these conflicts.
One such rival was a runner from a team in our college conference. The first three years of his college career he was good but not great. Socially, we talked to many of our competitors but not to this guy. He was a little too daft and dopey. We couldn’t engage him. So we wrote him off.
But then he improved dramatically. His 1500 meter time went from 4:02 to 3:49. His 5000 time dropped near 14:00. Still, he didn’t get any easier to engage. His personality was goofy and distracted. We mercilessly joked that he was too stupid to know that he could not be that good.
Of course that wasn’t true. He attended a quality college and through discussion from his own teammates, we learned he did well in school.
The absolute truth was harsh. When he began achieving excellent times were we both stunned and jealous. Frankly, it didn’t help us think we were cooler than him when all we wanted to be was as fast as him.
As if to slam our jealous in our faces, our seemingly dopey rival went on that year to earn All-American status. The rest of us were left in his wake. Somehow he’d banked the right kind of training at the right point of maturity to kick some serious ass. That has to be admired or you’re lying to yourself.
Smart as hell
That’s the strict beauty of running and riding. You can’t pretty your way to success. But there are pretty methodologies to get there.
In cycling it is often the smartest rider who emerges from the peloton to win. Conserving energy is as important as being fit. We all know a cyclist or two that knows how to tuck in for all 80 miles of a ride and look fresh at the finish. Winning isn’t just about brute strength or endurance. It’s all about getting from Point A to Point B the best way you know how. The whole point is using what smarts you have to get through the hell of competition. The pain. Exhaustion. Fear. Doubt.
Let’s be honest. Sometimes it pays to be stupid enough not to let that shit bother you. Think of Forrest Gump. He was a runner who didn’t think too much.
Focus is what counts
The conservative truth is that in the end, your performance is all that matters. You can perambulate and justify all you want, but winning is about focus and attendance to the task.
Respect really can be earned in absolute terms. It can also never be taken away as long as you are not cheating to achieve success. That is the stupidest kind of success of all. Just ask Lance. Marion. Ben. It’s a long list of people who seemed smart and wound up looking absolutely stupid.