That childlike innocence has its purpose. It enables the mind to grow unhindered. We explore through play. Some of us take up that banner of play and pursue a passion for sports. We initially explore our abilities by playing games.
At some point a refinement process begins. Those blessed with ability are chosen first. They make it through formalized tryouts too. The rest are told to sit out or go home.
Obviously we can’t all be pro athletes. But given the errant behavior and massive personality flaws in so many pro athletes, perhaps that’s a good thing. We’re faced with the fact that athletes who have been pampered for their abilities and given a pass on responsibilities often turn out to be real jerks.
Against these extremes in physical ability the rest of us are somewhat forced to measure our own efforts. The exploits of the world’s fastest runners are largely lost on the masses. Most people don’t even get to see these people at the starting line of a race, much less the finish.
Cycling also has its heroes. Yet in recent years all have been tainted by accusations of performance-enhancing drug use in cycling. For perhaps 15 years there were no exceptions to the rule that athletes were doping. The most talented cyclists in the world were forced to cheat in order to compete. But not everyone. The challenge at times seems to be discerning who’s clean, not who’s doping.
Think about that for a moment. Here you own this massive cycling engine and amazing legs. You can ride for 100+ miles at a pace most cyclists consider their top speed. In fact you can average that speed for more than 2000 miles in a Grand Tour that includes climbs beyond category.
How must one feel to be that good, and yet not good enough (somehow)? How frustrating it must be to have a body capable of that level of performance and yet be left behind when the leaders surge off the front?
Sure, doping is not fair. But it shows you that no matter how good you become there will always be challenges to your perceived level of talent and ability. You’re left to do the best with the body (and brain) that you have.
When we stand before a mirror in the morning, what do we see? Typically we assess our fitness by the amount of fat we do or do not perceive on our bodies. That’s the visual test, but it can be deceiving. I have ridden with cyclists that outweigh me by at least 50 pounds on a similar sized frame. They are capable of riding me right off their wheel at speeds in the low 20s even in a high wind. They seem to defy all physical laws.
In moments like that, we’re left to consider whether all our efforts to stay thin are really worth it. Watching last year’s Ironman Wisconsin race I was struck by the wide variety of bodies slugging it out through 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and the run of 26.2 miles. I saw people so big they did not look like they could complete a 5K, much less do all of that endurance training that leads up to an Ironman. I also saw tiny little wizened women with wrinkled tanned skin and tri-suits hanging off their shoulders. You think to yourself: How the f*** does that woman do it?
It turns out there’s no magic formula for success in athletics. Having a bit of fat on your body can actually be a benefit, to some degree, in a sport like triathlon. There’s buoyancy in swimming, for example. Fuel to burn in a long bike ride. By the time you’re ready to run you don’t care what you weigh. You have to move your ass one way or another, no matter what it weighs. Everyone feels pretty much the same by that point. Legs are dead. So’s your head. Keep moving.
Last year I did my first duathlon. I’m in my late 50s and this woman at least as old (young?) as I am came blasting by me on the bike at 14 miles. I’d left her in the dust on the run but she was killing it on the bike. Killing it! Screw gender, I thought. She’s fast.
That’s the triathlon in a nutshell of course. Some competitors do best in the swim. Some ride the bike like a dream. Others make up time on the run. It’s a simple fact that all of the athletes have these relative plusses and drawbacks. Even at the top level of the sport this is true.
From a very early age I imagined myself an athlete and even imagined myself into something of a winner at times. But deep in my soul I also sensed my limits. Training with superior runners it was easy to see that something else was going on with them. Their engines were bigger. Better. Stronger. When I stepped to the line in a July 1984 race in company with Alberto Salazar, Thom Hunt and other world class runners, I knew the outcome. I ran with them for three miles and then blew up. So what? I tried.
In those situations you just do your best. Once in a while you hang on to achieve more than you imagined possible, surpass your expectations in ways that seem to defy your own perceptions. On another hot day in July 1984 I ran to a very high placing against runners whose PRs at the 10-mile distance were minutes ahead of me. And yet, it happened. I stuck it to them.
Up and down
You’re probably like me too. You look yourself up and down and wonder what it might be like to be built slightly different. In my case it’s simple. What if my torso was not so long? Would I be a better runner at only 5’10” versus 6’1″? My 34″ inseam is forced to carry all this extra body around. And yet if I had not been six feet tall my basketball career might not have gone as well as it did. Which was not that exceptional. But who cares? It was fun.
I recall being 15 and traveling downstate to Peoria to watch Craig Virgin run his 13:51 record for three miles at the Illinois State Cross Country meet. I tried to imagine running that fast, but it was hard. My best at the time was 16:31. After college, I’d go on to run 14:14 for three miles on the way to a 14:47 5K on the track. But I was 24 years old then, not 18.
Yet we must acknowledge that even Craig Virgin might have liked to have changed some things about his body. He overcame a potentially debilitating childhood disease and poor kidney function to become World Cross Country champion. Twice. And he’s not the only distance runner to overcome challenges of the body and mind. Steve Prefontaine had sciatica. I recall a runner from Michigan actually chopped off his big toe with a lawnmower and still went on to run a sub-4:00 mile and compete in the Olympic Trials.
Call me strange, but I might have plunked that severed toe in a jar of formaldehyde. Just to remind me to keep trying. That’s a twisted take on body image, I know. But no more twisted than some…can we talk about plastic surgery and those LA doctors turning faces and bodies into decomposing shrines to vanity?
So let’s not imagine ourselves unfortunate for being stuck with the bodies we have. If we want our thighs to be stronger, it’s always possible to do the work to make that possible. And consider the terrific challenges faced by those with real physical disabilities. Those without functional legs who climb into wheelchairs and compete as hard as they can.
You do the best with the body (and brain) that you have. It’s the ultimate tarsnake of endurance sports. So be careful not to let your body or brain become an excuse not to try. There’s a whole world out there waiting to see what you can do. It makes a world of difference if you don’t start out by imagining reasons not to try your hardest.