About a decade ago I wrote to one of the leading physiotherapy groups in the Chicago region with an idea to promote their services. And I paraphrase. “We should set up Human Agility Trials just like they do for dogs.”
And of course that whole movement has taken off with Spartan Races and every sort of contraption known to man set up as obstacle courses.
I recalled the allure for competing on obstacle courses when I was a kid. Our Outdoor Education program set up an obstacle course in a park. I was instantly obsessed. I was also insanely competitive. At every chance I got I did the course and got faster and faster. Possessed already of the fastest time, I watched with worry and envy as anyone else took their turn. I did not want to lose.
During time away from the obstacle course, I was supposed to be working on math problems and English grammar. But all I could do is stare at my fellow classmates starting into the obstacle course. Nothing else on this earth mattered more to me than to be the fastest person through that course when the field day was over.
And I was, but with a cost. My teachers were quite upset with my lack of attention to other subject matter. I did not care. What mattered to me was winning.
A friend once told me that I had to learn to play nice with others, especially girls. But I’d been beaten by girls in races and other events and did not see any real reason to go easy on them in games or competition. “They won’t like you if you beat them.” That was a tough choice of course. By then I was in middle school and all that mattered in life was that girls would like me.
Later in life I went on a date with woman to play racquetball. She beat me 20-1 or something like that. I had to bite my tongue the rest of the night. We did not go out again. And such is life as an obstacle course.
High level obstacles
It’s true at the top level of sport. We’re all trying to get through one obstacle course or another. When there are no obstacles to traverse, we seem to find ways to turn everyday life into an obstacle. That crash in the early phases of the Tour de France this year, in which Fabian Cancellara went head over heels into the ditch was one helluva an example of how dangerous riding your bike at 35 mph can be.
I’ve been there to some degree. There’s a plate on my left clavicle as a result of a bike crash at 40 mph in the hills of Wisconsin. I’m still working out scar tissue on my back from the collision I brought on myself last summer by not looking ahead on the trail. There was a fallen tree you see, and it was much too big to bunny hop even if I’d been looking ahead.
In business and in life there are obstacles to our success around every turn. For small businesses the problem is often maintaining a good level of cash flow. But when small business owners go to the bank for a line of credit, approval is dependent on the whims of lenders from the local bank all the way up to Wall Street and investment capital moguls? Money is both a path to success and an obstacle.
And when you get down to it, money is an obstacle to the spirit as well. Jesus warned people that money is the root of all evil. He warned that it is harder for a rich man to get into heaven than it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. Talk about an obstacle! That’s a tight squeeze. It’s one of the tarsnakes of faith that success and fortune on this earth does not guarantee you grace in the eyes of God. That is a gift. How you respect that gift is the measure of salvation.
Creating obstacles for others
There are plenty of people who construct obstacles for others that should never exist. Racial discrimination is one such obstacle. So is discrimination by gender, or sexual orientation. Some people seem to think it’s their duty in life to make things harder for others. They complain that their life is hard, so why should others have it easy? But the Bible disagrees with this philosophy.
Imagine going through every day of your life hurdling obstacles that should never exist. You’re a young black male and every day your drive through a particular neighborhood you’re pulled over and questioned. Hassled and harassed. Even pushed around or verbally abused. People are forced everyday to navigate obstacles in society that should not exist. Then politicians make those obstacles into law, or refuse to change laws that encourage such behavior. Then the police turn those laws or attitudes into blunt practice. The rage builds on both sides.
Life is not always fair. But it is often our perceptions too that cause us grief. Recall the lesson from the Bible in which the vineyard owner hires workers at the start of the day for a fair wage. But those people get angry when the owner hires workers toward the end of the day who get the same wage. The owner chastises their jealousy. “Were you not happy when I hired you?” he asks. “Why are you bitter now? Is it not my choice who I pay and what I pay them?”
Every damned day
Everyone gets tired of such obstacles. Both workers and managers struggle to find balance. But when frustrated bosses or flat out jerks seem determined to make every day a pain in the ass for anyone who encounters them, it can create a living hell on earth. It’s a control freak’s world in such cases. Typically everyone is glad when the jerk finally gets the can.
But then you find out something in their life was awry and you feel bad. Their mother was sick and living in their home for a couple years, about to die. Then you hear they finally did die and it makes you feel guilty that you never took the time to find out why they were so upset all the time. Those are obstacles of conscience. The world loves to ignore them. We’re supposed to love our neighbors, and also our enemies. But it’s hard.
Badgers and bastards
Yet there are people who love to hate. It makes them feel fulfilled, like a reason to live. One thinks of The Badger, Bernard Hinault, who won the Tour de France several times before he was asked to help a young Greg Lemond win a Tour title himself. But Hinault could not bring himself to completely help the young rider. He pushed and prodded, broke promises and broke faith. One could perhaps suggest that all that competitiveness was what drove Lemond to greatness. The difficulty of fighting with a teammate might have been what drove him to complete the task. That’s a tough bunch of days at “the office.” Which is what the Tour is for professional cyclists.
The same thing happened with Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong as well. The biggest obstacle to success in Contador’s pursuit of a Tour de France victory was the comeback of one Lance Armstrong. They rode on the same team, but when Armstrong had the chance he caught a break in the peloton and left Contador behind. With no remorse, Armstrong said, “That’s bike racing.”
Okay, we get that Lance. We also got that the comeback was somewhat suspicious. Once you confessed to doping, it changed the whole picture.
But the sport is still likely rife with doping. Cyclists at that level have long been tempted to remove the obstacles of their own limitations by taking performance enhancing drugs. It’s true in track and field too. There’s a controversy raging about the coaching and performance of athletes under the tutelage of Alberto Salazar. Year after year lead sprinters get caught using steroids. Even the world doping administrations admit they only catch about 2% of the actual number of athletes using drugs. 2%.
I think back to the obsession I had to win that obstacle course competition back in grade school and I kind of get the temptations to cheat to win. I didn’t need to cheat then, but I was cheating myself in other respects. When you get behind in math there are quite a few obstacles to your success. Math is a sequential process. Later in life when I took algebra and got behind, there was no such thing as “catching up.” Those formulas depend on accrued learning to be able to progress in the discipline. I was lost and off course in that class, and got a D. That was kind of the teacher to be frank.
Those are hard lessons to learn. Mental focus applies across so many categories of performance and behavior. And think of how disappointing it must be for those athletes in the Tour to be riding along and lose focus for just a moment. Suddenly they’re thrown in the air or tossed to the tarmac. It might not even be their own fault. In fact it often isn’t. In a split second their entire year, and even their cycling career, is put at risk.
Which is why we so admire the cyclists that get back on their bikes and carry on. Watching Tony Martin guided to the finish line by his teammates while wearing the yellow jersey was a bittersweet moment in the tour. His left arm was curled up under him like a crab’s leg. It was obvious he could not ride the next day. Yet pride carried him through the finish line. He flew overnight to Germany and had surgery the next morning. He’s probably already back on his bike, training for some late summer or fall race.
That’s all any of us can do. Face the obstacles the best way we can. And that’s probably why the Tour de France is so compelling and watchable. Even with a seemingly foregone conclusion as the winner in 2015, there are mini-dramas and obstacles being overcome each and every day. It’s not just an obstacle course. It’s an obstacle, of course. Set them up and knock them down. That’s life in a nutshell.