Yesterday as I stood over the pool getting ready for a workout, a head popped up from the water with a big grin on it. I recognized the face of an acquaintance named Jim. He is the same age as my younger brother, and is quite an endurance athlete.
“The water’s cold,” he warned me, and dove back in for another interval.Perched next to the pool was a laminated sheet of paper bearing his workout schedule . He’d popped up to look at it, then went on to his next repeat.
I slid into the water after telling myself, “It doesn’t matter if it’s cold. You’ll be glad of that when you get going.” One of the lessons you learn as a swimmer is that warm water is not necessarily your friend. You heat up too fast.
After my warmup laps I stopped to chat with Jim. We talked about upcoming races. “What events are you doing?” he inquired. I told him there were some sprint triathlons I’d do, and work up to an Olympic. “And if that goes well, I might try a Half Ironman. But I have no desire to do an Ironman.”
“That’s what I said too,” he advised.
There have been many other moments in life where I was told that I’d sooner or later go for the extremes. Once while being inducted as the President of the Chamber of Commerce in the town where I now live, the Executive Director cornered my wife in the ladies room and stated, “Well, you won’t see your husband for the next year.”
To which my wife then replied, “Then you don’t know my husband.”
And she was right about that. I ran the Chamber with efficiency, cutting the Board down from 20 people to eleven. We required budgets of all the committees and activities, created new marketing materials and a set of guarantees for members. As a result, we finished in the black for the first time in years. Going all extreme about putting in time is not necessarily the solution to solving problems in work or at play.
Some might say that I acted like a conservative in that Chamber role. And there’s your misconception of liberal types in a nutshell. The fact of that matter is that those of us with liberal spirits care just as much about conserving time and expense (and waste) as the next person. JFK had the soul of a liberal, yet he was the one that dared America to shoot for the moon in competition with the Soviets. But it was his call to service that was the most conservative ideal of all. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he challenged all Americans. “But what you can do for your country.”
Contrast that to the statement in an inaugural address made by Ronald Reagan twenty years later, who said: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Talk about a self-defeatist attitude to governance! And indeed, that self-defeatist legacy has been haunting America ever since. To make matters worse, that attitude toward the American experiment has been carried out to extremes by all those determined to act more extreme in that selfish philosophy toward government than the next. The result is a national identity crisis, and chaos. We need to dump the Reagan model, which leads to attitudes of selfishness and entitlement, and get back to the Kennedy model, which means giving of ourselves to the worthwhile ideals of American uniqueness, not exceptionalism.
There’s a surprising benefit to that brand of liberalism. When you give your all by giving to others, the returns are often manifold. A good Christian knows that blessings often flow back far faster than you can possibly hope when you’re acting in service to others.
That’s the spirit of teamwork as well. Some of us enjoy being part of a team for the support and encouragement it brings. It can also drive you to perform far better than you might on your own. Again, by giving to others in the extreme, we are lifted to better modes of performance ourselves. That’s what John F. Kennedy was talking about.
There is also the benefit of efficiency in the extreme. If you think about it, every race is an exercise in economy and conservation of energy. You swim or cycle or run fast by economizing your energy. If you don’t conserve energy, you can bonk, hit the wall or collapse on the last lap. But if you’re extremely efficient, you can those cover distances faster. Everyone knows that in cycling criteriums it’s not always the fastest rider who wins, but the one who conserves energy the best. In other words, extreme efficiency wins.
As an athlete, I long ago developed an appreciation for efficiency. Way back in high school when I was first learning to run competitively, Sports Illustrated published an article on running form. I read and absorbed that information and turned my stride into an efficient mode of running.
Yesterday in the pool my friend Jim watched me swim a lap and caught up with me at the end of the interval. “How long have you been swimming?” I told him that I’d just started up a year ago. “You look really smooth and efficient in the water,” he shared. That made me smile. I’ve worked hard on developing decent swimming form. Paid attention to the advice of my swim coach and my girlfriend. Of course, there’s always an opportunity to improve. That’s true with any of the three sports you do; swimming, cycling and running.
But it was the statement Jim made to me in the pool earlier about someday doing an Ironman triathlon that really made me think about where I am as an athlete. I get the allure of the Ironman, and admire those who choose to do that. But let’s admit it: the sport has a bit of a cult appeal. Yet so do marathoning and ultra-marathoning. The extremes in any sport often have the most allure. But you don’t have to do that to be respected.
Last year I trained in partnership with my girlfriend, who completed Ironman Wisconsin. Her preparations were marred by a driver who pulled in front of her on the bike. She had to dump the bike and slide out to avoid smashing into the giant white Escalade parked in her lane of the road. The accident earned her nothing because the law says you have to actually hit someone in order for the driver to truly be at fault. So many things in life are like that. Only the extremes count for much. She finished the race despite the obstacles that an ill-fitted new bike presented. And I greatly admire her for that.
I’ve done the 100-mile weeks and the intense training periods when all you’re doing is eating, sleeping, shitting and running. I’ve gone Hotel New Hampshire in my own way, believing that you’ve got to “Get Obsessed and Stay Obsessed.” So I appreciate that desire to test yourself. That’s why I enjoy hanging out with people who are living their fullest. If nothing else, it gives you something to talk about other than how stupid the rest of the human race can be on so many other fronts.
Perhaps my ultimate prudence comes with age and from competing all those years through high school, college and beyond. My extremes in trying to get as fast as I could at classic distances; 5K (14:47) Steeple (9:19) 10K (31:10) and Half Marathon (1:10+) were enough challenge in their way.
The only regrets I have through all that are twofold. I wish that I’d have run all out in the steeplechase my senior year in the college conference meet. I would definitely have run five to seven seconds faster, giving me confidence going into nationals that I could have placed. But I was committed to doubling in the 5K that meet. So a bit of sacrifice was in order.
Progress is typically incremental, but leaps in performance are possible when the time is right. That might have been an extremely interesting to let it fly. As it was, I hurt my calf in the early goings at nationals and ran in the high 9:20s.
I also wish I’d run a mile all out during my peak years in racing. All my other PRs dropped by huge numbers during that period of racing. I was training extremely well––as opposed to just putting in extreme amounts of miles. In college, we’d run all our distance runs at 6:00 pace, and that was extremely stupid, I later learned.
But it might have been fun to run a 4:10 mile or so when I was in my 20s. I also know that would have been about my limit in terms of mile speed. I did not have the base quarter-mile speed needed to run much faster than that. However I was doing workouts of 10 X 400 at 60-62. So the potential was there to do a decent mile. As it stands, my PR will forever be 4:19. That’s high school stuff in the running world. I know that.
Yet I’m not extremely disappointed that neither of those things happened. There were plenty of other triumphs and joys, and to some degree, they keep coming every day. I can truly say that every run and ride and swim is a joy in some respect. Some days it gets hard. And others, extremely hard. And that’s extreme enough for me.
I’m looking forward to using my hard-earned swimming skills in a few triathlons this summer. But first comes triathlon camp in Phoenix, Arizona in a week or so. Temps are projected to be in the 90s. Which is pretty extreme, if you ask me.
TRAIN HARD. COMPETE WELL.