I’ve always loved the acting of Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear and Jack Nicholson in the movie “As Good As It Gets.” You may recall the plot line: Nicholson plays a writer wracked by obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hunt plays a waittress beset by the vagaries of life. And Kinnear plays a gay artist who gets physically brutalized by some rough boy models and loses everything he has.
The movie is a chronicle of rolling pathos. And at one point, the three struggling characters join together for a road trip that exposes the kindness, cruelty and desperate need for acceptance they all feel.
But the apocryphal scene involves the Nicholson character, who goes to the psychiatrist with an entirely wrong attitude, only to emerge and find a room full of people in the waiting room. He can barely stand the sight of such humanity in such a small space. It obviously makes his skin crawl. So he pauses, and looks around, only to mutter: “What if this is as good as it gets?”
Average and above average
My brother and I talk now and then about art and writing and life in general. One of the topics that comes up is actual ability. How do you really know where you stand in this world? Are you average? Above average? Transcendent in some way?
Even great artists and athletes struggle with this question. It seems that the great Paul McCartney of Beatles fame may still be one of the most insecure people in the world. Artists are driven to new performance by the nagging belief that their last effort, or all their efforts for that matter, might somehow be lacking.
Hall of Fame
The same holds true for athletes. Even in empiric sports like track and field, where the absolute specter of time measures us all, there are doubts that creep in. Could we have run faster on a given day? Were we actually lucky, not talented, when we won a particular race?
There are subjective measures that help athletes past these insecurities. Being elected to a Hall of Fame in the local high school, or college, or even a professional Hall of Fame does the ego some good. At least someone recognized how hard we tried.
I’ve always wondered what it was like to be a state high school track or cross country champion. How often does it come up in conversation in real life if you don’t bring it up? Probably not very often. The principle reason for this is that the average person cannot conceive what it takes to achieve at that level of competition. They have not done sets of 300 repeats that make you barf at one end of the track, only to jog around the track and do it all over again. “That’s crazy,” people might say. But it’s not a universal rule. Despite what Forrest Gump might claim, crazy is not always what crazy does.
I’ve heard tale of a D3 national collegiate champion in cross country and track who kept up his training through his early 20s. He even made the Olympic Trials and then led the race for a bit. Yet back home where he apparently labored as a janitor in a job to pay the rent, his co-workers did not even know that he was a runner. Whether the tale is apocryphal or not, it would not surprise to find out that some runners just keep it close to the vest.
I can’t say that my own approach has been that humble and constrained. Back in the early 80s when the running boom was pushing sub-elites like me to train and race far beyond what sanity demanded, I sometimes leapt at the occasional opportunity to talk about my running. We were a budding curiosity back then.
That flame wore down as other pursuits and obligations took over in life. Over time I realized that part of that flame to succeed beyond college running was fueled by an enormous need for approval. That stemmed from the pressures of having lived under the auspice of a contradictory yet demanding father. Yet he’s the one that shoved me into running as a freshman in high school, a decision I initially resisted. But once I was into it, the sport of running grabbed hold of me like nothing else in this world. I loved it. So I owe him that. I’d wanted to go out for football, where I likely would have been crushed. Perhaps the sport of running, for me, was as good as it gets.
Grasp on reality
And while I had some success in high school and college, I somehow always understood my place and ability in the running world. The evidence was right before my eyes. There were teammates from that little school in the cornfield I attended through sophomore year in high school that were quite physically superior.
One ran a Class A state record 1:49 for 880 yards. Here was the same guy with whom I’d played summer baseball and winter basketball. We were generally equal in that regard. But through some very hard work and a high degree of natural talent, he turned into one of the best athletes that had ever run the 880 for Class A schools. In fact, his time was on par with athletes from all the Class AA schools. Indeed, 40 years later, his 1:49 time would still very likely win the 800m in the state meet.
Of course, the time he ran in yards is not converted to the distance of 800 meters for purposes of state records, but the times he ran are essentially that same. Here’s the all time list for Illinois 800M runners.
[1.] 1:48.10*, Dave Ayoub, Peoria (H.S.), 1977
[2.] 1:49.22*, Steve Schellenberger, Arlington Hts. (Forest View), 1976
[3.] 1:49.35, Aaron Rogers, Chicago (C. Vocational), 1988
[4.] 1:49.45*, Dave Kaemerer, Dolton (Thornridge), 1968
[5.] 1:49.49*, Chris Heroux, Des Plaines (Maine North), 1977
[6.] 1:49.58*, Jim Spivey, Bensenville (Fenton), 1978
[7.] 1:49.7*, Larry Kelly, Park Ridge (Maine East), 1964
[8.] 1:49.7, Jason Van Swol, New Lenox (Lincoln-Way), 1998
[9.] 1:49.9*, Tom Sullivan, Evanston (St. George), 1961
[10.] 1:49.9, Marlon Jones, Bartonville (Limestone), 1990
[11.] 1:50.1*, Willie Thomas, Chicago (Englewood), 1969
[12.] 1:50.30, Charles White, Harvey (Thornton), 1973
[13.] 1:50.33, Rich Kolasa, Oak Forest, 1986
[14.] 1:50.49, Rob Carter, Clinton, 1988
[15.] 1:50.7, Craig Grant, Hillside (Proviso West), 1965
[16.] 1:50.73, Tramell Smith, Willowbrook, 2002
[17.] 1:50.8, Jim White, Elmhurst (York), 1985
[18.] 1:50.9, Maurice Street, Chicago (Farragut), 1978
[19.] 1:51.0, George Hunt, Alton (Sr.), 1963
[19.] 1:51.0, Bruce Keene, Flossmoor (Homewood-F.), 1977
So I didn’t have to look far to realize I did not have that kind of talent inside me. My friend went on to run a 4:01 mile at University of Kentucky while I barely cracked 4:20 in the mile at little Luther College. That raised a question in my head at the time, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
So I set out to satisfy that question for myself beyond college. After a brief pause to move out into the business world, I took up training full time for a year or two to find out how good I could get. That’s right: I wanted to truly find out if this was as good as it gets.
That may be kind of fucked up approach to life, I know. But I wasn’t alone in that pursuit. There were dozens of guys at my talent level that were busting their butts to run 31:00 for 10k or get close to 50:00 for ten miles. It was what we did. It was who we were.
We filled a niche in the running world that these days appears to have completely disappeared. Race results from local 5K and 10K races on occasion may have winning times of 31:00, but not very often. More often the winning time is in the range of 33:00 or higher, and after that, it’s just a faceless crowd of truly less-than-average runners covering ground. That’s all good and well for the populism of running, but one has to wonder: Is this as good as it gets?
There are no regrets on my part from putting time training back then. All those hard miles and even the illness and injury from overtraining taught some important lessons and answered all kinds of questions. Taking those risks and trading time spent running against career and money and advancement was worth it to figure out what it was that I wanted out of sports, and by proxy, out of life. If you strive to answer a question fully, it doesn’t have to be answered all over again. Or asked.
Because the reality of doing your best in a sport is always different than the fantasy of wondering what you might have done. Now that I’ve met a share of pro athletes and had an opportunity to talk with them about what it’s like to have that level of talent, a truth comes home. The processes are the same for all of us. There are both joys and limits to what you can draw out of sports.
And here’s a harsh reminder: It’s not the people that try hard and fail that should disgust us. It’s the people with talent that refuse to work hard that are worthy of scorn. There are some who are actually and openly disdainful of this ideal, and by proxy, they are scornful of all human beings on this earth. For example, a certain presidential candidate was asked about the record of Senator John McCain, who bravely endured torture and imprisonment during the Vietnam War. But this is what the heartless bastard said about him: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
There is a gutlessness and insecurity to that statement that defies all respect. Yet some people admire statements like that on grounds that the person spewing them out has “the courage” to speak his mind. That’s not courage exemplified. It is fear and insecurity on full display, the weak character of a person that has apparently not tried anything all that hard or he would know better than to say something like that. This is not as good as it gets. This is as bad as it gets. And worse.
Taking talent for granted
Even people who obviously have talent are prone to taking it for granted. I recall a pro soccer player for the Chicago Fire who seemed to have it all. He possessed great speed, excellent ball control skills and easy good looks to boot. Yet he played the game of soccer with a brand of distraction and detachment that exasperated his potential fans. It seemed as if he could not be bothered to use the talent he possessed. He lasted a couple years in the league. Granted, he probably got laid a lot, so there’s that. But he was never heard from again in soccer circles. One wonders if there were any regrets there…
Ah well. That’s his choice, isn’t it? When it comes to succeeding in sports or not, we can’t really decide for others what is right and what it wrong. We can never know what other factors might have engaged another person or caused such distracted play. What was his real story? Perhaps he was actually playing at the limits of his ability, and just made it look easy. There’s that.
As for those years of training and racing at my peak, it turned out I had the opportunity to win a few races, and did. And I can tell you this much: there is nothing like the feeling of being in control at the five-mile mark of a 10k race, and looking back to see all the people you’ve beaten. I won’t lie: there was a touch of vindication and a release of anger in all that.
That’s a thrilling reward for all the hard and lonely work of doing quarter-mile repeats in the dark at a local high school track. There might be no one there to cheer you along. Only your own thoughts, dark desires and the sound of spikes on the track, along with your own hard breathing. You’re the only one there to push the button on a watch and call out “63!” on the eighth or tenth of twelfth repeat quarter.
No one there but you. And your watch. And a dream of doing your best and perhaps even winning a race upon which you have set your sights.
And that, my friends, is as good as it gets.