About 10 years ago, I participated in a local half-marathon. My father came out to watch the race. After the race was over he commented to me, “Brian, a lot of people sped up and sprinted across the finish line. But they were well behind the winner of the race. Why did they bother, since their finish times were irrelevant?”
In perhaps 2008 or 2009, Torbjørn Sindballe, a phenomenal professional triathlete, published an article in, I think, Triathlete Magazine. In this article, he described his perennial struggles with heat in competitions, especially the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. With the help of a creative sponsor, Sindballe developed a number of improvements to his race strategy, including wearing white and using gloves filled with ice. What I remember most about this article is that, after having used his innovative approach, he came in 3rd place and stated, in the article, that he “won.”
“What?” I thought. He finished 3rd, right? That means two people, Chris McCormack and Craig Alexander, finished before him. How could anyone who can count call this a “win?” I was relatively new to triathlon at that time.
Many non-endurance athletes and even many endurance athletes, themselves, have narrow definitions of success. First place or bust. Podium or bust. Qualify for Kona, Nationals, Worlds, etcetera or bust.
Attached to this idea is the concept that not achieving such narrowly-defined success reflects a lack of commitment to becoming better. “That middle-of-the pack guy must have been watching television and munching on chips when he should have been on the bike.”
I wrote an article a few months ago about how it is becoming more difficult to qualify for Kona. This was not meant as a complaint, but instead as a source of information upon which to reflect. A well-meaning, and highly-motivated, reader looked up my (humble) results from past competitions on Athlinks and wrote me a detailed analysis of how I could qualify for Kona. I just need to bike a little faster and take, oh, about an hour and a half off my marathon. But, if I just train really, really hard, I’ll be right there in Kona.
I have had occasional highly-placed finishes and have qualified for Nationals several times. But I have also had surprisingly poor finishes in which I worked just as hard, or harder, as I had for podium finishes. These experiences, and paying a lot of attention to the athletes around me, have taught me a lot of lessons about winning.
Now, please understand, I do not think that everybody should get a medal just for showing up. I think that graduation certificates for preschool and kindergarten, for instance, are absurd. Winning, however, for some people, can be just showing up (e.g. overweight couch to running a 5K is a wonderful win), but I am trying to make a different point.
Here is my definition of winning in endurance sports:
Winning, in endurance sports, is doing everything you can with what you have been given, without quitting and without feeling self-pity.
To make an extreme example, recall the story of Jon “Blazeman” Blais. He had ALS and participated in the Kona race. His finish, in almost 16 and a half hours, was magical. I will never forget watching footage of him rolling across the finish line. In simply finishing, he won. I have been in a lot of painful places in a lot of long races, but I cannot imagine how much agony he went through to win, on his terms.
This is just the point. Blazeman, and any other endurance athlete who pushes his or her limits, is a winner. Some of us are born with magnificent athletic gifts, but most of us are not. But this does not mean that a 50th place finish has any less value to that finisher than the winner of the race if that middle-of-the-pack finisher gave his or her all.
I also hold that the opposite is true. Losing is not appreciating or using the gifts you possess. For example, I have a friend who is a really strong multi-sport athlete. In a race a couple years ago, volunteers did not point him the right direction on the bike, and he ended up going some distance off course. This made it pretty unlikely he was going to podium. What did he do? He turned around and biked back to transition, collected his gear and went home. This behavior may be understandable for a professional who is having a bad day and decides to save his or her energy for the next race. But this friend is an amateur and this was a short race which would not affect future training or performances. Essentially, things weren’t going his way and he just quit.
Like everybody else at the start of races I am nervous. Sometimes I ask myself, “what am I nervous about? Nobody but me really cares about my finishing time and I know I can finish.” I think sometimes what really scares me is the thought that I may, in the course of a race, lose my commitment to being my best and just become the guy who packs up early and goes home. May this never happen to me or to any of us.
Here is to the winners in all of us.