The next time you go to the packet pick-up for a race, take a look around the parking lot. Many of the cars are probably covered in those white, oval-shaped stickers with the black borders. You know, the ones that practically scream to everyone on the road, “hey…hey, look at me. I’m really into fitness.”
26.2, 13.1, 70.3. Even 140.6. They represent how far someone has run or what sort of triathlon they’ve completed. For some, it’s about having reached a personal goal. Combating obesity and sedentary living, perhaps, or choosing to live a more active lifestyle at the midpoint of one’s life. The sticker is a trophy, a way of broadcasting this new identity for all to see.
It’s also ridiculous.
I get it though. It’s easy to get a bit of an ego once you’ve become serious about endurance sports. Just take a look around; as a society, we’ve really let ourselves go. The majority of folks living in the United States are either obese or overweight, and for many, exercise is an occasional thirty minutes in the cardio room while watching the Big Bang Theory. To be able to run for hours at the drop of a hat or swim, cycle, and run for over a hundred miles…well, you feel almost superhuman. Even the folks with perfectly-sculpted bodies, who work themselves to death with random, boot-camp fitness regimens, sometimes struggle to complete even basic triathlons.
But it’s silly to let that go to your head.
Case in point: in July, I was part of the bicycle escort for Iron Cowboy’s visit to Mason City, Iowa. For those of you who don’t know, James Lawrence, aka Iron Cowboy, completed what he called the 50/50/50–meaning 50 Ironman distance triathlons, 50 days in a row, one in each of the 50 states. A single Ironman consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 miles on a bike, and a 26.2 mile run–meaning a full marathon at the end. People train for years just to do it once. This guy did it 50 days in a row.
Reading about it is one thing, but actually witnessing James in action was an entirely different matter. When he came out for the swim early that morning, I saw the exhaustion on his face and in the way he walked to the pool. It was Day 43. But despite everything he’d been through, he slipped silently into the water, set his watch, and immediately began the routine.
While cycling, I was asked, along with another guy, to set and hold a steady pace for a while. I was nervous, of course, since The Cowboy was drafting a few inches from my rear wheel. I kept envisioning tens of thousands of angry Facebook fans calling for blood if I screwed up and became the asshole who made James crash.
But then he took over and I had the chance to observe him more closely. We talked briefly, but I tried to avoid bothering him. He didn’t need that. Occasionally he pulled out his cell phone and messaged his crew, and I later discovered that he was struggling to stay awake.
At about the halfway point, however, James turned on the gas. A pace of 16.5 mph turned into 19, 20, and sometimes 21. It’s what triathletes refer to as negative splitting–completing the second-half of a race segment more quickly than the first. It was like he’d unleashed a reservoir of potential energy.
And once it was over, he took a quick break, spoke to the crowd that had assembled for the run, and began the marathon.
There weren’t a lot of folks in Mason City that day. It was mostly people like me who enjoy endurance sports, heard about James on the internet, and knew that they had to be there to support him. In a sense, we were like the people trailing Forrest Gump. Most of them, I’m sure, are the athletic guy or gal in their circle of friends and acquaintances. The ones who say no to donuts at work and developed reputations as health and fitness experts. And all of us, without a doubt, were awestruck and dumbfounded by what James accomplished.
But after spending my day with The Cowboy, not only will I never complain about the difficulty of any endurance sports event, I’ll never stick a 26.2 or 140.6 sticker on my car.
Why would I? There’s no reason to do so.
What I learned from James is that it’s silly to develop an ego from one’s athletic accomplishments. Someone always does more. There’s always longer, harder races, and once you do those, there’s always someone doing it a second or third time in a row. Or fifty. There’s guys like David Clark. Dean Karnazes. Scott Jurek. Of course we all know this intellectually, but spending the day with James helped me to actually understand it. It made me feel small, but in a good way.
And I was reminded of my own limitations. I arrived with that ego, and not wanting to be the first to begin eating and hydrating, I made the mistake of waiting too long. It was brutally hot. The morning’s storm had given way a cloudless, sunny sky. Instead of preempting my nutritional needs, I was stuck trying to catch up. The result was that my body gave out after Mile 80 and I had to turn around. And although most of the others had already quit, I expected better than that from myself.
Upon returning to the staging area, I downed multiple bottles of water and ate a lot of fruit–recovering enough to run eight miles of the marathon before calling it a day. But my limitations were laid bare. And it’s true that what I did was no Color Run or walk through the park, but then again, the Cowboy did, for the forty-third time in a row, repeat an activity that I’d yet to even accomplish once.
It’s fine to be proud of one’s accomplishments. It’s good thing, actually. But for that pride to morph into a sense of grandeur is irrational, immature, and just plain ridiculous. It’s pointless as well, because that’s inevitably a losing game. Someone always comes along and does more. This doesn’t mean that a person shouldn’t strive for better. All of us should strive for consistent improvement, I believe. But let’s maintain a healthy perspective. Slapping a 26.2 sticker on your car and hoping that everyone knows you run marathons is, in the grand scheme of things, juvenile and silly.
This extends into other areas of life as well. Money, job status, possessions, and even the accomplishments of one’s children–someone always has more, and someone always has less. The guy with the new Mercedes who looks down on the person driving a fifteen-year-old Lumina should remember that the girl in the Mazarati may feel the same way about him. Likewise, looking down on a family member or friend for being “unsuccessful” is silly. After all, someone else probably feels the same about you. The location of the finish line or level of acceptability is an artificial, subjective construct.
It’s all relative.
The secret, I think, is to learn humility. Be secure and proud of what you’ve done, even when striving for more. Share what you’ve learned and set a positive example for folks nearby. Having more accolades, a faster time, or covering a larger distance never made anyone’s experience inherently more valuable. Besides, some of the loudest cheering comes to those who struggle to make the cutoffs.
And even if you are the best at what you do, what’s the point in having an ego? Nobody likes assholes and braggarts, right?