Saturday, August 27, 2011
Empire State Lesson
Today I'm a marathon athlete. A New York City Marathon athlete, to be exact.
Entering a marathon is like signing up for a seminar on personal growth and integrity. In this seminar there are no powerpoint presentations in auditoriums, no workbooks, no breakout sessions or keynote speakers. This seminar will be held on the streets of New York. The meeting rooms will be replaced by the five boroughs, Manhattan's skyline dismisses powerpoint graphics, breakout sessions will be breakthrough running performances and the individual stories told collectively, in unison by 40,000 runners will outmatch the words of the most gifted speakers.
The starting line will be where a lesson on the truth and a test of integrity begins.
I have stood at the starting lines of lots of races all kinds, of distances as short as one-mile to as long as a 50-mile run, from triathlons short enough to finish in 90 minutes to Ironman races that last 17 hours. The number of athletes who I have raced with totals into the tens of thousands.
I have learned much about myself and the other athletes. Usually it's the other athletes who teach me the most valued lessons of sport. There's no doubt the race course is the world's strongest truth serum. Every question about your training, preparation, and execution will be revealed. And for all to see. How you interact with others while under stress, how you accept winning, how you accept loosing, and most importantly, how truthful you are to yourself is revealed. Only you know if you gave your very best during the race. Consider yourself lucky if others see only your victory and not your inner failings too. These truths are the essence of race courses.
Here's another truth about my racing career: I have never won a race.
Not even my age division.
The closest I came to winning was second place of the 45 - 49 age division in a Dallas running club 5k on a frigid 16 degree January morning. Clearly the fast guys stayed at home, deferring to warmer spring days when they would again race, placing me in the middle of the pack.
I've raced with athletes who have raced years longer than I have who also have never won. And I have learned from that, for many, their victory was won by just getting to the starting line.
In most of our lives there are very few times when are required to be completely honest with ourselves and with those around us. We spend thousands of dollars to make ourselves look better or seem smarter or richer than we really are. Someone in one of those traditional seminars once said that for most of his life he had worked a job that he didn't like so that he could buy things he didn't need to impress people he would never meet.
Standing at the starting line, the illusions we use to create ourselves are useless. No amount of money or status, real or perceived, means a thing once the race starts. Maybe somebody could buy some speed because they can afford the lightest shoes, the best coaches, or attend intense training camps but none of those things help in the area where is really matters in a race. That area is personal integrity. For better or worse, the starting line is the true source of equality. In the middle of a race, when you are giving all you have to catch another athletes or digging down deep to not be overtaken, there are no age or gender or race differences. There are only two athletes that matter; the other guy and the athlete within you.
Those who train but never race are missing out on a great celebration, too. The heart pounding exhilaration of standing on an ocean beach with thousands of other swimmers in a triathlon or 20,000 runners crowding the narrow roads of Hopkinton to start the Boston Marathon, for example, is a feeling that must be experienced to be understood. Standing there, with so many other athletes who share a common goal and a common dream, is a powerful affirmation of our own goals and dreams.
You won the victory of getting to the line. Now, do you have the personal integrity to carry though to the finish line? The race course knows.
More than that, standing at the starting line is the time when we can see ourselves most clearly. The starting line is where we can experience the enigma of life -- that we are each alone and yet part of a larger group. Standing at the starting line we see those around us as both competitors and companions. We see them, as we can see ourselves, as people with an inescapable need to be a part of something outside of themselves, while still maintaining the integrity of who they are.
We all, veteran and beginner athletes alike, can experience the same feelings. It isn't a matter of long you've been an athlete, but of how you allowed athletics to inform your life, of how much you've learned. If you are open to the lessons of racing, every starting line can be a seminar in honesty, personal integrity, and ultimately yourself.