The toughest decision we face as
endurance athletes is whether or not to quit a race.
Endurance sports have, at their
core, the ethos that quitting is bad. Quitting is failure.
Finishing equates to victory and it is winner take all:
If you finish you win, if you abandon the race, you
This is sometimes a contravention
Endurance sports are a microcosm
of life. A difficult race includes the trials and tribulations,
victories and triumphs of an entire life compressed
into metaphorical miniature during the span of one race.
This is such an accurate metaphor that the military
uses grueling endurance trials to weed out candidates
who aspire to being everything from a Navy SEAL to a
Judge Advocate (military attorney).
There is a catch though. Some Navy
SEALs survive the grueling and sensational test of “Hell
Week” in Basic Underwater Demolition School but
are dropped from training because they fail to show
adequate judgment in other areas. They simply lack common
sense. They could not operate as a team. They lost sight
of what was most important: The Overall Mission. The
The battle cry of the endurance
athlete may be, “Never Quit!” but there
is certain wisdom to walking away from a performance
that becomes an ordeal that becomes torture. The temperance
and judgment to know when to exercise that option is
a rare quality. The smartest of athletes know when to
say when. They know when it is time to walk off the
course and come back to fight another day. This is a
good articulation of this rare mind set:
“It takes more courage
to reveal insecurities than to hide them, more strength
to relate to people than to dominate them, more 'manhood'
to abide by thought-out principles rather than blind
reflex. Toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in
muscles and an immature mind.”
It takes courage and fortitude to
stay the course and see things through to their conclusion.
In business, in life, this is a doctrine that is proven
again and again. It is a fact, and countless quotes
and inspirations confirm this: The ability to stick
with something breeds success.
But the “Never Say Die”
mindset is also a sensational and boastful mindset exalted
in inspirational calendars, selfishness, locker room
pep talks and the lore of the stoic and martyred. This
mindset- the “Never Say Die” mindset, is
the hero factory. Many of these heroes are genuine.
Some of these heroes are rendered lame, impotent, foolish,
decrepit and even dead by this credo.
In researching the literature for
this editorial I found some unlikely resources. The
20th James Bond movie, Die Another Day, depicts our
(my) fictional hero, Commander Bond, fallen into grief
in a North Korean prison. He, being Bond, manages to
judiciously moderate his circumstances such that one
moment he is being tortured, the next he is checking
into a Hong Kong luxury hotel. Laugh if you will, but
the fictional James Bond character is a master of knowing
when to bugger off and come back to die another day.
That mindset, the mindset of humility and survival,
is epitomized in the lyrics of the Madonna title song
for the movie with perhaps more wisdom than is usually
ascribed to a pop music diva:
I'm gonna break
I'm gonna shake up the system
I'm gonna destroy my ego
I'm gonna close my body now
I think I'll find another way
There's so much more to know
I guess I'll die another day
It's not my time to go
For every sin,
I'll have to pay
I've come to work, I've come to play
I think I'll find another way
It's not my time to go
I'm gonna avoid
I'm gonna suspend my senses
I'm gonna delay my pleasure
I'm gonna close my body now
I guess I'll
die another day
Madonna’s disco haiku discusses
themes of insight and humility- it touches on the possibilities
presented by surviving and coming back later for a better
performance under more favorable circumstances. You
may say that interpretation is a stretch, but I’ll
argue that is exactly what a James Bond figure does.
He learns when to say when and how to come back to Die
Now, the trick for you and I is
to figure out when to say enough is enough, bag it,
and come back to fight again. That isn’t an easy
decision to make because the answer is dynamic. It changes.
Sometimes the right thing to do is to stay the course
and gut it out, other times the right and wise decision
is to step off the course. Knowing the difference between
the two and having the courage to act on it is a complex
Pride and hubris are seductive emotions.
Pride is the opiate of the self-important and simple.
It stands in the way of temperance and common sense,
and paves the way for embarrassment and injury. Hubris
is when a person is just plain too proud, boastful,
self important, stubborn and dumb to quit. These traits
cloud our judgment. Each of them is part of our character
to a greater or lesser degree- we all have them.
In our business, we see people occasionally
who just don’t know when to call it quits and
walk off the race course. On the one hand, you have
to admire their courage and determination. Maybe. On
the other hand, you sometimes think, “Man, that
sounds horrible. Couldn’t you just come back when
you were in a better place to race?” The answer
to this question lies with the individual athlete themselves.
Only they can determine the “rightness”
of their decision to stay in a race when their performance
has turned to less than graceful. And passing judgment
on individual performances when we can’t share
the true insight into the athlete’s motives is
A lot gets in the way of the clarity
of judgment and purpose that is required to make the
best decision during a tough race. Sometimes it is so
easy to just quit. During one telecast of the Hawaii
Ironman Lyn Brooks of Maryland, a 20-time (at least)
finisher of Ironman Hawaii described her conflict with
continuing the race or succumbing to an imaginary “devil”
who promised solace if she dropped out. This imaginary
vision that appeared in the delirium of fatigue and
dehydration tempted her with cold beer. Brooks did not
succumb to this temptation. She finished 20 consecutive
Hawaii Ironmans, all with a greater or lesser degree
of grace and athleticism. But she finished. Lyn Brooks
was emotional when she described her ordeal. She choked
back tears in the interview. That gave me the feeling
that she was dealing with more than just Ironman here.
That perhaps, just perhaps, Ironman was the one-day
representation of other challenges Brooks has risen
to. I don’t know Lyn Brooks, never met her. But
there is something so wise, dignified and honorable
about her stoic devotion to finishing Ironman Hawaii.
In the space of her 60 second sound bit I got the impression
that she would have dropped out of the race if she felt
she had to. She seemed to have good judgment. I like
Lyn Brooks’ approach to the sport, and think of
her dignified demeanor and poised determination frequently
when times are tough.
Lyn Brooks figured out the key to
success in endurance sports. The one underlying truth
about endurance sports- and I’ll argue life in
general- that grants peace and tranquility and paves
the way for long term purpose. It is this:
You have to own the race. Don’t
let the race own you.
Brad Kearns is an elite professional
triathlete and also a writer and editor. He wrote the
book Breakthrough Triathlon Training. This is one of
the finest books ever written on our sport. In it, Kearns
discusses the wisdom, temperance and balance required
to have rewarding experiences in our sport. He is one
of the only writers, and joins just a few others such
as Mark Allen and Dr. Phil Maffetone, as an ambassador
for common sense and moderation. Kearns talks about
balance and a long term involvement in our sport. It
is like conservation of the spirit rather than ego-feeding
trophy bagging. I like Kearn’s approach and his
book and I recommend you read it.
There is a certain liberation to
knowing you are resolved enough to quit a race. I don’t
endorse quitting as a viable race strategy, but I do
endorse walking off the course on a bad day that is
getting worse so that you can return another day to
race again. In 1997 I had a good race at Ironman and
finished in around 10:40:00. In 1998 I went back with
my friends Paul and Sue but came down with some type
of sickness in the days before the race. I might have
been able to finish the race, but it wouldn’t
have been pretty or even wise. I entered in 1999 and
came back to a so-so 11:07:00 finish and had a pretty
tough day of it, but a decent day. My little tussle
with Ironman Canada was resolved in my mind then and
it was on to different challenges. Since then my love
affair with Ironman has continued and I’ve done
two more Ironman distance races, one in France and one
in New Zealand. Both are great memories and decent performances
for a guy of my rather common athletic aptitude.
I’ve done the “never
say die” thing too. In the 1999 Marathon Des Sables,
a 150 mile running race in the Sahara Desert in Morocco,
I told myself it may be better to die in the race than
suffer the indignation of coming home a non-finisher.
That mindset, however misguided, short-sighted and perverse,
did get me to the finish but did so at significant cost.
I contracted medical problems that required a hospital
stay back here in the U.S. and have taken years to mostly
recover from. Looking back on that performance and ordeal
I should have taken the first part of the race as an
apprenticeship and then returned the following year
to put in a more graceful and sane performance. When
I raced the 2001 Jordan Telecom Desert Cup, a 105 mile
running race in the deserts that run through Syria,
Jordan and Iraq, I used the (good and bad) experience
in Morocco to have a much better race in Jordan. I got
through the race with a smile on my face and in good
enough shape to party like a sultan after the race.
More importantly, my enthusiasm for desert ultra-distance
racing isn’t stunted. I still look forward to
racing in the desert again.
Ultimately the decision to stay
in a race and finish, even against all bounds of convenience
and common sense, or walk off the course to return another
day for vindication is an individual one. But I do believe
it takes a tall measure of courage and concrete self-esteem
to hold your head up, step off the course and say, “I
just didn’t have it today… I’ll be
back next year maybe.” That is the adversity that
forges the steel spirit of real heroes.
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