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March or Die.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.


Boy in sand

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 lose.

This is sometimes a contravention of wisdom.

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 End Game.

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.”
Alex Karras

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:

Sigmund Freud…
Analyze this
I'm gonna break the cycle
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 the cliche
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 Another Day.

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 skill set.

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 short sighted.

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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© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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