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Back on Foot.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Competitor bandaged at knee and waist after race.

The greatest limiting factor in our performance is pride. There is an Arabic saying: “Pride goes out on horseback, and comes back on foot.”

If we could just set our pride aside, imagine the possibilities… If we weren’t so afraid of looking stupid.

Think of the times fear of looking bad has kept you from doing something. Think of the times making an idiot out of yourself have stopped you from entering an event or trying something new.

I was a fat kid. Not just overweight, but so fat they put me in a special education physical education class. It was humiliating. At the age of thirteen a guy is just starting to notice girls and just becoming somewhat self-aware. Being put in the special ed. gym class at that age was the worst of humiliations. What I didn’t realize was the experience would teach me things, if I was open to learning them. Over thirty years later I’m glad they put me in that class.

One lesson I learned was that progress is usually accompanied by embarrassment. You can be as cool as you want, but being cool usually accomplishes nothing. If you want to move forward, sooner or later you have to take a chance at looking foolish or out of place. Humiliation is a valve you pass through on the way to growth.

The majority of the world is not like you and I. It isn’t as though we don’t make asses of ourselves. I do on a more regular basis than I’d like to. And you already know we aren’t better than the rest of the world, us athlete-participants. The difference between us and the rest of the world is that one morning we woke up and said, “I don’t care. I’m doing something for myself no matter how asinine I look doing it.” And then we did it. Most of us kept doing it. We’ve done it long enough maybe we sometimes make it look polished now. But we still fear the ultimate limiter: Humiliation.

At the beginning of this year I had a lot on my plate. We moved our business, which has been growing rapidly. I got married. I bought a house. I traveled. In the mix training got lost and I put on weight. I don’t like that version of myself. It is a little too close to the kid in the special ed gym class.

At an early season race a friend snapped a photo of me and posted it on one of favorite internet forums. I didn’t like what I saw. There was a good sized roll around my waist and, as another friend put it, I looked “doughy”. They were right, and I’m glad they posted the photo for me (and everyone else) to see. I was going soft. It was humiliating. The kid was back.

Excuses are a wonderful pillow for humiliation to rest on. You know the standard ones: Everyone gains a little weight after they get married and get comfortable. Everyone settles down. Failure and compromise rest easily on the cushion of excuses. Since that special education gym class my life has been swimming against the current of sloth and commonness. I don’t want that kid back. Bottom line: I got fat, did shitty in a race, got called out and needed to train more. No excuses.

There is no doubt gaining weight changed how I behave. I’m introspective enough to notice it. For the first time in my life I tried on race clothes in my basement to see how I would look before I decided to wear them in a race. I was worried about looking bad. I considered not racing because I knew I was not fit enough to place well in my age category. Bad thoughts were creeping in.

I’ve never been a gifted athlete but I am a damned stubborn one. I’ve done a lot of races; bike races, triathlons, adventure races, running races- I’ve raced darn near every kind of human powered race and I’ve done it on all seven continents for three decades plus. Endurance sports have been inculcated into my DNA. For better or worse, they are a part of me. I needed to reconnect with that and leave the fear of humiliation behind. I mean, I know I was going to be humiliated…. It already happened. It was probably a good thing.

It’s hard to describe this reconnection exactly- this transition from humiliation to something better. You probably understand yourself since it’s happened to you. That thing that makes you keep coming back. Somewhere out there putting one leg in front of the other started to feel a little better. The pedals stopped pushing back. The bike felt fast and I felt light on the run. It felt like I could swim through anything again- maybe not fast, but it felt like I could swim up Niagara Falls.

I entered races this year, I did races, about seven triathlons in all up to the end of July. I had a few brushes with decent races but nothing really satisfying. I entered the Ford Ironman 70.3 Whirlpool Steelhead Triathlon. This was going to be my big race in Michigan for the year. Along with nearly 2000 other people I jumped off the pier in St. Joseph, Michigan and managed to put together a decent day. I wasn’t racing per se’, I was just participating. I didn’t have the fitness or strength to make decisions about how fast I would go or whom I would catch on the run. I simply went the pace I could and enjoyed the race. It was a good day in one of the world’s best races, but I was just a passenger.

Earlier in the year my wife Sarah and I did the Accenture Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in San Francisco. I felt rotten before the race, worse in the race. You could compress the pain from any ten races into the space of that race and it would have still hurt worse. Joint pain, dizziness, headache. I was running a temperature before the race. Alcatraz has been voted the best triathlon in the world by magazine readers but for me it was hard time on the rock. It’s a difficult race to get into because of its popularity so if you do get a spot in the race you don’t dare call in sick. Great race, terrible day for me. I came home from San Francisco with my tail between my legs. That is where the picture was taken- the fat picture. Steelhead was a completely different day, and I actually did move through the race comfortably and enjoyed the day. It wasn’t humiliating, but it wasn’t that experience I was looking for. I felt like a beginner again, and that was a good place to start.

After Steelhead I thought for a while about pride and humiliation. In the information age our race results are on the net, around the world, 24/7 for all to see. If you have a rotten day you simply can’t crawl under a rock. It’s there for all to see. My race at Steelhead was as fast as I could go, but that wasn’t all that fast. It certainly wasn’t humiliating, but it wasn’t what I really wanted. I was trapped in that netherworld between risk of humiliation and having that really good, breakthrough day you only get maybe once a year. I remember being on the bike at Steelhead thinking, “Slow down… take it easy out here. You never know how you will feel in an hour when you are half way through the run.” As it turns out that was likely a wise strategy given my fitness at the time, but it was also the strategy of a person frightened of humiliation.

Our transition from fear of humiliation to the, “I don’t care if I look stupid- I’m going for it.” mindset is like a prize fish; elusive. You never know when you will catch it and it seems to slip through your fingers quite easily if you don’t secure it. It seems to be associated with the most unlikely of circumstances.

Last Sunday I landed the fish, and fear of humiliation was beat back down into its dirty little box.

My wife and I were doing technical support for the 26th Annual Elite Endeavors Sylvania Triathlon about an hour south of here in Ohio. This race is a classic. It is contested on perfect country roads over flat terrain between corn fields in rural Ohio. This is the Midwestern equivalent of the lava fields. There is really nothing there except the pavement, the wind and you. Efforts, for better or worse, tend to be distilled out there in the Ohio farm fields. There is no place to hide. If you’re on, you’ll have a good day. If not, you’ll be humiliated.

Something about disorganization can produce clarity. My wife Sarah and I were running a bit late that morning. We barely had time to set up our technical support for the other participants, let alone get ready for our own race. We changed some flats, adjusted some derailleurs, fixed some bikes and the first wave was getting ready to go off. I was standing outside the transition area in jeans and a T-shirt with my entire race garb in my transition bag. I had maybe five minutes to get ready. There wasn’t much time to think about being humiliated. A switch flipped that hadn’t been flipped in over ten years and I went back to how things were quite some time ago when, instead of being a participant, I was a racer. I had something to say about how my race went. I wasn’t thinking about humiliation. On this morning, I didn’t have time to worry about humiliation. I barely had time to set up for the race.

That hurried Sunday morning went well, and I did influence the outcome of my race. I didn’t think once of humiliation, only of catching the man in front of me with the same age on his calf. I know this is an inconsequential contest, the little tussle for third place in the men’s 45-49 age category in a small triathlon in the fields of Ohio, but it was a battle I joined without fear of failure. I was racing again, trying to catch the guy in front of me. It was hard and it felt good. Since it felt good I wasn’t afraid of looking stupid. And since I wasn’t afraid I actually had a day I haven’t had in a long time. I passed through the valve of humiliation to something that felt better. After nearly twenty five years of doing this sport I had clawed forward, slipped back, clawed forward and slipped back again. Today was a day I clawed forward. The kid was gone again.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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