Friday, October 14, 2016

to chase excellence

I read a lot.  

I always have, I learned how when I was about eleven minutes old.  There's a tale I tell about the first time I ever got in trouble at school; it was for reading books under my desk instead of paying attention in class because I had already read the entire textbook.  For most of fifth grade, my backpack was checked at home before I left in the morning then searched again by my teacher to make sure I wasn't sneaking any books into school; I am, above all other things, the original nerd.
I still read just as much as I did as a kid, I consider it one of the pillars of my own continuing education as a coach.  There are plenty of blogs out there that I read regularly and Jordan Rapp is high up on the list at least in part because I get the sense through his writing that my brain works a little bit like his does.  Detached, scientific, thorough, meticulous, compartmentalization level: expert (he fortunately seems to be missing the piece that makes him Exorcist-style power-vomit emotional garbage all over the internet).  Something in his writing consistently either makes me think hard, usually while staring out of the window blankly at nothing, or it teaches me something, both of which I appreciate.  He wrote weekly leading up to Kona, and in his final pre-race post when discussing the idea of kaizen, improvement, he wrote:

"Mark Allen, who I believe unquestionably to be the greatest triathlete and one of the greatest endurance athletes of all time had this to say after he finally broke through to win in Kona.

In my failures, I saw the darkest part of myself, where I was weak, where expectations did not meet reality. Until you face your fears, you don't move to the other side, where you find the power.

In this idea, I find one of the truest expressions of kaizen; it's hard to imagine a greater improvement than a move to "the other side," away from fear. The best part - and the hardest part - of racing is that you are truly accountable. You are accountable to your process. To your decisions. And to your outcome. That's why it's so easy to be afraid. But real opportunity is a rare and special thing. It is scary. But I am not afraid."

I'm on the couch in my fuzzy pajama pants and a hoodie that dates back to 2001, one of the oft-touted pros of working both for yourself and from home.  It is October 12.  This morning, I ran fourteen miles.  According to my training log, the last time I ran this distance or further, other than that pesky ill-advised ironman in August (or the more highly advised one last November), was November 8, 2015.  Nearly a year.  And I note it, not to brag (humble or otherwise) about training, but more because to me it is another quiet indicator in a long line of nearly-silent signs that I have returned to myself.  The run was not particularly fast but it was effortless.  It's been so long since I ran that loop that I couldn't remember which right turn onto which dirt road would deposit me back on my door step in the correct amount of time, my eating-and-drinking-while-moving skills are creaky with disuse, my music was too loud because I'm not used to running with it and left my ears ringing for hours afterwards.  But it was work.  I am doing work again, not just cautiously jogging with every internal dial turned up to 11 waiting for something to break down.  It is unremarkable, the simple pleasure of stacking up day after day after day of consistent, patient, training.  And it is my joy.
Some may describe it as fascination, obsession, addiction, but it is none of those things, or maybe it is all of those things.  Maybe those are the keys to mastery, maybe those are the hallmarks of simply letting time pass around dedication to a singular focus.  I chose triathlon.  Ironman.  On the surface, it's silly - swim bike run, tiny clothing, terrible hair, all the eating and drinking and dealing with your body violently opposing that much exercise for so many hours in a row.  I have the perspective to see that it is a hobby, not some noble pursuit; I am not saving the world, I am just trying to crack 1:10 in a 100 and see something other than an 11 on my watch again not to mention maybe just a few of my abs.  The root of it is not at all that I dreamed my entire life of being a triathlete.  I don't have heroes in the sport, although there are certainly many athletes that I view with a great deal of respect.  I don't secretly dream about racing professionally, I don't even dream about qualifying for Kona or breaking the tape - those are good dreams, valid dreams, but they are not mine.  
I train the way I do because I want something in my life that embodies greatness.  It could have been anything, I could have started riding horses, or kept playing the horn, or finished a PhD, or learned how to be the best goddamn electrician in the state of Virginia.  For whatever reason, it's triathlon.  My heart is here.  That's why I continue to come back, and it has nothing to do with racing and everything to do with the raw purity of athleticism, the taste of blood in my throat when I'm chasing watts sixteen minutes into twenty, the shakiness of my quads at the end of a timed 200, the naked feeling of looking down at my watch during a hard run to see that I am doing it you are doing it just hold on hold on hold on.  The deep breath, in and out, before I settle my hands, stack my back, and close my eyes for just a moment as I root down into my core and lift.  

Because I want to be excellent.  In the world, compared to nobody-but-myself, I want to feel like I am constantly working to improve my life across every facet.  If you asked me what I am thinking about when I run fourteen miles, I would tell you that it's about 10% writing schedules and dreaming up swim jackassery, 2% how mad I am about that guy that flipped me off when I had the right of way!, 8% what I am going to eat as soon as I am done running and 80% how my right foot is landing on the ground.  Where my left foot is pointing when I swing through, what my arms are doing, if my chin is tucked and my shoulders and back and my hips are square and my core is drawn in and if I am PRESSING the ground away from my toes.  It's the same in the water, it's the same on the bike, two years ago Charlie impressed on me the importance of the position of my foot in the pedal stroke against the knee injury I was fighting and I spent six weeks on the trainer watching my foot in the mirror.  To this day, not a bike ride does not go by without focusing on this, thinking up the chain, into the glutes, what is my back doing, what are my shoulders doing, where is the power coming from, what needs to relax, what needs to have tension.  In the water it's all hands and width and lats and belly button and chin and press.  Is it completely beyond boring?  Yes, OMG LOLZ YAWN.  But it is part of how I chase improvement.  And maybe it is not so important to understand why I choose to chase it in this way but simply to understand that I want to chase it at all.

Ironman Boulder, over a year ago, felt like a race of infinite opportunity.  Physically, I was bulletproof.  I have never been so fit, never been as prepared across the board, never had such a day held out in front of me to be plucked: my roads, my home, my race.  But my mental armor was in shreds, grief at the root over the loss of my grandparents, yes, I've been over and over that, yes yes yes it's all true. However, what is also true is that I lost my nerve.  Grief is the quick excuse, grief is what opens the door to, I could have, if only...  Grief makes it easy to write off what happened that day as an outlier, but without grief, it may have unfolded the same way.  Since then, I have yet to again be faced with the same kind of race and real opportunity that was in front of me that day.  It was scary.  It still is.
I'm not sure when or where or if I will ever have another chance like that one, it is still far too early in what I am trying to rebuild to really think about racing again.  Another signed-up-a-year-ago event will go by this weekend because I recognize that I am not ready.  I participated in Coeur d'Alene for a reason that was powerful to me, but that's all it was, participating.  Even in Cozumel, last winter, in the teardown of the race afterwards I recognized the decisions I had made to protect myself and deliver what I needed from the day.  And I recognize now that if I continue to chase excellence in sport, that what I am really chasing is the choice, the chance, to once again face that rare and real opportunity.  To face the darkest parts of myself that appear, there.

October 12th (more likely the 18th by the time I hit publish).  It is the time of year where most athletes are taking their post-season breaks and racing beer miles or cross or taking on challenges like I wonder how many Halloween Oreos I can fit in my mouth at one time.  My body feels like January 23rd.  The rhythm is rusty, what my body can put out right now in terms of speed or pace or watts or weights is not where I want to be.  But I am no longer concerned with where I used to be.  It doesn't matter what I did or did not do in 2014, other than to learn from it, to seek improvement. (My own personal record with the Oreos is 6).  What matters is where I'd like to go.  And what is lucky about athletics is that we always have the opportunity to begin, over and over and over again.  
Real opportunity is a rare and special thing.  Unlike Jordan, I am afraid.  It's scary.  There is risk involved, I could get injured again, or worse, I could stay strong and healthy and the next time I am lucky enough to face all of my bullshit, I could again lose my nerve.  I could fail.  But if my intention is to chase excellence, then this the way I choose to move forward.  Coaches say it all the time: Commit.  Believe.  And keep going.