The Olympics started on Friday, and although I always resist watching them at first due to the nationalistic character of the games—or at least the nationalistic character given to the games by those covering them—I usually end up becoming engrossed in them. That has happened this year, as it happened in 2008, when the summer games helped inspire me to lose forty pounds. By coincidence, I recently finished Lance Armstrong’s book, It’s Not About the Bike, and so my mind has been thinking a great deal about athletes lately.
Armstrong, who tells an amazing story that we all know by now, relates at the beginning of his book that he wants to die after riding his bike down a mountain at high speed. Only a world class athlete would wish for such a thing, the same way musicians dream about dying on the conductor’s podium or at the organ console. (This assumes, of course, that the organist is also a musician, which is not always the case.) Armstrong says that he loves pain; he also says that when an athlete endures pain and setbacks, he faces the innermost parts of his soul. For that reason, athletes are some of the strongest people around. Perhaps what is most likable about them is that they know that their greatest enemy is themselves, and so they don’t seem to waste time going around trying to save the world like Sheila Broflowski.
Saturday night I was watching the women’s moguls on TV as I was getting ready for bed. These ladies had been preparing for years—perhaps all their lives—and there they were laying it all on the line in a single run that lasted less than thirty seconds. It’s a rather peculiar sport. They get on skis, do a couple of jumps, and intermittently bounce up and down on little mounds of snow. Who thinks this stuff up? It would all seem pointless to a harsh pragmatist, but these ladies were out there doing the most important thing anyone can do: They were conquering themselves. One of the mogul participants made a terrible miscalculation on one of her jumps and ended up falling face first into the snow. It looked like she got enough of a mouthful of the fluffy stuff that she could have skipped dinner. Nevertheless, at the end of her run, she beamed with pleasure. These people are alive.
Watching these people rise about their fears to conquer whatever obstacles lie in front of them has been a great inspiration. Individual sports are particularly heart-warming, since they are more about each person doing the best he or she can. Team sports can stink, since one person’s blooper can let down an entire city. In individual sports, a blooper is a chance to learn, a chance to grow, a chance to reach down just a little bit farther and conquer another level of hell that lies in the human heart.
All of this is enough to make the observer want to jump out of his skin with enthusiasm, and I am no exception. For days, I was daunted by icy conditions here in Philadelphia. But last night, after so much exposure to athletes who have more guts than I do, I decided that it was time to get back outside and run, and I didn’t care if I slipped on the ice and cracked my head open. At least I’d be doing something that I love. Did I slip a few times? Yes. Did my ankles enjoy the uneven texture of the packed snow which has turned to ice? Not really. But I felt alive, and I had one of the best runs of my life. Even if it had sucked, however, I would still have been a better man for it. You see, the most important part about excellence is being excellent on the inside: refusing to give up, being unwilling to take counsel of one’s fears, always looking to be just a little bit better than the day before. These are essential to achieving excellence on the outside, i.e. good results.
There are hard days, even awful days. The writer Haruki Murakami relates that one runner, when asked if he ever must run when he doesn’t feel like it, says, “Of course.” It’s not about listening to one’s feelings. (That’s what’s gotten our society in big trouble, if you ask me, because this is all most people do these days.) It’s about following through with what’s right or good even when it’s difficult. It’s the higher part of human nature conquering the lower part. I have several sayings that I repeat to myself when the going gets tough. When I’m really feeling bad I use, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Most of the time, however, I use lines like “I will run the race,” or, “I will finish the race.” People see me repeating these to myself and must think I’m nuts, but I weigh 165 pounds, and they don’t.
I don’t say, “I will win the race,” mind you. I keep some track of my times but don’t give much of a damn about them. The bigger battle is simply overcoming my bad inertia and overcoming the parts of myself that make me such a lazy jackass. I intend to fight this battle for the rest of my life, and I’m thankful for the example of the star athletes, who do such a great job of taking all my excuses away. And with some hard work, the day might come when my 10k time is something worth bragging about.