Friday, August 6, 2010

The Perfect Race

Once again, it's been a little while. With the Angeles Crest 100 coming up and Western States behind me, I wanted to reprint the article/race report of mine that showed up in Ultrarunning Magazine. There's a lot I could post about my race and a lot of details there left to share, but with my current writer's block, this should give you a nice overview of what just happened.

The Perfect Race

When Roy Jones Jr. won a silver medal in boxing in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, it was certainly not the result that he had hoped for or even earned. I had seen a documentary about the circumstances surrounding it on television a week or two before. I hadn’t thought about it since, but at the time I remember it touching a nerve in me by how much Jones had out boxed the Korean boxer and how utterly stunned the result had left everyone on television. He had clearly given a performance worthy of the gold medal, yet in the end the record books do not read “Olympic Champion”. It was a sad irony that seemed to illustrate one of life’s enduring truths: you never get exactly what you deserve.

In the middle of the Western States 100 out on that lonely, isolated trail down to Volcano Creek from Michigan Bluff, it hit me that even if I had done everything that I thought I needed to do in this race, nothing was guaranteed. Roy Jones Jr. had fought the perfect fight and in the end it was not enough to guarantee him the result that he desired or deserved. This thought started a rather deep, internal discussion on the meaning of perfection.

At the time, I was a literal and figurative mess out there. I was being punished by a badly sprained left ankle early on going downhills and fits of nausea on the uphills. In fact, the ankle had grown so troublesome that I was intentionally avoiding pivoting on the left foot all together on downhills. A race that began with a disciplined beginning and a major ramp up from miles 32 through 44 was now cracking at the seams. The level of disgust with which I felt with myself was clearly evident to all around me, even as I strained to put my race back together again. It didn’t matter to me whether I failed at every race in 2010. After succumbing to elevation-induced sickness and general exhaustion in 2007, I was doing a poor job make amends for it here in 2010.

I had just seen my wife and a friend at Michigan Bluff, beaten down and in need of some inspiration along with a couple of new body parts. Coming away from the aid station, I steadily meandered down the trail, not concerned with much else other than trying to feel a little bit better. As the trail got steeper and more rocky near bottom of Volcano Creek, I tried to steady feet with each foot strike when Roy Jones Jr. entered my consciousness and with it a streaming internal discussion on expectation and perfection.

I had been acting like a pestilent child, not getting what I desired out of the race and choosing to wallow in my own self pity. Children lament when things don’t turn out exactly they imagine because they see things in black and white. To them, there is no acceptable outcome other than the one which they were expecting. It reminded me of times as a child watching the San Francisco 49ers play in the Super Bowl when I came close to tears more than a few times fearing possible defeat. A child sees no other outcome more important than the one they were expecting.

Maturity, in many respects, allows us to see the shades of grey in a black and white world. It sees beauty in unimagined possibilities. It also allows us to see that rarely is there a 1 to 1 correlation between the effort we put in and the results we receive. Nothing in my training or previous racing guaranteed an outcome; rather, it could only feed the internal hope for a given race.

The truth was that my family and friends who had come out to support me didn’t come just to see my post a particular time or come in a particular place. In my disappointment and disgust, I lost sight of the fact that those most important to me were there for no other reason than to support me because they loved me. I could’ve stopped right there, in my disappointment and disgust, and they would’ve loved me regardless.

We expect perfection of our imperfect selves in an imperfect world. I wanted perfection, but only the kind of perfection measured by results. I had expected the improvement in my running over the past year as well as the training and comeback from injury over the past 7 months to be rewarded with results. However, life doesn’t all of the sudden become perfect simply because we are participating in this “perfect” race. The race only magnifies the imperfections which are all around us and within us. In my moment of weakness, I had made it about myself.

I would go on to continue experiencing the nausea and the ankle instability the rest of the race, but from that moment on, it did not matter. I would continue to pursue perfection even if the results didn’t reflect it. In my struggles, there was something refreshing about knowing that I did everything I could to run the race well. Coming in second, whether that be to a competitor or to our own expectations of self, is never easy. Someone else sees the race you had while you see the race you should have or could have had. But in that final moment sprinting around the track at Placer High School Stadium, coming in 114th never felt so good. 23 hours and 47 minutes after I started, my journey was coming to an end. I was not accepting mediocrity, but rather embracing the highest standards of sport which demand that we empty ourselves in mind, body and spirit in the pursuit of excellence. Others may be more celebrated or publicly lauded, but this was special to me because this was the day I found perfection. On that day, I had run the perfect race. Never before has taking home the silver felt so satisfying.


olga said...

Loved the story. Rang so true. It was nice to have met you.

kelly said...

Great post, thank you. Congrats on running the "perfect race". It feels so good, doesn't it?

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Great post..thanks for sharing the story...