On Saturday, NBC aired what I guess you could call the Super Bowl for endurance athletes – the Ironman World Championship. Every year for the past several years, I’ve been transfixed by this special and the athletes’ superhuman feats of endurance set against the lush dreamland that is the big island of Hawai’i.
The special follows a fairly standard split-narrative formula. Part of the special follows the elite professional triathletes as they blaze their way through lava fields and towns, while the other half focuses on the stories of “everyday” triathletes, many of whom overcome obstacles the size of Mount Everest in order to compete. (I feel weird calling these people “everyday” because honestly, how many people do you know who have completed a full Ironman? I know exactly one. I know more people who have successfully finished ultramarathons.)
For those who are unaware, the Ironman is the gold standard of endurance triathlons. Competitors swim 2.4 miles, then ride bicycles for 112 miles before finishing up with a marathon. Yep, a marathon. Pretty amazing, huh? They have Ironmans all over the world, but the one in Kona is open only to people who qualify at other races, with a certain number of slots allocated for lottery winners and challenged athletes. You either have to be crazy good or very lucky or have an amazing story to get to Kona.
The drama of the event is always fascinating, as it is with many sporting events, but there’s something I get out of watching this that I don’t get from, say, an NFL game, and that’s inspiration. I watch the athletes and I feel anxious to put on my running shoes or get my bike and to see how hard I can push against my own limits. I can’t say I’ve ever watched a pro football or pro baseball game and felt pumped to get out on the field and throw spiral pass after spiral pass (although I know this is the case for many other people).
The inspiration comes in two distinct flavors. The first is the kind of jaw-on-the-floor inspiration that comes from watching elite athletes at the top of their game as they turn in the kind of performances most of us could only dream of. They represent the nexus of raw talent and sheer heart and focused training and guts, a combination that leads them to perform seemingly superhuman feats.
Think about Chrissie Wellington, for instance. She’s never lost a full Ironman distance triathlon. Every time she’s toed the line, she’s won. And it’s not like it’s a given, either. She gets hurt and she falls behind and she goes up against equally amazing competitors like Mirinda Carfrae, yet she wins. I think about someone like her, or to bring it back to my chosen sport, someone like Paula Radcliffe or Ann Trason or any one of a dozen lady distance runners, and I am awestruck by the perfect confluence of factors that leads to such magnificent physical performance.
The other kind of inspiration is no less awesome, even if the sources of that inspiration do not appear on Wheaties boxes or are not sponsored by shoe companies. And maybe in a way they mean a little more to me, as someone who will never run a 2:30 marathon but who will always try my hardest to do my best, no matter how much it hurts. The athletes for whom just showing up was a huge display of guts, the athletes who no one would blame if they stayed home, the athletes who no one expects would be athletes – these are the people who, more than anything else, motivate me to always work hard and to push against my own limits.
(Quick aside: notice that I used the word “motivate” in my previous sentence. That’s because “motivation” and “inspiration” are practically twinned concepts in my mind. People often talk about lacking the motivation to do whatever is necessary to achieve their dreams, but I think that if you are inspired – that if you feel that kind of bright, energetic burn inside your heart – the motivation will follow.)
I mean, once you’ve seen a woman who trained for an Ironman while undergoing chemotherapy for stage 4 colon cancer, and then who went ahead and finished the full triathlon, it’s kind of hard to blow off a four-mile run because I’d rather play the Sims Social, you know? I look at someone like that woman – whose finish had both Brian and I and, from the looks of my facebook feed, about half the runners I know in tears – and I think “what’s my excuse?” Whatever excuses I do come up with seem rather paltry in comparison.
Simply put, people like this show me that there is no excuse for not even trying. I might be thwarted on my way to achieving my goals by a million things, but as long as I am not one of those things, as long as I am not getting in my own way, then that’s all I can ask for.
One of the best things about road racing is that I get the chance to experience these two poles of inspiration on a fairly regular basis. We are fortunate to have several excellent runners, including one woman who is headed to the Olympic Marathon Trials, and even though none of them would rise to the level of global elites, they are still beautiful to watch. I aspire to be like them, and slowly but surely, my name has been inching ever closer to theirs on the list of final race times. There are some I doubt I’ll ever overtake, but I relish the opportunity to try.
But even better is sticking around by the finish line after the race, and watching the people toward the end of the pack as they come in. I love to see old women with caps of curly gray hair plastered against their faces. I love to see middle-aged men and women, their faces bright red with effort. I especially love to see the bigger, heavier runners, because I can’t even begin to imagine the courage it takes for them to come and run in public like this. I love to see anyone who doesn’t look like what we as a culture say athletes should look like, to see those people out there doing it anyway.
Most of all, I love to see the looks of triumph on their faces when they cross the finish line, to see how thrilled they are to know they are capable of running such distances. It’s a glorious feeling, and whenever I see someone else experiencing it, I can’t help but grin with joy.