Thursday, May 24, 2012

On Ambition

Lately I've been thinking about the fact that competition in endurance sports isn't an enterprise that lends itself to moderation or perspective.  We each find our way to it for a reason that's deeply personal and uniquely our own, but a common denominator is a need for something in life that's been missing.  For one person, it might be that a loved one is affected by a disease, and one finds meaning in raising money and attracting attention for the cause.  For another, it might be a tragedy that highlights the fragility of life and awakens in him a drive to make the most of his gifts.  Some turn to endurance sports to purge demons from obesity to alcoholism.  And still others, I suspect, find that the modern pattern of a coddled, sheltered life behind a flickering display is inimical to our primal natures.  For this last set, the process of fighting through pain itself brings happiness and awakens in the mind a presence and immediacy that brings meaning to an otherwise soulless daily routine.

There's no question that the sense of personal progress can be intoxicating.  Since my calamity at the Boston Marathon five weeks ago, I've dedicated myself to training with a zeal I couldn't have imagined during my winter burnout just months ago, and in the process I've dropped 12 pounds.  At the Columbia Triathlon, when I got off the bike to start a run that, historically, has been my area of weakness, I felt strong and light, and each person I ran past symbolized a victory for discipline and ambition.  I was faster than I'd been a month or a year before, and that was due to sheer, dogged effort.  Basking in the glow of that performance, this week I've had to restrain myself from mentally planning to race, and even registering for, a host of events throughout the summer and fall that previously I'd not considered.  An Olympic-distance triathlon in Charlottesville?  Sure -- I bounce back from those quickly, and I didn't have anything else planned for that weekend.  Maybe a 70.3 in Georgia in September so that I could spend time with my parents at the same time.  And surely the half-Ironman two weeks later in Maryland with the team, because after all, it's a social event and there's nothing more fun than racing one's buddies when one's fitness is at an all-time high.  Of course, there are also the 300k, 400k, and 600k bike rides that have been penciled in; I couldn't imagine missing those epic adventures through the countryside.  August's Ironman, in Quebec, will be as memorable as they all are, a true highlight of the year.  The Army Ten Miler is convenient, so why not?  And given how things are going, that December marathon in California is just begging to have its butt kicked.

All of which is great.  Except... well, sometimes I think I need to save myself from my own temptations, and to consider the overall direction I want my life to take.  If I work my ass off for six months and cross the marathon finish line under three hours in December, it'll be the athletic achievement of a lifetime.  But I wonder whether it would truly liberate me to do other things, or whether I'd simply become convinced that, if 2:59 is in the books, 2:55 or 2:50 is possible.  If, next summer, I complete a 1200k bike ride, it will be a huge accomplishment, one I'll always remember.  But it's not as if it will end any desire to continue accomplishing new things.  There will always be another marathon to run, another 1200k to ride, and another Ironman available to contest.  At least until age slows us down, it is always possible to go faster and further, and it's a good thing, or else the game would hardly be worth the candle.

But those accomplishments don't occur in a vacuum.  They're achieved through dedication and discipline, but if we're not careful, those words can become code for monomania, imbalance, and narcissism.  I'm not convinced -- in fact, I reject the notion -- that sporting achievements alone are enough to bring lasting happiness.  It's how we view the world, how we make our way in it, and who's beside us that matters at the end of the day.  Happily, some of my better friends are people who enjoy the same perverse challenges, so my time on the trails and in the saddle serves double duty at present. Ultimately, though, I want to ensure that my enthusiasm for physical pursuits complements, rather than stands in for, other parts of my life.  It's always important to chase big dreams, to push ourselves, and to experience the world vividly.  But I want to make sure that I'm more than an athlete, more than just an ever-expanding roster of results on Athlinks.  I want to leave room for other things and other people, even if, at this moment, I don't know what or whom they are.  And sometimes that means saying no, despite not having a clear reason why.

I want to look forward to my swims, rides, and runs.  But I also want to look forward to what comes after they're done.


  1. It's so true. It's easy to make your life all about training, from one race to the next to the next, but then you wake up one day and wonder what else you've got going on and if training/racing is the only thing that will make you happy.

  2. This is one of your best ever blogs, DW! Not only is it beautifully written, but the message itself is so refreshing to read. Plato's teachings about moderation/nothing in excess come through strongly. It's comforting to see that you are opening your future to other possibilities for happiness besides the physical achievements that have been so much your focus over the years.

  3. As I read, you reminded me of Colbert's address at Northwestern's commencement last year. His most salient points, and those most relevant to your blog, come in the last 5 minutes. He compares life to improv and talks about how you cannot "win" at life, just as you cannot win improv. We can win all the races in the world, and complete every athletic challenge, but we still have not "won" at life. Good stuff if you have time: