Athletes often get special treatment, paid to do what they love and show off their successes in front of a crowd that they would not otherwise have access to. Athletes get to embrace glory and keep ornaments from their events like the starry dome that they think surrounds them. Even those athletes who demonstrate unsportsmanlike behavior get accolades and affirmation from the audience they are meant to inspire.
My father recently passed along a bronze medal he earned at an event during the 1930s down to my son, sharing his moment of glory when he was a young athlete, with vision and mission in his heart. My son kept that medal in his drawer, along with some other mementos from his family that he treasures. It has a meaning beyond the effort that happened on that day that contains an intangible effect from being a part of a special moment. My father’s worth was tested that day, and he grew up that day. And, yes, the outcome is important, as our current culture of participation trophies and “every kid gets equal playing time,” will be our doom.
I argue that our spirit needs more than fun times, medals and glory to justify all the training and nutrition needed to run and bike at threshold. I need a sustainable and humility based answer. I must perform during training and on race day with others in mind, if I am to make a difference.
In my heart and soul, I know that taking care of my body is Worship. A vocalist who writes and performs music has to determine if the focus is the crowd or their Creator. I, too, must be aware of why I am putting on my uniform when those special days arrive. A long time ago, I determined that if my answer to “why am I doing this” included phrases like, “get a bigger trophy” and “get my name in the paper” I have missed the point of why I am on this Earth.
Our time on this Earth is weaved in series of relationships, like a Escher painting. Before I do a “world championship” level event, I pick an individual to race “with me” who won’t be standing next to me at the starting line. Sometimes, I know who it is for when I sign up a year in advance; other times, like this time, I didn’t know who it I was for until a few weeks before the starting gun.
This race, I dedicated to Betty Gaetan, my mother in law. She has always been one of my biggest supporters and has told stories of my athletic “glory” to people whom I will likely never meet. She is a groupie who happens to really love me. Since July, she has been experiencing medical problems, and she still has another surgery in her near future. Not only could she not perform the events that take place in a 55km duathlon, she can’t even come see me, either.
When I called her to tell her that I was going to push at this year’s World Championship for her, she was happy. What I have not yet told, or anyone for that matter, is how she was there with me, on race day.
When the gun sounded, three of us on TeamUSA ran together for the first 10k, all finishing a few seconds apart. We all ran quickly and were proud of our numbers, but what made the moment special is that none of us could have ran at that pace, for that long, without each other. Thanks to Mike and Rob, for helping keep the pace. Special thanks to Betty, for being there in spirit. My friends saw us as a group of three. In reality, I carried Betty with me.
Most of the bike ride take place on the shore of Lake Okanagan in central British Columbia. Turning around at the checkpoint to begin this last leg back to transition, I set a visual focus on a Danish competitor in front of me, and I decided to chase him down and pass him. It was an exhilarating feeling to run my power up to 300 watts and leave it there, to make my pass. Once I got by him, I powered down to a more human number and looked at the beauty of the lake and how majestic it is. My heart rate was holding at 150 and my body was in sync with what I was asking it to do. I was purring on the bike saddle, and I had Betty’s spirit with me. A few minutes later, the Dane passed me, looked over, and nodded his head, acknowledging that we were “game on” and would be passing each other for the rest of the race. He tucked in front of me and ran his effort levels up, trying to hold me back. No joy for him! For the next 15 minutes, we passed each other two more times before racking our bikes and putting on running shoes. I raced and paced that Dane, because Betty couldn’t.
When there was only 500 meters left till the finish line, I was greeted by a TeamUSA representative who handed me a US flag and cheered me on. I upped my pace to nearly a 5:30 mile and held it all the way to the finish line. As I approached the finish, the announcer called my name, and I held the flag high, thinking about Betty, knowing she couldn’t do that.
I did that race with her, for her. And, the next time I see her, I am giving her that flag as a token on that day. It isn’t the flag that will weave us together, but it does give us a token of our event, just like my father’s bronze medal is a token that my son treasures.
Although I don’t know what that flag will mean to her, it will mean more to me, as I am the one who gets to give it away.
Because she can’t.