Monday, June 29, 2015

Lessons from the back of the pack: You can be the toughest.

20 years ago I finished my career as a collegiate runner and have been thinking about the things I learned at that time. This is part three of my series, Lessons from the Back of the Pack. 

The other day I saw a list someone posted to Facebook that had 100 pieces of advice a teacher gave to his class of high school Seniors. No author was credited and my google search also did not reveal further information, so I apologize for not passing on the proper credit. Most of the advice was good but one thing in particular stuck out. The line read "you may not always be the strongest or the fastest but you can be the toughest." That made me think about my time at the back of the pack in college and what I learned about being tough.

I was not the toughest runner on the team. That belt was held by Lester Sheneberger. His collegiate running career consisted of a single race, but it was enough to make him a legend. The team had traveled to Decorah, IA for the first race of the 1992 season at Luther College. During warmups he felt that something was not right in his ankle but started the race anyway. About a mile in he was in rough shape. He kept going, though, up hills and through the woods. Did I mention that it was a five mile race? He was in visible pain, limping along, but finished the race somehow. Afterward an X-ray revealed a broken bone in his ankle. His Cross Country career was over that day. Among the team if someone did something tough, we would call it "pulling a Sheneberger" or some variation like that.

On that team I was surrounded by tough people. Another teammate, Travis Glanzer, ran for three seasons of Cross Country, even putting up one of the best times in the history of Bethel University, with horrible pain in his shins. He had compartment syndrome, which is kind of like Carpel Tunnel Syndrome in your lower leg. Every step hurt but he never complained and never missed a workout. Matt Wickman ran for two years with chronic back pain. Like Travis, it always hurt and he never complained. Spending time every day with people like that cannot help but make you tougher.

Toughness is hard to explain but you know it when you see it. Brett Farve in the NFC title game against New Orleans a few years ago was one of the most amazing displays of toughness I have ever seen in sports. The Saints defense was playing dirty, hitting him on almost every play of the game and he was taking a beating worthy of Rocky Balboa. Yet, every time they hit him, he got right back up. When the game ended in a close defeat for the Vikings, he couldn't walk. His ankle was swollen to about twice it's normal size. That is physical toughness.

Mental toughness is usually less obvious but no less impressive. My wife, Heidi, has no interest in pushing the physical boundaries of toughness. There will probably be no marathons for her, but she is still one of the toughest people I know. For years she suffered from horrible headaches and some days she could barely find the strength to make it through the day. The headaches are gone now so she found a new way to demonstrate how tough she is. Four years ago in March she carried twins to 38 weeks and amazed the doctors when they each weighed seven pounds. That is 14 pounds of baby that she carried around. Not to be outdone, three years later she pushed out an 11 pound baby without any pain medication. If anyone pulled a Sheneberger, it was her.

My time spent at the back of the pack made me tougher. When it was 90 degrees and the scheduled workout was four miles of intervals, I put on my shoes and joined the team. When it was 20 below and blowing wind, I got dressed and headed out. Now, twenty years later, I still run, just not as fast or as far. I am tougher than I would have otherwise been without those experiences.

It never crossed my mind to quit, despite finishing races after most of my competitors had already cross the line. I am not sure if that makes me tough or just stubborn, but either way, I am glad I had the chance to learn those lessons at the back of the pack.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Lessons from the Back of the Pack: Four Kinds of People

20 years ago I finished my career as a collegiate runner and have been thinking about the things I learned at that time. This is part two of my series, Lessons from the Back of the Pack. 

Everyone in the world falls into one of four groups when it comes to athletics. There are two words that come into play. The first word is "gifted" and the other is "competitive". The presence or absence of the two words describes everyone on earth.

The first group is the rarest. They are the ones who are gifted and competitive. These people find athletic success as easy as breathing and they also love to win. Automatically we think of Michael Jordan, John Elway, Wayne Gretzky, and Peyton Manning. They have a competitive fire that burns brightly and they also have incredible God-given physical skills that most people can only dream about. They will work harder than anyone else because they just have to win. This trait drives them to become household names but also puts them in danger of becoming overly competitive jerks.

The second group has incredible physical skills but lack the competitive nature of the first group. They are the ones who played every sport in high school at the varsity level but drove their coaches crazy because they would never fully apply themselves to it. Because athletics came so easy, they often got bored with a sport and moved on to the next one.

The third group has it the best of anyone. They are neither gifted nor competitive. They may participate in athletic activities but mostly because their friends are on the team. Losing is not a big deal, they just want to have fun. People in this group may work out every day and be physically fit and active but they do it to be healthy and to have fun not to be the best of the best of the best.

The fourth group has it the worst. They are fiercely competitive but not athletically gifted. People in this group join the team, never miss a practice, and desperately try to win, but just lack any God-given athletic ability. Coaches love these athletes for their work ethic and desire but probably also think about how nice it would be if they had some actual ability to go along with it.

In case you where wondering, I am firmly in that fourth group. When I play something I don't simply want to win, I want to crush my opponents. I want to win in such a way that the next time we play you are already defeated. My calm demeanor covers up an intense competitive nature. I hate losing but when it comes to athletics I lose all the time. Even after all these years I still have not come to grips with it.

That competitive nature is what kept me going at the back of the pack. That is the answer to the question of why I worked so hard at something that I was not all that good at. I had to compete. I had to scratch the itch. Something inside drove me through the intervals and tempo runs and hills. It's is also the reason I almost lost several friendships and my marriage over a game of Monopoly, but that is a post for another day. (Heidi and I are still happily married but will never play Monopoly together again.) I guess that like the first group, the fourth group is also in danger of being overly competitive jerks, we just lack the skills to back it up.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Lessons from the back of the pack.

When I was 19 I made the transition from a high school sprinter to a college distance runner. One of the reasons that I chose Bethel University (then Bethel College) was the Track team. I loved high school Track and Field and, though I was not very good, I thought that I could run for a small college. In my first week of my Freshman year I sought out the Track coach only to have him show zero interest in having me on his team. All through that year I wanted so badly to be a part of the team but had to watch from the sidelines. Fortunately, I met the assistant Cross Country coach who convinced me that I could make the change to long distances. So I trained all summer and showed up the next fall ready to become a member of the Cross Country team. It turned out that I loved Cross Country even more than I had loved Track. It also turned out that I was not very good at it.

I was on the Cross Country and Track teams for three years each, and I did see improvement in those years. However, I was never one of the top runners on the team. No matter how hard I worked I just could not overcome a distinct lack of athletic ability. When someone tells you that you can do anything with hard work and perseverance, they are wrong. Sometimes someone with natural ability is just better than you no matter how hard you work. That was a hard life lesson that I did not enjoy learning.

So, if you are not all that good at something, why pour your heart and soul into it? I'll break it down in movies. When it comes to sports movies, most of them have one of two endings. The first is when the plucky underdog loses to the champ but gains everyone's respect by refusing to accept defeat quietly. Rocky and Mystery, Alaska fall into this category. The second is the story of the plucky underdog that gets the unlikely victory. The Mighty Ducks and Best of the Best are my favorite examples. Then there is Rudy. The story of the guy who barely makes the team and only gets a few seconds of playing time but still wins everyone's respect. I was like Rudy, except that no one chanted my name after a big race and they did not make a movie about my life. I loved running, I worked hard at it, and I encouraged my teammates in their pursuit of personal records. There was not much glory, but it did not matter.

What did I learn at the back of the pack? I learned that it is good to give yourself over to a goal. I learned that sometimes the rewards are small, but they are enough to keep you going. I learned that I am a better father, husband, and employee because I learned how to work hard at something that most people did not understand. The back of the pack is often a difficult place to be but there are important lessons to be learned if you can stick it out.