Sometimes we need to rethink what it means to succeed.
Sometimes you meet a person and you just know that he or she has a life lesson to share. That’s what happened when I met Mike in March. We and about 80 other runners were aboard the Ocean Nova, bound for Antarctica where we would run the Antarctica Marathon or Half-Marathon. At first glance, there was nothing remarkable about Mike. He seemed to be just another middle-aged man, carrying a few extra pounds, whose glory days as a runner were back in the nylon shorts era.
As often happens when men in their 50s get to talking, our conversation turned to coming of age in the 1960s and ’70s. I entertained Mike with my stories of youthful indiscretions, an early marriage, and enlisting in the Army. Mike mentioned that he, too, had served in the Army. But unlike my five-plus years in the safety of the Army Band in Washington, D.C., Mike served for 30 years, two of which were in Vietnam. Then he mentioned he had spent a year as a prisoner of war. He didn’t say it with drama. He said it with the calmness that one might mention having spent a year backpacking around Europe. I gathered from our conversation that what could have been a life-defining experience for some was to Mike just one piece of who he was today.
We landed a few days later, and the morning of the race was warm and dry, making for nearly perfect conditions. The exception was a three-quarter-mile stretch on Collins Glacier. Melting snow made for a slippery climb up and down the steep slope. I saw Mike around mile four. He had fallen several times on the glacier and was reduced to an awkward stiff-legged walk. I asked him what he was going to do and he said, “We’ll just see what the day gives me.” I saw him later near mile 11 and asked him how he was doing. “Fine,” he said. “But the half-marathon will be plenty for today.” No anger. No self-pity. No disappointment. Just the ability to accept the truth for what it is.
Many of us put so much significance on one day in our running lives that we’re almost guaranteed to be disappointed. We set goals, have expectations, make plans based on our egos. We convince ourselves that who we are will be based on what we accomplish that day.
When that day doesn’t turn out as we expected, we often allow ourselves to be devastated. I’ve seen runners on the brink of a breakdown because they missed their self-imposed standard of performance. But a day is just a day. A race is just a race. It is our selfishness, our self-centeredness that creates the disappointments that we too often let define us.
Not Mike. He’d gone for the marathon, but dropped to the half when circumstances dictated a change, finishing in 4:18. No single day would define him. No one race would make him a success or a failure. The depth and quality of Mike’s character transcended any single experience. With that knowledge I resolved to approach life with a new perspective and to accept the challenges that come my way not as obstacles or failures but as opportunities to grow both as a runner and as a person. Then I hope to be like Mike.
Waddle on, friends.