Failing & Flying

© 2012 Rick Kent,

[What follows is my speech at the 2012 Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas athlete and volunteer awards banquet, held the Sunday afternoon following the race. This is the same speech that appears on; so if you read it there, you don’t need to read it again here. When I posted my speech from Ironman Canada 2011 on, I never expected it to get the reception it did, nor for it to resonate with so many people. I tried not to copy that speech – though there are some inevitable similarities given that they are both about doing Ironman – or to even attempt to write something that would be as popular. So if I fall short of the bar I set, I think that might actually be quite apropos, as I think you’ll see.]

I have to give the commencement speech at my high school in three weeks, so given the thematic similarities between wrapping up 12 years of schooling and an Ironman – they both seem to take forever – I hope you won’t mind if I test out a variation on my plan for that speech with you all today.
One of the things that always amazes me about Ironman athletes is the incredible variety of backgrounds of everyone in the race, not only in the path they have taken to the start line, but in the incredible array of off-course activities and interests. So, thankfully, I don’t worry too much when I base a speech around something from Greek mythology. However, since many of you may be a bit far removed from the classroom, I promise to give a brief refresher.
The story of Icarus is generally told as a warning against hubris. Icarus’s father, the master inventor Daedalus, crafted two pairs of wings from feathers and wax. The plan was to use these wings to escape the island of Crete, where they were being held prisoner by King Minos. However, being made of wax, the wings were relatively fragile – I doubt they would have survived the run course here yesterday – so Daedalus instructed his young son not to fly too close to the sun, lest the wax melt. As you might expect when you enable a young man to fly, that warning didn’t last long once they got in the air. Icarus flew too close to the sun; the wax melted, destroying the wings; and Icarus fell to his death. The lesson is simple – man needs to be aware of his limits. Man was not meant to fly like the gods. Man’s place is with both feet firmly on the ground. Be humble. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
But the poet Jack Gilbert has a different take on the matter. As he says in the opening line of Failing and Flying, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” And he’s right. ICARUS FLEW! How amazing is that? How incredible is it that he left the earth and soared? And everyone – EVERYONE – that stepped into Lake Woodlands yesterday can relate to that. Even if you didn’t finish. Even if you fell short of your goals. Even if you had a “bad race.” Even if you… “failed” at whatever you set out to do. 
You dared to dream. However briefly, you ALL flew. And no one can ever take that away from you. Certainly there were times when it didn’t feel like flying. Riding back into that headwind. Baking under the sun out on that run course. I think we all wished for shade even more than Icarus might have. For those people that struggled mightily all day and yet missed that midnight cutoff, I can’t even imagine that feeling. I don’t think you felt like you were flying right then.
And, even, if we did achieve our goals, we all had our moments of doubt. I know I did. I never expected to come into T2 and hear, “you’re twelve and a half minutes down from the lead.” It’s too hot. That’s too far. I’m tired. I want to go back to bed. I don’t want any more Perform; I just want a beer. There is nothing like an Ironman to make you question your decision to attempt the impossible. Maybe the naysayers WERE right. Maybe our feet do belong on the ground. Maybe 140.6 miles of swimming, biking, and running – yes, all in one day, to answer the oft-asked question – is simply hubris. For the veterans, maybe we’ve just gotten lucky before. To the first timers, you had to ask yourself, “what on earth was I thinking?” I don’t actually remember much of anything from my first Ironman. The marathon occupies about 26.2 milliseconds – at best – in my brain. But I am certain that I wondered, “who decided this was a good idea? How is this actually even legal?” I’m certain because I wonder that even now, especially when I look at my poor toes. And maybe that’s a sign that Ironman isn’t something we were meant to do. I think my legs certainly would agree with that statement. But, to quote the great Jens Voigt, “Shut up legs!” 
And I don’t think that it’s true that Ironman is not something we were meant to do. I think we do Ironman for the same reasons Icarus flew too close to the sun. We want to see if we can. We want to know what we are capable of. We want to ignore all the warnings and find out for ourselves. And whenever I cross that finishline, I *KNOW* it’s what I was meant to do. And when I see everyone else crossing that line – no matter what time the clock says – it’s pretty clear that I’m not alone in that belief. There’s something remarkably elegant about Mike Reilly’s simple statement, “YOU. ARE. AN. IRONMAN.” Though, right now, I’m sure that he wishes he could trim it down to only two or three words after saying a couple thousand times yesterday. 
I am an Ironman. You all are Ironmen. And no matter how your day unfolded, I think that Jack Gilbert sums it up well with the closing line of that same poem, “I believe that Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.” And to everyone with a blue bracelet, I hope you feel the same way. As much as I wish for that time in the finish chute to last for eternity, at some point, it is the end of my triumph. And that, I think, is what keeps us coming back for more…

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