On the Shoulders of Giants

© Larry Rosa / endurapix.com 2012
[This is the same speech posted on Slowtwitch.com. I like to have these things both here and there. But no need to read it twice.]

There are countless memories from every Ironman. Some are unique to the particular race – like  the magic of racing over the George Washington Bridge – and some – like that incredible sensation of finally crossing the finish line – that are universal. But for me, there is nothing more special than the chance to speak to all of my fellow athletes. To have this opportunity because of winning an Ironman just a few miles down the river from where I grew up? It almost doesn’t seem real. 
I know from experience that everyone out there who has a blue wristband has a story about their journey that’s equally improbable and amazing and hard to believe. Ironman is incredible. And it’s made incredible by all of you – the athletes that decide to undertake and endure the challenges of race day – like heat and humidity that make you wish for nothing more than to go stand inside a freezer for a really, really long time. But getting to the starting line is often just as – if not more – difficult than getting to the finish line, although there were times when I wasn’t sure those switchbacks in Riverside Park were ever going to end. “You’re telling me I have to turn around and run the other way AGAIN?”
When I last gave one of these speeches, I used it to test whether or not my idea for the commencement address that I was going to give at my high school was any good. In that commencement address, I also talked about something that I did not talk about at the awards banquet that seemed to be well received, so this is my chance to use that speech as a test for what I say to you all today. I told the graduating seniors that beyond whatever they might do to achieve their goals, they needed two other things to be successful – luck and other people’s help. And I said they should make sure not to mistake one for the other, especially not mistaking someone else’s help for luck. Sir Isaac Newton says it more eloquently in his classic quotation, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” 
We all stood on the shoulders of a giant army of volunteers and spectators yesterday. And we stood on the shoulders of the giants in our lives just to get there. My wife, who – in addition to being the mother of a thirteen month old (which is why she’s not here today) – also has to deal with a spouse whose job it is to totally exhaust himself most days, is my giant. So are my parents, who – after watching me play numerous lacrosse matches in high school in Riverside Park – got to see me finish an Ironman there yesterday. We all race Ironman on our own. We all had to get ourselves from that barge in the Hudson to that finish line in the park using nothing but our own bodies, and – on a day as hard as yesterday and a course as relentlessly difficult as this one – we needed a lot willpower too. When I first saw the fast swim time, I thought, “maybe I’ll break 8 hours.” Then, on that second trip back into that headwind on the bike, I revised my goal to, “maybe I’ll just try and set a best time.” And, then, after making the trip to the first turnaround at about 3.75 miles into Palisades Park, I revised my goal again to, “maybe I’ll just worry about actually finishing.” I don’t think ice has ever been so magical and holy.

But even though we are responsible for getting ourselves from start to finish by swimming, biking, running (and WALKING some stairs), we do not race Ironman alone. And THAT is what makes Ironman truly special. We are given the chance by others to see what we ourselves are capable of; sometimes it ends with a finisher’s medal and sometimes, unfortunately, it does not. But however it ends, it always begins the same way – with a single athlete – surrounded by 2500 of their closest totally insane friends – getting ready to do something remarkable by standing on the shoulders of giants. 
I hope no one takes this as diminishing their own achievement in any way. It does not. It enhances what we all achieved. Because what we achieved we achieved together. My day was possible because of you. And I hope that – in some small way – I might have helped to make your day possible a little bit as well. But all of our days were possible because of someone else. The aid station volunteer who ran that extra step to get us another cup of coke. Or the understanding spouse who accepted, more than just once or twice, that we needed – really needed – to disappear on our bikes for the entire day in training. How do we thank them? In some ways, we can never really thank them appropriately. But in many other ways, I think we already have. We’ve thanked them by being brave enough to risk standing on that start line. And we’ve thanked them by pushing our bodies and our minds and our limits. We’ve thanked them by doing something amazing. We’ve thanked them by giving everything just to hear four simple words. YOU. ARE. AN. IRONMAN.
We all need to be proud of what we’ve done. And we need to be proud to have had so much help along the way. Because the memories we have may be our own. But it’s the memories we share that I think make us human. And I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything that makes me more human than doing an Ironman. It makes me feel alive. And it makes me feel – more than anything else I’ve found – like I’m part of something larger. Because I shared what I’m lucky enough to do for a living with all of you. And you are kind enough to share what you do with me. And we all share it with the people in our lives that our most special to us. We share it with the giants who are kind enough to let us stand on their shoulders, so that we might see farther than we could on our own. Far enough, perhaps, to see the limits of what is truly possible.

2 thoughts on “On the Shoulders of Giants

  1. I look forward to every one of your posts, particularly your speeches. Thank you for so eloquently expressing these thoughts and congratulations on a well deserved win!


  2. Thanks so much for that post, it was very true and inspiational. You are a class act and great spokes person for the sport of Triathlon. Congrats on you win well deserved…..many more to come!


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