Crooked Timber

At the start of The Big Loop, this tree reminds me.

Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made. – Immanuel Kant (as translated by Isaiah Berlin)
First off, before I get into the heavy writing, there’s been some chatter about my run-in with a jet ski at the start of Ironman Texas. There was, it seems, an inexperienced water safety person near the start line. Ironically, I actually thought before the race, “That jet ski guy is going to get out of the way, right? Of course he is…” I’ve never had a single issue in ANY Ironman race I’ve ever done with water safety. And even this, it might have been a mechanical malfunction as opposed to an experience issue. I don’t know. I just know that the jet ski I was certain was going to move did not. I heard it a split second before I felt it. It was a crack. That was my head smashing into the jet ski at full speed (such as it is, in my case). A split-second after I heard my head hit the jet ski, I felt the impact. But aside from losing a few strokes – I was in the midst of what I think was a really good start and actually felt like I had a chance to make that front group – which I am simply not fast enough to overcome, I didn’t perceive any ill effects. I actually totally forgot that it had happened until I took off my helmet after I decided my day was done and felt this tender lump on the top of my head. I had no headaches, no blurred vision, nothing that indicated a head injury of any sort. I had a good swim. It wasn’t a great swim after losing some strokes at the start, but it was a good swim. On the bike, my head felt fine. But my legs just weren’t there. I had struggled in the weeks immediately prior to the race. The makings of my DNF came three and four weeks before the race, not three or four seconds into it. Just so that is clear. I had plenty of fodder for good @TriExcuse material at this race, but none of it had any factor in my pulling the plug. I blew my preparation. The only thing the jet ski incident resulted in was that I had a bruised head as well as some bruised pride on Sunday.
Reflecting on the race that wasn’t, I find myself at a crossroads. Once again, I need to answer the question, “what does it mean to be a professional triathlete?” I’ve been at this  same crossroads twice before in my career, one at the beginning of 2005, when I realized I needed someone to guide me on this potentially crazy journey I was undertaking and so contacted Joel Filliol for the first time and really took the first true steps towards becoming a professional. The second was at the end of 2006, in a situation much more analogous to this current one, where I was struggling to mesh the hard work with the lack of results and which was also probably my first real experience with pushing myself beyond what my body (and/or brain) could handle. 
The idea of “overtraining” is still a bit of a concept I struggle with. I dislike the term for two reasons. The first is that it sounds like something that happens to you, instead of something you do to yourself. Overtraining is not like the flu or any other illness that is typically a mix of both bad luck and bad decision making – like you push yourself too hard at the same time your kid happens to bring something home from preschool. And it’s definitely nothing like those diseases that are purely bad luck or misfortune, like the awful leukemia my friend Amy Marsh is suffering from. So I tend to shy away from the term, because it seems to reduce – rather than increase – the sense of culpability. As an athlete, overtraining is on you. Maybe, in certain group environments and with certain personalities, the coach bears some responsibility. But ultimately the athlete does the sessions. And certainly, in my case, I am 100% responsible for what I have done to myself. The other thing I dislike about the term overtraining is that it seems to imply a sort of epicness that just isn’t there. Like, “Oh, I worked so hard that I buried myself.” Overtraining is most typically a death by a thousand cuts. It’s something that sneaks up on you, at least in my case. There’s nothing epic about it. Plenty of people could do the exact same training and be left thirsty for more. You don’t become overtrained because you are epic. You become overtrained because you are stupid. Or prideful. Or insecure. Or have some other vice. Or combination of vices.
But, like all vices, that vice probably accompanies a virtue. Stoic is a nice way of saying cold. Reserved is a nice way of saying aloof. Dedicated is a nice way of saying obsessed. Carefree is a nice way of saying lazy. It’s all a matter of context. In my own case, I am a perfectionist. Or I am obsessively compulsive. Whether you choose to interpret those statements as positive or negative or both is up to you. For much of my career, they’ve been a positive. But they’ve also been a weakness. The same work ethic that allowed me to win races, come back from my accident, and have success in a great run in 2009, 2011, and 2012 is the same thing that has been haunting me since 2013. I cannot be moderate, which is romantic in some ways, but not entirely pragmatic. Eisenhower famously said, “Rely on planning but never on plans.” I struggle to separate the two. I don’t just rely on plans, in many ways, I am my plans.
And so I find myself at this crossroads. It has been a dismal start to 2015. I will say that Monterrey had the makings of a great race, and that if ever I can claim that a bad result truly was not my fault, that race was it. In every other case, the results are on me. Typically, in my career, I’ve had two types of results. Results where I trained more than I could handle and had a poor result. And races where I got it right and had a good one. I’ve had really only three races where I was “underprepared,” and they were all pretty good – IMC 2007, my first Ironman, that I decided to do on Thursday before the race (yes, three days before); IMAZ 2010, after my accident; and IMAZ 2014, somewhat by design out of a fear of overtraining. 5th, 4th, and a 3rd. There’s a lesson in there I suppose. Every DNF performance has been the result of going too far. And I remember every DNF. It may not be true for everyone, but for me, I will absolutely say that dropping out hurts way worse than simply finishing. In some ways, pulling the plug so early in Texas is a decision I am proud of, because it’s one of the first times I’ve made a decision to stop before things got really bad. I wish I’d had that same courage four weeks before, when I just couldn’t let go of the fact that I was going to taper for one week before Wildflower and then do two easy weeks into Texas. Of course, my inability to relax meant that plan went totally to hell as the week before Wildflower and two weeks before Texas were basically just hope, and as I’m fond of saying, “hope is not a strategy.”
In 2005 and 2006, the decision at the crossroads was the same. And I believe it’s the same one I have to make here. Those decisions turned out well, I think. And I believe this one will as well. In all cases, the question was sort of existential – what does it mean to be a professional and – critically – how do I live that meaning? In all cases, the decision was to double down. To commit more fully. In 2005, that meant hiring Joel. In 2006, it meant packing everything I owned into my CRV and driving to Flagstaff to hitch my wagon to the Simon Whitfield train until I either made it or broke down trying. And now, in 2015, I think it means the same thing and also something entirely different. I need to recommit to being a professional. To being an athlete. To being an elite. But I think that means something very different, practically, than it meant back then. In 2005, that meant learning how to train. 12 hours was a “full” week of training for me then. After a few weeks with Joel, I remember sleeping for 30 minutes on the side of the road during a bike ride just so I could make it the 10 miles back home. Oh, that is what real training is like. In 2006, it meant leaving my parents’ house and the safety of my hometown and friends and the ability to comfortably sit on the fence in order to risk failure. And risk success. Now that I have had success, now that I have a career, I believe it to be more of a process of removal than addition. Not what do I need to add – a coach, a training group with accountability. But what do I need to subtract. What I need to say no to. And, most critically, realizing that saying no sometimes – most times – will mean saying no to myself.
Some of it is stuff that feels absurd. In spite of my results over the past two and a half years, I still have a remarkable number of people interested in me and my time. More than I deserve. In 2006, a glut of “opportunity” was most definitely not a problem. I feel ridiculously fortunate that I risk losing myself in a focus on business opportunities as opposed to a focus on the process of preparing to be a world class athlete. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is still a risk. Simon Whitfield was notorious for buying stuff that he felt he needed – stuff that he could have likely gotten for “free” – because he didn’t want to owe a favor. He’d rather pay money than pay his time (nothing is ever really free). I swore I’d learn that lesson, but sometimes I feel I’ve forgotten it. It’s an easy lesson to practice when you’re talking in pennies. Harder when you have a wife and three kids that you support. But not impossible. 
Eisenhower (who I admire greatly) also said that, “Freedom is the opportunity for self-discipline.” I have enormous freedom as a professional athlete. But that freedom requires self-discipline that I bring in some areas – I’m good at getting out the door and working hard – but not in others – I’m not good at separating work and home; I’m always at home so I’m never at home; I’m always working so I’m never working. I think I need to flip that self-discipline a bit. I need to be better about separating work and home – to put more energy into that, even if it means less energy into getting out the door (though I suspect that’s not the actual tradeoff I’ll make). 
Most of what being more committed in this way is subjective – how I weight certain things, deciding I really value, what is important to me. But some of that is objective. It is concrete. I want to go to Kona. Though I don’t just want to “go” to Kona. I only want to go to Kona feeling like I can be prepared to race well there. I have no interest in chasing points simply to show up and hope. And I will also say that it’s more important to me to race well (subjectively) there than it is to race well (objectively). Now, before this seems like some sort of “I define success on my own terms” cop-out, I will say that I very much want to win. Because I think you need a concrete goal to measure yourself against. Too often people who define success on their own terms simply define success to be whatever it was that happened. You need to be able to fail and have it count. Failure has become something hip. Silicon Valley loves “fail fast.” And everyone talks about the importance of failure like it’s a good thing. Failure is only a good thing in hindsight. This idea of setting out to fail is absurd. Don’t set out to fail. Set out to succeed. And then, as you look back, realize that some things that were failure were essential to the process. But not because you failed. But because of how you reacted to that failure. 
My goal for the time that I have left in my career – and there is certainly less sand in the top of the hourglass for me now than the bottom – is to keep perspective. To realize what I’ve done and what I’ve achieved and also what I have not yet done and not yet achieved. It’s a tenuous balance – making something important enough. It’s just sport; it’s not life or death. But it’s also a rare and special opportunity to chase being the best in the world in a competitive environment where you have a real, defined, objective chance to measure that success. Perspective, I think, comes from the process. Of realizing the importance of any – and every workout – to the overall piece of the puzzle. What role does any given day – any given workout – play in the success on a race day  That sort of long view mandates perspective. It mandates a focus on process. Results follow from process. 
In that sense, I’m lucky that my process can be repeated every year, instead of every four. Simon Whitfield set out a goal in 2005 – when I first met him and when he also started working with Joel – to win a gold medal in 2008. But he did it by a day to day commitment to the process. Simon and Joel are both fans of the phrase, “Chop Wood. Carry Water.” Personally, I hate this expression. I don’t quite know why. I suppose that part of it is that it ignores that larger goal. What is the end game of chopping wood and carrying water? Where is the chance for failure? I also hate it because it seems to make training for sport seem more special than it is. Swimming, biking, and running is mundane enough. It doesn’t need to be analogized to some other mundane activity. I tend to think analogies like that are better suited to grandiose tasks – like building a skyscraper. But I think that setting out to do something like winning a gold medal – or winning Kona – is maybe closer to building a skyscraper than it seems. Or that you can make it that important, if you choose to.
So I suppose I plan to focus more on simply chopping wood and carrying water, at least in part because I might be better able to not do those things sometimes. The larger idea is that I need to commit – or recommit – to the things that matter to me. At one time, the only real answer to that was sport. But that also, now, means my family. I need to be more present for them. Which I think will help me both to let go of work and to commit even more to it. I swim. I bike. I run. I write. I work. I do a lot. Some of which is necessary. Some of which is not. And I don’t have the luxury of the not necessary anymore. And I also think that learning what is – and what is not – necessary is something that is critical to success in life as a whole.
I am setting out, once again, to win in Kona. Some of what will define my success will be whether or not I actually achieve that, because that is, ultimately, an important measure of success. But most of it will be on how I pursued that. On the integrity of my process. How much did I respect the necessary? How little did I allow myself to be distracted by the unnecessary? How committed was I really? 
I won’t do anything to win that race. And I think that’s important too. I feel like there’s some sense of the importance of process in most people’s minds anyway. Cheating, for example. I won’t break the rules to win. But I also know I can’t break my own personal rules to try to win. However, it’s equally clear to me that I will need to break some of what I have defined as my own personal rules to try to win. I won’t compromise my commitment to my family. Though I have. I will compromise my obsessiveness. Though I have not. What’s really important. And what is not. Can I figure that out? And then can I race, train, and live accordingly. 
It all seems a bit new agey and flakey. The reality is more practical, though I’d be lying if I said I know exactly what it really meant. There’ll be some trial and error. I’d say it can’t get any worse than dropping out 40 miles into a race that I spent months preparing to win, but I know that’s not true. I am suffering now, and suffering is a strange phenomenon. David Brooks wrote in his outstanding Road to Character that suffering is a unique yearning because it does not lead to its own end. Hunger leads to fullness and the end of hunger. Tiredness leads to sleep. Suffering only leads to more suffering. Unless it actually has a purpose. A direction. Unless you can learn from it. And the lessons can be continual. Brooks talks about how you hit the floor, and then that floor drops out, revealing another level below. But then that drops out. You can always go lower. And that may be the case here. I thought I hit my lowest in a hospital bed in 2010. And I came back from that. But then I fell again. I thought I knew the lesson. I thought I knew the bottom. But it turns out there was another. And I expect another, somewhere else down the line. That’s the nature of a life well lived. Of a life where you try to squeeze everything out of it. I don’t fear the suffering. I just don’t want to suffer for nothing. I will take a DNF if it gets me closer to the top, eventually. And whether or not it does is on me.
I’m struggling to end this already too long piece, to wrap it up neatly with some sort of conclusion. That’s part of why it’s so long; the other part is that I just write too much. I guess there isn’t one. I’m at a crossroads. And that’s a good place to end because I do need to acknowledge the other path. I knew I didn’t have “it” in Texas, whatever “it” is. But I also wondered, after two years of struggle, if I have “it” at all anymore. I wondered if, like Faris, it was time to step away. That’s the other path. The path away from this life. I’m at the crossroads, but I have chosen a path. Do I still have “it”? I don’t know. Where does it lead? I do know that it leads me back into this sport. What does that mean? I guess that’s what I’ll find out.

3 thoughts on “Crooked Timber

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