“I tell them to thing of the play, and not of the fame,
‘Cuz if they have any future at all, it’s not in the game,
‘Cuz they’ll be crippled and starting all over again,
Selling on commission, remembering when they were flying,
-Stan Rogers, “Flying”
The Olympics are always a wistful time for me. I never watch them, but I remember that I might have competed in them myself, if I had chosen not to accept my limits.
That’s not fantasy or boasting, either. I used to train with one or two young men a few years older than me, and they qualified. So, with more dedication, I might have managed the same. But probably I’d have been lucky to be a finalist. I never would have won a medal, which was the whole problem.
From Grade Eight to my second year of university, competing in cross-country races and long distance track events was a major part of my life. In those years, I averaged seventy to ninety miles a week. Often, I’d train by doing half mile intervals up 17th Street in West Vancouver, or along the seawall at Ambleside Park. My summers were marked by track meets, and my autumns by road races.
And in my age group and distance, I was a standout. My legs are too short for me to compete successfully over 800 meters, but at 1500 meters and above, I won my share of gold medals and cross-country championships. I also set several records that stood for a few years. At high school, I was known for running, so much so that, decades later, that is what many people remembered me for.
Quite literally, I was a front-runner. I would take the lead early in a race, and keep it. As a tactic, this habit lacked a certain variety, but it was psychologically effective. Other runners thought it so natural for me to be in front that once I won a cross-country race with the ‘flu. My time was slow, but nobody thought to challenge my lead – although if anyone had, I wouldn’t have been able to defend it.
But that was high school. At university, running was an altogether more serious matter. In high school, I had usually trained alone, and my coach, not seeing any reason to argue with success, was content to let me do so. But, at university, I was under pressure to train with the team. More – I was expected to support the other jocks and do things like paint banners to display on campus. Since I was commuting by bus several hours a day, I had trouble meeting those expectations.
Even more importantly, for the first time in my running career, I was at a disadvantage. Not only was I suddenly competing against fully-grown men, but I was still recovering from smashing my knee into a steeplechase hurdle. Suddenly, I was no longer the star.
I soon realized that I would have to make a choice. I could focus on running, cutting down my classes and taking up weights and cross-training, spend some time in physio to strengthen my damaged knee, and make training a more regimented and even larger part of my life.
Or I could drop out of athletics altogether. In the circles in which I was moving, there were no places for casual athletes.
Eventually, I realized the obvious: I was good, and with proper training I might become very good. But I wasn’t great, and I never would be.
The realization troubled me, but the choice was clear. If I put in the kind of time I would need to remain a serious competitor, I would spend years in which my life was defined by competition, and, in the end, have little to show for my efforts. It wasn’t that I needed to win at all costs, so much as I recognized that the effort simply would not have been worth the results.
This was one of my first realizations of my limitations, and for about eight months I struggled against the unavoidable logic. I didn’t have any moment of realization – it was more a matter of priorities – but at the end of one spring semester, I cleaned out my locker in the gym and knew that I wouldn’t be coming back. At that point, I had drifted so far away from the running team that I didn’t even have anyone to say good-bye to.
Almost immediately, my knee improved and running became fun again. For years, I logged the sort of mileage that I had done while in training. But gradually I eased off, and now I do as much swimming, cycling, and walking as I do running in an effort to preserve my creaking knees. And it’s been years since I exercised with a stop-watch.
Looking back, I am confident that I made the right choice. Still, every now and then, I hear news about long distance running. Then I regret the necessity of my choice, and grow nostalgic for things that never happened.