This week’s topic has been on a low simmer for a while.
You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit.
It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward;
how much you can take and keep moving forward.
Keep moving forward. So easy to write, so much more challenging to do.
This quote is triply meaningful: It’s (1) from the actor who wrote the script and starred as Rocky in the movie by the same name, (2) the quote reflects the movie’s iconic underdog boxer who kept fighting and falling and getting back up (then finally winning).
And (3) the movie’s setting is Philadelphia: the town we’re standing in right now. We are close to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Rocky Steps” made famous by the movie scene of Rocky bounding up the steps to prove how his training has made him strong, both fists pumped in the air.
Of course, the movie was fiction. This is reality; we’re at a moment of proof too.
"Sufferfest," Eric says.
He is slick with sweat from his hair to the glistening shoelaces of his running shoes.. Scanning him, up and down, his shorts and singlet stick to his lean body like a second skin. But it's his eyes that I return to, searching for hints of hidden thoughts. That’s when my son said it.
Ready or Not
Do you remember "Ready", the blog I wrote just prior to a critical 10k race in the spring when Eric attempted to qualify for the Olympic trials? He did not make it, his time short by seconds. And while he'd displayed some mental bounce back ("Chin up, buttercup," he'd said gently when he saw my face post-race), I knew better. That was not my first race spectating. I, too, am a race veteran.
The clock is cruel, relentless. The digital finish-line clock coldly, steadily advances even as you will it to slow, silently plead for it to drag even as your loved one hurls himself toward its tape and you know with a sinking heart he will not make it.
This is an unforgiving sport.
So after the try for the Olympic Trials Eric went to San Diego to run a half marathon, even though an intermittent pain had started to flare in his back. A chiropractor and cortisone shot helped alleviate it enough for him to decide to toe up on the starting line. He hung in there for 10 miles until the pain became too much and he agonizingly slowed to a painful walk. "You can do it!" called out unaware spectators as he struggled.
Afterwards his coach pulled him from competition for the summer. Eric would need to stop, allow his body to heal and slowly build back up to racing fitness.
He has been here before.
Show the Mess behind the Success
Funny it was on that same trip to see the Olympic Trials qualifying race that I picked up an Atlantic Monthly in the San Francisco airport and spotted an article, "Is Grit Overrated?" by Jerry Useem. The essay is about the work of psychologist Angela Duckworth who’s just published a book called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
Of course I was thinking about grit because of Eric. He had faced so many injuries already. The state titles he’d won in high school and the successes at the University of Arkansas (SEC champion, All-American, two fists of championship rings) had come at the price of numerous fractures and foot surgery. He pushes himself against the razor-thin edge of elite fitness by constantly pressing against the outer limits of his body’s performance. When he overextends, his body breaks down somewhere and he has to fall back for recovery.
Literally, two steps forward, one step back. Literally months of his life spent furiously treading water in pools and sprinting on Alter-Gs (an anti-gravity treadmill) to maintain cardiovascular fitness while his body repairs and then rebounds stronger.
So by having a son that is facing yet another comeback challenge, an article on grit flagged my attention.
According to the article, the psychologist Duckworth argues,”…grit – perseverance plus the exclusive pursuit of a single passion – is a severely underrated…and that [we] need a better understanding of the nature and prevalence of setbacks…
“What distinguishes high performers [Duckworth] found was largely how they processed feelings of frustration, disappointment, or even boredom. Whereas others took these as signals to cut their losses and turn to some easier task, high performers did not – as if they had been conditioned to believe that struggle was not a signal for alarm.”
Failure is good? I stopped reading a moment. A conversation many years ago with my daughter’s fifth-grade teacher, Mr. F-M, pops into thought. At the beginning of the school year I remember asking what I could do to help Cristina that year. He’d answered, “Let her fail,” and then seeing my surprise added with a smile, “She’ll learn more.”
Yes, I thought crabbily, but I wanted Eric to go on to the Trials.
The article continues, “If you could change people’s beliefs about how success happens, then you had a crack at changing their behavior – delaying their quitting point a crucial modicum or two.”
Duckworth’s research reports on what this American belief is. Despite claiming that we value effort and industriousness – that “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” can-do American spirit! – more than natural talent or intelligence; in fact, deep down we actually prefer to think that success comes from a DNA edge, a natural ability that big achievers are born with.
The article goes on to suggest “we don’t like strivers because they invite self-comparisons.” We’d rather believe people are better than us because they’re naturals, not because we don’t have a strong enough work ethic.
Ouch! I thought.
As a result the article goes on, “So people practice in private. It obscures the amount of failure that goes into success…If we routinely fool others, they routinely fool us. So, when we experience messy frustration, we too readily believe that we don’t have the right stuff and give up.”
We need to persevere just a little longer in tackling problems that exceed our current skill set. It isn’t just that overcoming failure is character-building; it’s literally a part of the process. This continues throughout our lives. We don’t “get there” at some pinnacle point of perfection or completion of the journey. The progress and journey go on and on and on.
Here’s the final realization: My son is choosing his goal. Others don’t have that freedom. As I reflected about this, name after name popped into my thought of individuals who exhibit amazing grit and tenacity because circumstances have forced change upon them: A survivor of brain tumor surgery re-training his brain to read. A dear friend whose best friend/sister has just passed on. Another friend battling a personal lawsuit that’s punishingly lasted over 20 years. Lots of job-search warriors, beating down frustration and fear in order to take their next steps forward. And finally my speech coach who is fighting back against an incurable disease.
The footsteps forward can feel so slow and messy. Two steps forward, one step back. But maybe success isn’t supposed to be sudden. Maybe, like Eric’s repeated comebacks and recovery, the “mess,” sticking with the challenge and refusing to succumb to bitterness or selfishness, is where the progress happens. At least that’s what I’m witnessing.
How Did It Feel
After the San Diego race where he'd had to step out, Eric watched his team mates continue on to race and earn money during the summer. Some new athletes joined the team with their own successful racing resumes. And, of course, the Olympic Trials and Games were punctuation marks for the running world.
While distant track stands roared their excitement Eric returned to the trails and track, gradually increasing his mileage week after week, his sites on Philly.
Now Juan and I have walked over to the wide finish-line lane, fenced off to keep the spectators from interfering with the finishers. There are 30,000+ runners here.
Earlier this morning the streets were polka-dotted with bright colors far, far down each direction of road in Central City near the starting line. We'd arrived about 6:45am to secure a place near the start to watch the elites take off. We knew Eric and his teammate Scott Smith had already been up since 4:30am: Black coffee and bagels with peanut butter kick starting their body’s race engines.
It is muggy; a thunderstorm is forecast for later in the day. We know that the humidity will sap the runners’ hopes for fast race times. At the finish line we wait. Glancing at our watches we know it will be any time now.
The leader appears! Kenyan world-class runner Augustine Choge. Then in second place appears Eric’s fellow NAZ (Northern Arizona Elite) teammate Scott Smith who whips forward. Trying to catch Scott -- flying around a curve -- comes Jeffery Eggleston, another top American distance runner in third with Eric (!) in hot pursuit! There is barely time to shout “Go Eric!” before the men have flashed by and we are craning our necks, leaning across the police barrier to peer down the final finish chute.
In the end the men finished in the same order we saw them run by. Eric ran the half marathon at a 5-minute pace, completing it in 1:05:26. He explained later that it wasn’t the time he’d hoped for, but then everyone’s times were slowed by the humidity.
“How did it feel?” I asked, after we’d made our way through the spectator crowds to find him among the runner tents. That’s when I heard his response.
“Sufferfest,” he grinned.
Chin up, buttercup.