Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Nietzsche’s sentiment seemed a perfect fit to Alistair Brownlee’s facial expression, during the Olympic triathlon in Rio, as he continued to drop the hammer on the rest of the men’s field as they melted behind him. Brownlee’s why in life, it’s fair to say, is to crush all comers when a gold medal is up for grabs.
One difference in understanding between endurance athletes and the non-athlete fan who watches maybe one triathlon every four years (thanks to the Olympics) is that the former, regardless of level, knows that Brownlee’s capacity for suffering doesn’t just come into play on race day. There’s genetically based talent involved, of course, but the reason he was able to blow everyone off the course in Rio is that he actively seeks out as much over-the-redline suffering time as possible. This simultaneously builds a foundation of physical fitness and mental fitness. I have always sensed that the casual fan doesn’t understand how much training is required just so that a mentally tough athlete can push themselves over a very high redline for epic amounts of time.
In 2013, I watched Brownlee race a track 10 km at a meet at Stanford. The Payton Jordan Invitational brings in a lot of strong talent for the meet, and those seeking fast times come for the ideal weather and the competition. It’s 25 laps around the track, and I sat in the stadium as Brownlee, a half-year after his gold medal win in London, battled running specialists Jose Marin of Mexico and Zachary Hine, an American. With six laps to go, Brownlee powered into the lead despite the overwrought look on his face. Marin was able to out-kick Brownlee, but just by two seconds’ worth, as Brownlee clocked 28 minutes and 32 seconds. It was both a PR plus another half hour of suffering he could jot down in his log book.
Later that year, I listened to NPR’s Radiolab show discuss why Kenyans were so dominant in long-distance running. They put forward their theory that Kenyans were good at the labors of distance running because of the circumcision ceremony boys go through at the age of 16. No drugs, no liquor, just the knife. Because of this bloody, painful ritual, Radiolab suggested, the boys (now considered men) could happily tough out a steeplechase or marathon. Easy day!
That’s not the way it works. Radiolab should check their Nietzsche. Here’s my theory, based on Friedrich: that Kenyans (both men and women, by the way) are great because they are inflamed with purpose. They either want to be great like their national heroes, or their mission is to make enough money at it to take care of their family. Or both. Because of the strength of their why, they could bear almost anything.
To test this theory, last year I sliced my finger while chopping a carrot. I had just sharpened the blade, so it was a deep cut. The next morning, the bleeding hadn’t stopped. I reluctantly went to see the doctor. He took a look at it, mumbled to himself, and then brought out some tools of his trade. He didn’t tell me what he was going to do. I didn’t pay attention to the setup. But then he cauterized the cut on my finger—burning the flesh so that the bleeding would stop (why that works, I have no idea). While I’m sure I can’t complain the way a Kenyan boy has a right to complain, I was engulfed in a white-hot intensity of pain that has since made me the most patient prep cook in the world.
What it didn’t do is make me a tougher athlete. I wasn’t able to hang longer during a session of max VO2 repeats, or gut out a stronger race finish. It doesn’t work that way. Training and racing triathlons aren’t “fun.” They are immensely satisfying when there is a strong why driving the whole circus, because if you bring the strong why into them, and really press yourself into new territory that you weren’t able to get to a month ago or a year ago or three years ago, you’ve uncovered a form of strength that just keeps building on itself. Do that, and whether you’re first or 1,001st, it feels like victory. No circumcision required.
This first appeared in the October/November 2016 issue of LAVA. Get your issue here.
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