Hurts so good

It was a week full of ESPYs, NFL contract negotiations and All-Star Games so I took a break this afternoon to read through my Outside magazine and get my brain off “sports”.  Good luck, right?  I came across an article about Shalane Flanagan.  I remember hearing about her back in January when she earned her spot on USA’s Olympic marathon team but was a relative unknown (at least to me) before then.  Turns out, she’s a superstar and a competitive killer.  Woman after my own heart. 

The article focused on the fact that she beat out her teammates back in January due to her competitive overdrive.  It kicked in when she felt that one of the other teammates (elite runner Kara Goucher) was planning to overtake her during the race.  She sprinted for the last two miles, leaving her teammates in the dust and posting an impossibly impressive time of 2:25:38.  Flanagan claims that she can go to a place that other athletes can’t when her ego or her pride is on the line.  She can push herself to painful physical limits in order to win.  That’s why she’s the front-runner to win in the Olympics.  She’s hard-wired to compete.  

I thought about pain and injuries, and sports and athletes.  I’ve seen it before.  I’ve seen athletes play through broken bones, concussions, sprained muscles, gnarly cuts and terrible illness.  “Playing through the pain” has become a common recurring theme in sports.  We’ve all seen it.  And if you were ever an athlete, even in high school or college, you’ve probably heard your coach say it to you on occasion (or in the case of my track coach who was the football coach in the fall season, many times…”Take one for the team.  I can still hear his West Virginia accent now…).  And I have blogged about this before but at what point do we applaud and at what point do we caution against this sort of behavior.  And it’s at that point where I feel differently about a football player playing through a concussion and Flanagan running through her own pain.  

Obviously, one is life threatening and one is (arguably) not.  That’s a big difference.  But I think the most important difference to me is the individual aspect of running.  When you are running, you are your own team.  You are the one who lives and dies by your decisions and you are the one who has to live with your result (whether that be your injuries or you finishing time).  When you are part of a team (and a culture) where your actions are scrutinized by fans and the media or when your decisions are affected by outside pressures, I think you are in danger of making, well, dangerous decisions for yourself and where your limits should be.  And I am not discounting the fact that many football players, basketball players, etc.. are insanely competitive people and would play through any injury if given the opportunity.  But some of this has to do with “letting down the teammates” or “fans”.  Some of it has to do with their own pride, but the line gets blurred in team sports.  

I (speaking as a runner but not an elite runner by any means) have a different mindset when I run.  I get into a zone.  I can definitely say that I am almost disengaged from my own body as I’m running a race.  My race pace is faster than my practice pace.  There’s a reason for that.  I see someone ahead of me and I make it a point to change that.  I do that for as long as my body allows.  What Flanagan does is something like that, but to the extreme.  She’s one of those unique individuals who will not allow herself to fail and it’s all due to her competitive spirit.  The article called her a “competitive assassin”.  They never question her decision to sacrifice her body to win because at the end of the day, it’s just her and the track.  I think Flanagan’s attitude is not only testament to how much abuse the body can really endure but also how much more we are capable of once we decide we want it bad enough.  It inspires me to push harder.  I struggle with limits and whether or not to obey my knowledge of my own limits.  I think it’s a difficult balance.  I don’t think we can all do what Flanagan does.  I’m not sure we should all try.  But it does make me wonder whether I’ve been holding back or giving up when I should be pushing harder.  It was a great article to read before I head out to the gym for my lunchtime workout 🙂

For those that are interested, Shalane Flanagan is an elite runner from Marblehead, Mass just north of Boston (props to the east coast!).  She will be 31 (props to 1981!) during her third Olympic appearance this summer in London, representing the USA.  When she set the event record at the Olympic Trials in Houston back in January, it only her second marathon.  Ever.

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