From Chapter 12 “Indefatigable” in Ingredients of Outliers.
Up High at Show Low
Not long ago, I participated in my first triathlon in eighteen years, held in a town named for a card game. Show Low sits at 6,412 feet at the base of the White Mountains in northern Arizona. Remember the opening scene in the Academy Award-winning film Chariots of Fire, where a group of men are running barefoot, effortlessly, through the crashing waves on a beautiful beach, with the orchestra playing an inspiring melody in the background? (If you never saw the movie, or you’ve forgotten that scene, it’s available on You Tube.) But in my case, it wasn’t like that.
In complete contradistinction to Chariots, I staggered, blue and probably hypoxic, out of the water in the back of the pack. Once on the bike, I decided to pass everyone I could see ahead of me. I set my sights on a cyclist about 300 yards in front.
The words of the legendary multi-distance runner Steve “Pre” Prefontaine echoed in my mind: “A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into an exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.”
I peddled faster. Hunched on the aero bars, I looked up and knew I could pass him. As I got closer, I realized something wasn’t right. His bike looked different, he looked different, but I didn’t care. I was gaining on him and that was all that mattered.
I zoomed past him feeling pretty damn good about myself. It was then I noticed: he had only one leg. Instantly, I knew who had more guts. That quickly brought me back to reality. With the rest of that long bike ride and the marathon immediately following it awaiting me, I had no reason to savor that one fleeting moment of triumph. However, I laughed at myself for the next 90 minutes that I was beaten in the water by a one-legged swimmer! How did he not swim in a circle?
But you don’t have to be a stunt pilot or a superb (or mediocre) athlete to overcome whatever barriers may be keeping you from the potential within you. One of my favorite stories is about the 97-year-old marathoner. When asked how it was that he was still running at that age, he responded, “No one ever told me I shouldn’t.” If you admit to a barrier, it becomes one. Put more simply, you’re not beaten until you quit.
Small Steps Become Giant Ones
This nation was founded by men and women for whom “emptying the tank” was a regular occurrence. The barriers they overcame to form the United States of America were astounding, costing many of them not only their fortunes, but their lives. That “Never give up and never give in” attitude is an integral part of our country’s DNA, demonstrated again and again throughout American history.
For example, in a speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced a goal of putting an American on the moon and bringing him safely back to Earth before the end of that decade. It was a bold statement, as our nation had fallen well behind the Soviet Union in the so-called “space race.”
The President ended his speech by describing the commitment that would be needed to reach the goal. He declared that it could not be accomplished, “unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.” In others words, it would require that everyone involved would empty the tank in order to meet the goal.
Eight years later, in July 1969, Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon, uttering these never-to-be-forgotten words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Shortly thereafter, Apollo 11 and its crew—Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin—returned safely to Earth. They, and countless others, had come together to make President Kennedy’s challenging goal a reality.