“In life and in racing, always finish like a champion,” these were the words from my sage cross country coach and spiritual guide David “Abu” Abusamra aka Mick Belker, over 3 decades ago and they still guide me in things athletic and beyond.
The above slogan and its first cousin, “finish strong” are wholesome, positive, suggestions typically tossed out to help the weary in a race or to encourage one in a difficult chapter of life. Sharing them as positive as it is, is easy, but when you’re the one climbing the ladder executing them, finishing strong or finishing like a champion when the pain is crippling is no easy matter.
I am going to do a slightly deeper dive this last day of 2021 (now the first day of 2022) into the heart, guts and marrow of putting these to work and share what I hope will be some concrete ideas as to how to walk the walk when quitting, compromising, giving in, slowing down, tapping out seem like a better options.
Back to cross country for a moment, a high school cross country race is commonly between 2 miles and 3.1 and it takes most young athletes somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes to cover the course. These are not comfortable minutes, these are run as fast as you can, regardless of the pain, without fading, blowing up or dying before you cross the finish.
The best runners run these minutes fractionally below a threshold pace where if they went any faster or had to run any longer they would fail. During the race, if one recognizes that one’s pace is not sustainable an ever so small reduction in effort is exercised and a new… just below threshold pace is locked in on.
The Course- most cross country courses are majority off road with a combination of steep formidable hills and less intense but still tough, rolling hills peppered in, which make maintaining that threshold pace even more brutal to sustain.
In the unlikely event you find yourself on a largely flat and cement course you have not really gotten a break as the expectation is that the athlete will cover ground faster pace/mile, initiating a different kind of pain.
The Weather- the weather for cross country races which are typically done in the fall, ranges from hot, damn hot, in august and September to, depending on your climate, cold, damn cold. Think rainy, icy, snowy and freezing. Note, cross country races don’t get canceled, the weather is the weather.
So there you find yourself in this mental/physical challenge were to be successful one needs to be operating at the threshold of failure, but not, on a course that commonly has a combination of terrain that substantially increases pain, in unpredictable weather conditions that make regulating body temperature close to impossible for 15-30 minutes.
With that in mind we go back to my opening, “finish like a champion/finish strong”. These words take on a new meaning to the athlete that receives them with perhaps a few minutes more of pain to endure before the finish when no doubt, even before these words of encouragement were uttered the athlete was already managing the hurt, barely.
So how do we do it, finish strong when everything about the experience (the pain) is almost…unbearable?
Part of one answer to that question that has gotten me through hundreds if not thousands of sports races as well as some really difficult chapters and highly stressful events in life, I mean times when the pain, challenges and disappointment was staggering, lives in the spirit and wisdom of a 3 point mantra I stumbled on many years ago, Feel your feelings, Know your purpose, DO what needs to be done.
The structure that I will briefly explain below can be exercised in the heat of athletic battle and it is even more useful when one finds themselves in a life circumstance that is likely less fleeting and one that requires a more deliberate and steady approach to managing adversity or pain.
- Feel your feelings
Whether in sport, business, relationships, really any s…storm, this means acknowledging were you’re at and how the circumstances land on your body, mind and spirit. When we find ourselves in the moment or season of pain, naming is not a surrender, it is the first step.
By giving it a name and acknowledging its presence we immediately reduce its weight and grip and now have something we can mount a strategy against and or begin to embrace.
Trust me, I realize that labeling the pain in a 20 minute race is not the same as that of deep personal challenge or loss but in both, in relative time proportion, survival, success and getting through it… requires naming it so as not to be held prisoner by it or accept a victim’s role.
2. Know your purpose
In sport, this means remembering, if only briefly, your goals. I want to set a personal best, I want to win the race, I want to be a league champion…fill in your purpose/goal.
In life when we are blitzkrieged by pain, loss or disappointment it mean having a vision, as distant as it may seem in the moment of the human we want to be, the life we want for ourselves, the connections, depth of relationships, joy factor, peacefulness…fill in the blank, the things that you value and that were beaten down and blured by your loss.
3. Do what needs to be done
The third part of the champion’s way, is targeted action that sometimes requires every ounce of energy, focus, Faith (in the human process, in our training/preparation, and for me, god), and sometimes just pure will not to quite, give in, let up even though every part of your body and being may be screaming, no more!
In sport the encouragement of a coach, the presence of an opponent or a moment of “in the zone” /”flow”might help one to DO, when backing off seems so much more comfortable.
In personal pain it may be leaning into a family member, friend, counselor, group or clergy person to get the love and support needed to keep keeping on, pressing on and making the next best possible decision or behavior choice.
I’m not suggesting that dealing with either the pain of a short or long sporting challenge or the pain of heavy human loss can be conveniently and neatly taken care or transcended by the above mantra, but by embracing the formula, over and over and over again we are provided a tangible, intellectual guide map that can be worked in concrete ways, to keep moving forward, covering ground and turning corners so that pain and loss do not define us or have the final word.
I hope that 2021 was rich and rewarding for each of you in many ways. For those who had a rough go, I send you and electronic hug from my heart to yours and wish you endurance and transcendence in your challenges.
Most importantly, I wish each of you peace and joy beyond understanding in 2022, as you take on your goals and embrace the challenges that lie just around the corner.
In your moments/seasons of challenge and pain I encourage you to feel your feeling, know your purpose, and as best you can, do what needs to be done, the way of the champion…