I drafted the following letter to a friend, a fellow athlete, after this friend had a breakthrough performance. After sitting on it for a bit — and hearkening back to something I once read: that a friend’s role is not to tell a friend what’s realistic, but to be a sounding board to help that friend decide what she wants, and then support her in her pursuit of it — I shelved this letter and sent something short and (almost) purely congratulatory. However, after sitting on the original letter a bit more, I decided I do want to share it. It gives voice to viewpoints that might be helpful for some people to hear, if not adopt.
To a friend
If you’ll permit me to poke you a bit (perhaps you chose email over Facebook precisely to avoid such behavior?): What do you mean by “progress”? From an outsider’s perspective, you’ve been becoming a stronger, more experienced runner for years. It has not been linear, but progress (however it’s defined) rarely is; it has not been flawless, but imperfections can endow things with personal charm.
I said it before yesterday’s race, and I’ll say it after, because I truly believe it: Race performance does not define you. It’s what a lot of people — media, fans, athletes — focus on. Perhaps because it makes things so simple: Athletes show up on game day, and the outcome of the performance measures how “good” they are. Observers sometimes pay lip service to work and training, but for the most part, this is a static measure of a slice of time, freeing observers to ignore what came before and shift their attention to other things immediately after.
But you know. You know the work you put in. You know the obstacles you fought through and overcame. You know you’re not alone.
In another worldview,1 training at a pursuit changes the individual over time, and game day provides an imperfect measurement of how that change is coming along. There’s a fair bit of noise in the measurement: equipment could malfunction , you could be on your period , the weather could be god-awful . All of this noise can affect an individual’s performance, but it doesn’t change who the individual has become.
The more one trains, the more one changes, and the more likely certain outcomes become relative to others. But they’re never certain. So, paradoxically, (1) get used to it, and (2) enjoy it while it’s here. Because running like you did yesterday is who you’ve become (indeed, who you’ve been for some time), and there’s no guarantee what the future holds.
Lastly, I encourage you to seriously consider the social responsibility attending experience and achievement. You may not have asked for it, you may not agree with it, but the fact of the matter is you are and have been in a position to influence others. Use your influence for good.
I wish I had seen you cross the finish line. Mr S— says you looked like the happiest bad-@$$ out there.
- I don’t mean to imply this is the “right” worldview. Certain aspects of it seem to agree with the real world.