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Mind games

The rewards of racing can't be measured by a stopwatch.

After college it seemed that I would decide to get back in shape about once every 10 years. In my early 20s, I took up tennis. In my early 30s, I played racquetball. And, of course, in my early 40s, I discovered running.

I got a lot of exercise playing tennis. Well, no, not playing tennis, but chasing after the balls I missed as well as the ones I launched over the fence trying to return a serve.

Racquetball was better. I didn't have to chase the ball nearly as far when I missed it, and it was pretty hard to lose the ball in an enclosed court. Still, the sport wasn't without its hazards. I used the racquet more often for defensive rather than offensive purposes.

A friend taught me how to play the game. For a while we had fun. But as I gained skill, as I began to hit the ball by choice instead of by chance, as I began to reach a more competitive level, our game changed. Suddenly the words "winning" and "losing" took on more sinister meanings.

My friend had a habit of talking to the ball. After a bad shot he would lecture the ball on where it was supposed to have gone. Or he would lecture the racquet or the wall. Those moments were humorous to me.

But he also would lecture himself. More precisely, he would yell at himself. He would call himself stupid, denigrate himself and wonder out loud how he could possibly be playing so badly. Those moments were very uncomfortable for me.

In time I understood that I was not the opponent, even though I was on the court with him. Somewhere deep inside my friend's psyche, there was a much more formidable adversary than I would ever be. It was that demon that he was trying to defeat. The real game was in his mind.

I have noticed this same phenomenon with some runners. They are racing something or someone that no one else can see. They are surrounded by invisible competitors and are often engaged in a fierce battle that is taking place only in their imaginations.

Rather than accepting the course and the day as it is, these runners cling to their fantasy race. Trouble is, in the fantasy race the weather is perfect, the course is clear and fast, and all the other runners are having bad days.

It's not enough for these runners to complete a race or reach a desired time goal. Instead, they must meet their imaginary expectations. They are fighting not only the real elements of weather and fatigue, but an envisioned keeper of their litany of failure as well.

Maybe all of us begin this way. Maybe all of us begin by overcoming our own histories. But eventually I think it's possible to move beyond our past disasters and well-recorded weaknesses.

For me, the real joy of running and racing is finding out what I'm capable of on any given day. I start every race with my actual watch and my emotional watch set to 00:00. I try to stand at every starting line filled not with dread, but with curiosity. And I cross every finish line with a sense of reverence and satisfaction.

There are those who believe I'm missing something by not being disappointed with my performance most of the time. They would argue that I'll never find out how good I can be unless I collapse in frustration at the end of every race.

I'm not convinced. I think I have a pretty clear insight into my potential. Every race, every run brings me closer to my dream of becoming a whole person - one who is caring, feeling and connected to others. That dream includes being an athlete. Unfortunately the postrace ceremony doesn't include any awards for becoming the person you've always wanted to be.

So my physical efforts during races may not result in many trophies, but my soul wins every time.

Waddle on, friends.

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