When I was in college I was not a particularly ambitious athlete. I might have become one in high school, but for one reason or another my hours at the pool left me believing I was only an okay athlete--not necessarily one deserving of lofty goals or ambitions. So in college, my athletic ambitions were mostly strategic. I ran to lose weight and to keep in shape. I played rugby because it put me in the center of the best partying to be had. Sport was a means to an end, not an end in itself.
When I began to run for pleasure, and not just to maintain my weight, I was still not particularly ambitious about it. My high school belief that I was a fair athlete only, and one not deserving of lofty goals, held fast. And so, because I didn't expect great things of me and my running, it used to be that simply running a race filled me with joy and pride. I could run 3 miles, and then 5, and then 13.1 and then 26.2. I wasn't particularly concerned with how fast I ran these races. The fact that I could run them at all made me enormously proud. I was startled and pleased to find out that if I set my mind to it, I could actually run quite far--a marathon even! Who would have thought it possible for someone like me to do THAT?
I think it was after I completed that first marathon (1997--a long time ago now!) that I finally believed myself to be a runner I was not at the front of the pack, and that was fine with me. I was in good shape, and I could run a long way. That was enough.
It was enough for a long time.
It is not enough anymore.
And I find myself wondering, when did that happen? When did I cross the line from just being joyful that I could run at all, to being ever so slightly disappointed when I did not run the very fastest of everyone in the race? At first my new found ambition for running far, and then fast, and then both far and fast, and then both far and fast with a swim and bike tacked on to the beginning, made me focused, determined and strong. It gave me life. But gradually....
When does ambition stop giving life, and begin to take life from you?
What a careful balance it is allowing ourselves to dream while simultaneously remaining in the here and now--with the data we have and not the data we want. It is a balance I have not mastered.
I have had a strong season. I can say that, even though it causes me agitation to write it. I placed in the top 5 in my AG at Florida 70.3. I PR-ed in the Ironman by over a half hour, and bettered my placing to number 8 in my AG. I placed second to Ange in a local sprint just weeks after my IM. I knocked 13 minutes off my previous time at Timberman. But I don't feel good about any of it. Not really. Somehow I allowed my ambition to steal from me my hard-fought success.
I feel a number of things in addition to "not really feeling good about any of it": I feel greedy and guilty for not feeling more proud, I feel angry that I didn't achieve the level I know I can, I feel underestimated by those around me who insist I have had a good season, when I'm sure it was only just fine, and above all I feel WRONG for feeling all of those feelings! Oh, what a mess to be worked through. Bring in the shrinks! Bring in the self-help books! Because who the hell am I to want more than what my record shows!
My husband calls this phenomenon-that of not feeling good about what you achieved because it does not measure up to the lofty goals you set for yourself -- "ambition creep". I am fairly sure I am not the only person to suffer this ailment. I suspect you have experienced what I am talking about at some point in your life, in some context. Probably many of you reading this have experienced it in sport.
Andy dealt with ambition creep in college. He was a walk-on at William&Mary in Virginia. No one expected much of him. He allowed people's low expectations to fuel him, and by the time he was a senior he was one of the top Division 1 collegiate athletes in the Steeple Chase in the country. But that wasn't enough. He wanted to qualify for the Olympic Trials. He stayed on for a fifth year at W&M, still able to compete after missing his junior year track season to Chicken Pox. He raced and raced and raced--and the ceiling remained. He fell short. Barely. But short.
I met him soon after he left W&M. I was in awe of his running accomplishments, but clearly he felt less stellar about them. He battled between trying to appear appreciative and respectful of his running record and oozing bitterness and disappointment that he had lost his chance and would never accomplish what he had set out to do.
I didn't get it. At all. I wanted him to just sign up for this local road race or that, and run, and win, and feel good about it. Why the hell couldn't he feel good about it? How awesome would it be to just go out to some random local 5k and win it?
I get it now. I just don't know how exactly to deal with it now that I get it.
Here is what I know:
I know I am what my record says I am--no more, no less (This is Bill Parcells, Andy tells me.)
I know that no matter how good I am there will always be someone better.
I know I need to mark my accomplishments at my destinations, but also enjoy myself along the way.
I know there is a fine line between challenging myself and fooling myself, and as a competitive athlete, it's my job to find that line--and deal with it--and move it.
I know these things mostly because Andy, who quickly recognized my problem, named it, and is trying in vain to help me deal with it. I can be a fairly decent listener, and so I do know all of these things-- intellectually. I just don't know how to turn that knowledge into feeling really good about a season in which I raced pretty well, but in which I didn't achieve what I wanted to achieve.
I am open to suggestions.