Mark vs Cancer

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Supreme Effort

I've been inspired.

I've just finished a great book, Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, by Bill McKibben. Recommended to me by my friend Dan, it's the personal narrative of an accomplished writer who is also a chronically sub-par middle-aged athlete. For one year's time, he devotes himself exclusively to a rigorous endurance training regimen, hoping to maximize his athletic potential and compete in a world famous cross-country
ski race.

First, I'm inspired by the fact that a man could live and support his family for a year by writing about his own amateur athletic endeavors. Can I quit my job, sign a book deal and get a large cash advance to write about my efforts in early morning basketball? In golf? (Hey, sweetheart, got to be at work all day today . . .basketball in the morning, tennis in the afternoon, and then I'll be on the back nine until late. Can we push dinner back a bit tonight?)

But even more so, I'm inspired by his desire to mentally and physically test himself, to literally reshape his body and mind, to trim off fat and mental weakness, and to push himself towards his supreme effort, one race, one encapsulated moment when he has focused his mind and body to a razor sharpness, when he can say, "There. That is the very best I can do, no regrets."

Not a natural athlete, he gives himself over to expert coaching and countless hours of lonely endurance training. He meets disappoint and personal failure over and over; race after race, he confronts some new weakness, physically finishing, but always aware that somehow, somewhere along the race track, he bailed out early: he hit the wall and backed off his intensity; a faster skier passed him and he felt doubt creep in; he lost his focus and then lost miles of race to sloppy form; he felt pain and became scared of the cost of pushing himself any harder.

His enters his final race with a sense of failure, but then, quite unexpectedly, he finds an inner reserve. He hits the wall at twenty kilometers but pushes through it, feeling the exhilaration of hundreds of hours of training transform into a second wind; another skier approaches him, but he keeps pace and fends him off. His confidence soaring, he attacks a hill and finds himself in second place with the finish line approaching.

But then the pain creeps in. He has pushed himself faster and farther than ever before. This now is his last and ultimate challenge: the fear of pain and exhaustion and failure. What if he gives it his best effort, but still falls short? Isn't there some security in holding something back, because then you can reassure yourself that you could have done better if only . . .? But he has found a zone now, and has no time for his brain's misgivings. He sets his jaw, digs deep, lunges towards the finish line, collapsing in utter exhaustion . . . and utter triumph.

His supreme effort was by no means world-class: he finished second in the middle wave of the amateur race. But he had performed the best that he possibly could, and he knew it.

Every athlete who ever had a coach has heard the phrase, "Leave it all out there," a jock's injunction to give it your very best effort within the confines of whatever venue or game awaits. Perhaps that is one of the great attractions of sports: rules and parameters, definable moments in space and time--against the clock, on the race track, between the chalk --where it is possible to exert a supreme effort in a compressed timeframe and acheive a tangible result: a trophy, a record time, a "Yo Adrian" photo. One moment in time . . . (I think I hear Whitney Houston singing.)

If only real life were that way. By definition, a supreme effort must be unsustainable, for could you sustain that level of excellence indefinitely, that performance would then become ordinary. The value and glory of the supreme effort come from pushing beyond the limits of the possible, and from exacting a heavy cost at the hands of the performer.

But life, sprinkled with rare opportunities for such ultimate efforts, is largely a haphazard accumulation of much more mundane stuff, activities that require monotonous plodding, not heroic striving. This is not to say that consistent excellence is unattainable. But the vast majority of our lives are spent in acts of just getting by, just doing our jobs, just clinging to the status quo and to whatever level of excellence or mediocrity that we and others have come to expect of ourselves.

How could it be otherwise?

How could I give a supreme effort in being a father?

"Honey, it was tough in there, but I did it. That dirty diaper is history!"

In being a doctor?

"Ma'am, with every ounce of energy I possess, please--PLEASE-- lose fifty pounds. How can I make this any clearer? LOSE THE CHUB, Ma'am. Trust me, I'm a doctor."

In being a neighbor?

"Look, Bob, you've been sick. Let me mow your lawn today. Best job you've ever seen. Through thick and thin, Bob. Put her there. Now, can I borrow your saw?"

I've given a number of supreme efforts throughout my life: cross-country, basketball, missionary work, residency. Sometimes I've excelled; often, I've just hung on by my fingernails. But I have had the satisfaction, when the effort was over, of knowing that I had given it my very best, no regrets.

But it's been a long time since I've had that feeling. Maybe that's just part of my entry into middle age. No more glory days. The new trick is to find meaning, purpose, and joy in the commonplace events of everyday life. And I do find great purpose in my wife and children, in my job and church, in my hobbies and interests.

But the tantalizing spectre of the supreme effort hangs out in front of me. Is it urging me towards some unforeseen, nearly unattainable greatness? What's it going to be? Cross-country skiing? A marathon? Mountain climbing? Or is it tempting me to ignore the pressing issues of real life to wistfully indulge in extraneous daydreams?

Well, I'd love to sit and chat about this some more, but hey, it's Saturday. There are some great football games on.

Guess I'll have to mow the lawn next week.

(Bob's on his own.)


Rappster said...

From now on, I'm going to put supreme effort into my web-surfing at work. You've inspired me to take my job to the limits.

Danalin said...

Love this post, Mark. I think I'll go check this book out at my local library. Thanks for the tip.

I suggest a triathlon. While it won't necessarily push you to your absolute limit, it will push you. It will make you feel like you've accomplished something hard and great. You'll feel energized to conquer the world. I am already excited to do my next one post-baby. But now that I've done that, I've been thinking that I need to take it to the next level. I don't know what that is, but for now I will stick to the triathlons that push me pretty far...especially next summer when I'll have just given birth a few months before. I'm sure I'm going to feel super hard-core then. That's what it's all about. Feeling hard-core and having bragging rites. (Is it bragging rights or rites?)

Tyler said...

That was an inspiring post.

I agree with Dana, that triathlons are intoxicating for the very reasons you talked about in your post. It gives you a defined space in which to completely exert and exhaust yourself. There are other competitor's (most of them in better shape and with fancier bikes/wetsuits/etc.) but not too long after the race begins, beating them becomes secondary.

Most important is to maximize your effort against the course and to know that you pushed yourself beyond what you originally thought was possible. Striving in any athletic endeavour spills over and gives you more resolve and confidence in all aspects of your life.

Jeff said...

O, glorious sport. The Greeks were onto something. I feel like a flabby, girly man right now. I really enjoyed your post. The beauty of sport for me is how, for example, a grown man standing in front of a rubber plate and swinging a large stick at a whizzing hunk of animal hide can inspire me to want to be a better person. I know it is the deep-seated inner jock in me, but a heroic athletic effort can bring me to tears almost everytime. I don't always know what to do to become that better person, but my resolve is strengthened. Here's to athletics... and go Rockies!

Goose said...

I love the post Mark. The important thing to remember here is that supreme effort should be an individual thing which is not based on where we finish in relation to others. My problem is that I always make it a competition with somebody else. There are few times that I can remember, if any, being satisfied with an effort if someone was in front of me. And even in other cases, there are times when I may be first, but I know that someone somewhere was better. I think I have started trying to correct this. Don’t get me wrong, it can be a huge motivation to excel when striving to win, but it can also slowly fester into a way of life that leaves many important people and things in its wake. I know people that choose to not befriend someone because he is not good at something or others who care little for the well being of a friend when trying to win. I guess what I am saying is that we need to always keep things in perspective. To push ourselves to the limit is wonderful, and to compete is good, but to become wrapped up in being the best, not our best, then there may be a problem.

Go Rockies and destroy those Diamondbacks. What I want to win, is there a problem?