Attitude / Fitness / Health / Triathlon

Why I Wasn't A Winner: Choking, Mark Allen, Pain & The Jonah Complex

I think Mark Allen is my new hero, mostly because I’ve just discovered he’s sort of my racing doppelganger…Don’t get it twisted, I’m talking about his pre-triathlon days, back when he was just a semi-decent swimmer; I am NOT referring to his tenure as triathlon demigod, lol.

And even at that, I’m not talking about his level of physical fitness, more about what was going on in that beautiful little head of his.

mark allen

But the more I learn about his background into athletics, his mental approach to racing and his entrance into triathlon, the more I relate to him. I’m about halfway through Iron War by Matt Fitzgerald, and while I’d heard about Mark Allen’s epic battle with Dave Scott in Kona in 1989, I’d never actually watched it or really understood the significance of their rivalry. I actually just watched the hour long original ABC coverage of that race on YouTube; I wanted to wait until I’d finished the book but couldn’t stand the agony of waiting for Fitzgerald to tease out every detail inch by painful inch, so I finally caved and it was as amazeballs as I imagined.

davescottmarkallen

But Mark Allen got into Ironman after watching Julie Moss‘ epic finish, in which she crawled across the Ironman finish line in poo-soiled shorts; I was similarly inspired when I watched my first Ironman as a 10 year old, glued to the screen and in complete awe as I watched Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham duke it out for 4th place by deliriously crawling across the finish line on their hands and knees.

Allen was also a competitive swimmer since childhood, like me, and while he was talented he characterized himself as a choker.

And so was I.

I was always the person who took second. While I had a couple notable wins as a youth (2x AAU National Champion), I was more often than not the person who finished just behind the person who took first. 

Why?

In most cases, I know it wasn’t because I wasn’t talented or hard-working enough. There were certainly races in which I simply lost to a better athlete (like when I got crushed in a high school State Track Championship by a girl who ran 2:07 in the 800m…yeah…wasn’t gonna win that one…), but I’ve lost A LOT of really close races to people who I know weren’t necessarily in any better physiological shape that I was. I’ve also completely tanked several high-pressure races throughout my 15 years as a competitive athlete by totally blowing up, like the time I finished dead last and about 30 seconds slower than my PR at the NCAA D1 Regional Championships in the 1500m.

That was soul-crushing. And embarassing. And it had nothing to do with my physical fitness.

As an athlete, in the past, I’ve been a choker. I’ve been a person who either 1. gives up before the race even starts or 2. gives up when the race gets tough. There have been many races I know I was capable of winning, but in my mind I’d consciously or unconsciously decided that I was okay with a 2nd or a 3rd (or 9th or 27th); effectually deciding that I wasn’t willing to suffer to the degree I would need in order to win.

I always performed better as an underdog; in most cases, once the pressure reached a certain threshold, things got dicey. But I think I was not only scared of what it would take to win, I was also scared of winning itself. I certainly enjoyed the idea of winning, and to a large degree the pursuit of winning, but there was something about actually winning that held me back.

What was I scared of?

I can’t really even put it into words. But I definitely felt fearful and anxious about what it would be like to maximize my full potential, to succeed beyond what the average human being tends to achieve.

I never completely understood these feelings because I never really tried to understand them (true introspection is painful and I’ve just recently started really examining my inner thought processes), and I didn’t really understand how it could be possible for a person who wanted so badly and trained so hard to win to willingly sabotage themselves out of winning. I therefore thought I must be the only person with such a weird and warped attitude toward success.

Until I learned about the Jonah Complex. Abraham Maslow theorized that most humans will never realize even a fraction of their true potential because of an inherent fear of greatness.

“We fear our highest possibilities…We are generally afraid to become that which we glimpse in our most perfect moments, under the most perfect conditions, under the conditions of greatest courage. We enjoy and even thrill to godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities…In my own notes I had at first labeled this the ‘fear of one’s own greatness’, or the ‘evasion of one’s destiny’ or the ‘running away from one’s own best talents’…It is certainly true that many of us evade our constitutionally suggested vocations (call, destiny, task in life, mission). So often we run away from the responsibilities dictated (or rather suggested) by nature, by fate, even sometimes by accident, just as Jonah tried – in vain – to run away from his fate.” –Abraham Maslow

Mind. Blown.

This was a real thing. A common thing. While our hearts might reach for the stars there’s some inherent part of our psyche that pulls us toward mediocrity.

But if we know about it, we can acknowledge it and overcome it.

And then there’s pain.

If you don’t pucker up a little bit at the thought of the pain that’s involved in endurance sports then you’re a total masochist. And good for you!

I’ve never been super put off by the pain of sports, not in workouts anyway; there’s actually something about it that’s very enjoyable. I’ve spent so many hours of my life pushing limits in training, and I’ve completed some really challenging, really intense sessions. But I love that feeling. There’s something about that initial feeling of lactic build-up, of reaching your threshold and then staying there, of pushing to your physiological limits in the last 100m kick of a close race that actually feels good.

Everything I love about sports–the challenge of hitting and maintaining a tough pace (one of my favorite track workouts was running 8x400m at 70s pace…oh it hurt so good), digging deep to grind out a tough set, or going longer and farther than I thought I could (hooray for Saturday long runs)–I love doing it in practice.

But there’s something about doing it in “real-life,” in a race, that makes it a little bit scary. The pain in workouts is far more controlled, it’s predictable, it’s non-threatening. The pain in a race is completely different. Someone might decided to go rogue and push the pace fast and hard from the beginning. The need to make tactical decisions, straying from your “plan” and the outward focus on competitors rather than yourself can throw you out of your rhythm and make your effort feel much harder than it should. And then there’s the simple fact that in a tight race against someone who is just as good as or better than you, a lot more pain will be required than you probably ever give in practice. the person who will win is the person who is willing to dig deeper, to hurt more.

In the past I think I assumed that if I trained hard enough and got fit enough, I’d get to a point where I could win big races in a comfortable fashion. That eventually you could get good enough where winning hurt less.

Well that was a dumb thought. Naive at best.

I now know that the higher the level of competition, the more suffering that’s required. The best athletes make peace with the hurt that is inevitably a part of racing, and embrace it.

And there’s pressure. The feeling that all of your hard work, all of the fine tuning, the nutrition and hydration and mental acuity all have to come together at one exact moment. That your self-worth, your team, your coach, are all counting on you to perform. I was often the person who feared coming up short. I feared failing. And ironically, the fear of failing often caused me to fail, either because I was mentally unfocused, my body became tight and uncooperative, or I failed to even give an honest effort.

And like Mark Allen, I loathed myself for it. I got to the point where I loved the sport but I hated doing it because I came to hate failing, but even more, I hated the weakness that it revealed within me, and how it subsequently made me feel about myself.

I was a choker, plain and simple. I cracked under pressure that I foolishly put upon myself. Fear paralyzed me. Matt Fitzgerald said of Mark Allen, “Despite his talent, his love of swimming, his willingness to work hard, and a burning desire to win, Mark carried a deep sense of self doubt into his racing that made him weak in the moments when he most needed to be strong.”

That was me. Exactly.

What’s funny is that the two AAU National Championships I won were in an event that wasn’t even my main event or secondary event; I was primarily an 800m and 1600m runner, and yet I somehow managed to win the 3200m twice. Why? Because I didn’t put the same kind of debilitating pressure on myself to win the 3200m; I ran it without fear.

My best year of racing in college came as a freshman. I set a school record, dropped 6 seconds off of my mile PR during the indoor track season on a 200m track, hacked 2 seconds off of my 800m PR during one of the first outdoor meets of the year, was all-MWC in cross country with a top 10 finish, the first for our school in something like a decade. I had an incredible first year.

Why?

Again, because I was young and I was new, my success came as a surprise, I was the underdog.

It wasn’t until the conference meet that I choked, and it was because I still hadn’t qualified for NCAA Regionals and it was my last chance to do so, and because I was predicted as one of the favorites to win a conference title. What happened? I bonked. I blew it. Despite the fact that I wanted to qualify for NCAAs and win a MWC title more than anything, I was scared that I wouldn’t (or that I would, perhaps?), and before that race even started I felt tired and heavy. It was a hot day, and I let that put even more fear into me. I was out of control of that race from the very beginning, my body being uncooperative and my mind unable to control my thoughts or my limbs the way I know it knew how.

I would go on to have so many other races like that, and the triggers were always different. Sometimes it might be other competitors I was scared of; if they were there, I was almost guaranteed to have a bad race. My best collegiate race came at the Drake Relays, a meet that was out of conference and therefore was missing all of the usual faces I normally competed against (and feared competing against). I went out feeling so strong, totally within myself, totally in control, and I not only had a great race but I hammered the last 400 and threw down one of my best kicks ever to take 2nd (this was actually a 2nd place I was proud of, however). I dropped 5 seconds off of my 1500m PR and qualified for NCAA Regionals.

That would be my last good race as a collegiate runner, and I was only a sophomore; to this day, I still carry so much regret about my collegiate running career. As a youth I dreamed of the Olympics, of being a professional runner or swimmer, and while many people said I had the talent and the work ethic to get there, none of it ever materialized. But the hard part about it was that I never gave myself a fair chance to get there. Failing to reach a goal is one thing when you know you gave it your all, failing to reach it because fear caused you to self-sabotage is a totally different story, a sad story.

All that being said, it’s been almost 10 years since my college running career ended and since I’ve been any sort of consistent athlete. My body isn’t in as good of shape but I’ve gained a lot of perspective in my time away. I’ve had a career serving in a capacity that was bigger than myself. I have a wonderful husband and two beautiful children. I’ve traveled. I live abroad. Many things have happened that have broadened my horizons; I realize now there’s so much more to life than sports. But my time away has deepened my appreciation for what athletics means to me, how much happiness it gives me. I love pushing my body, being in control of my body, having it give me what I ask when I ask it to. I love setting goals, pursuing them and achieving them.

And I love racing. I love competing. While there may have been a time I feared it on some levels, I still enjoyed it. But I now realize that I love it. It’s not that I compete to be able to say I’m better than anyone else, but competition drives us to be better than we could ever be on our own.

My mind is so much stronger now than it ever was then; if I could get my body back to where it used to be…I spend a lot of time wondering where they could take me now…

So what am I learning from Mark Allen?

He made a conscious decision to stop being a choker, and it worked.

He learned to embrace the pain needed to win. He learned to learned to not cave to the voices of doubt and negativity in his own head. He learned to quit submitting to other competitors and to dig deep, to fight back.

For me, and for him, it wasn’t as much about beating someone else as it was about fighting as hard as you possibly can until you cross the tape. It’s about not quitting. It’s about choosing to not be a coward, and about running a race that you can be proud of when you look yourself in the mirror.

If he could will himself out his choker ways, so can I.

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