Note to readers: get yourself a nice cup of coffee and put your feet up - this is a long one.
Denial (a.k.a. Shock), Anger, Bargaining (a.k.a. Excuse-Making), Depression, Acceptance and Perspective
Let’s face it, for those of us who are completely OCD about racing and competing, we go through a pretty serious existential crisis in the moments after a disappointing race – one in which, in absolute terms, we may have done pretty well (from an outsider’s perspective – “But you’re so awesome just for being out there!” Sorry…it’s clear that you don’t understand me in the slightest). But in our terms, the ones that matter to us, and to our peers (who do understand), we know when we came up short. And it hurts. Bad.
We look at the raw results. We quickly, albeit roughly, have a sense of how we performed. If it’s better-than-expected, we are gleeful and have a tingly feeling throughout our body. We don’t care how much we hurt physically because all the effort was worth it. We don’t need to jump into an endless analysis of the results – yet. We’re either on the podium, with a little round piece of metal to take home, or we’re not. If we won – well, there’s nothing like that feeling. It’s the best in the world. If we’re second or third by a wide margin, then we don’t worry (though if it’s close, that can be very frustrating and may lead the less experienced among us to cry & whine (“if I only did this or that…”). But at least we have a tangible token of all the sweat, emotion, and pre-race mental and physical energy to take home. Finally, if we rowed the same race two consecutive years, and we did well the first year, then we enter the second race with huge expectations, and if these are not met, there is further and deeper disappointment.
All of which is a deliberate setup for my race at the 2009 Silverskiff in Torino, Italy, which was held this morning. Looking at the raw results, it’s not so bad in absolute terms. I’m 49 in the “C” age group, (ages 43 to 49). Pretty tough situation – athletes in their early 40s can still bring it, big time. I came in 4th out of the 40 guys who raced in this age group today, missing a bronze medal (and podium opportunity) by 23 seconds to a new guy, Jan Berglund, from Sweden, and a minute off of Claudio Ceccone from Italy, who got the silver. My Charles River buddy, Greg Benning, won again for the third consecutive year, thus earning the prestigious “Silverskiff” trophy – a silver and mahogany model of a single scull. Of all the men’s masters – all men age 27 and older – I came in 16th out of 178. And of everyone in the race, I was 81st out of 460.
So why, you ask, would I lament what appears to be a respectable result? Well my ignorant friends, it’s like this: as in life, everything in rowing is relative. If you have a nice house in the ‘burbs, and you’re out washing your year-old BMW in your driveway, feeling pretty damn good about yourself, and your neighbor drives up in his brand new Porsche Carrera GT, well, there’s a good chance you might feel a tinge less-than for at least a few minutes. There are always people in this world who are better and worse off than we are, but we still compare anyway. Athletic competition takes this many levels further. You don’t just compare, you analyze with a microscope from 150 different angles.
So in my post-race mode, I knew that I had had a great run up to the turn – the first 5.5k of the race. I was ahead of two Italians – a guy in his 30s, and an under-23 guy who was faster than both of us. The U-23 guy was moving, but I was holding my own against the other one, who moved within a length of open water on me, but I pulled away to about 4 lengths of open water. The U-23 guy behind him caught and passed him. But at least I kept the one at bay. I was thinking, rather smugly (while huffing and puffing my guts out), that if he knew I was 49, he probably wouldn’t be too happy. That was a pretty happy thought for me. I stayed very close to shore, as is the proper method in this race, to avoid the strong current. I lengthened; I focused on relaxing; I took the rating up at times; I did several “technique 10s” to focus on my not-so-great finish; and it all helped.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum – I mean, stake turn. I sort of panicked. I had never been confident in practice on this turn. I tried it a few ways, slowing down a lot and trying to crank it; slowing down not as much and trying a wider arc, and a hybrid of both. Honestly, I did not have a strategy for this turn. What I ended up doing was making a wide arc, which took way too much time, and I watched as the 30s guy behind me almost stopped right at the stake, make a quick U-turn, and then did a start, pulling way ahead of me. I knew he was probably going to pass me anyway, but I was not happy I lost so much on him.
I got back into the middle of the river and the current was nasty. I also noticed a pretty strong headwind, which was cold and bitter. Furthermore, other dudes were now coming up on me. Finally, I was tired. I might have overdone it on the way up. Or maybe I’m old. Or maybe I rowed too much this week and should have taken a few days off – or at least yesterday. Whatever the reason, the trip home was pretty tough. I had a few run-ins with the buoy lines that are around each turn in the river. These are not buoys you want to mess with. They are big, made of hard plastic, and are tethered by a strong taut wire. If you get tangled up in them, you’re in trouble. As Steve Tucker said last year, “There aren’t any buoy violations in this race because getting caught up in the buoys is punishment enough.” I didn’t get tangled, but I got too close a few times, causing me to slow down and alter my course, and costing me precious seconds. Nevertheless, despite feeling a lot of pain in my legs and glutes, I hung in there until the end, and actually felt not-so-horrible after the race – like I had given it my all. But I suspected I might not finish as well as last year. I then hoped and prayed that others in my age group also suffered similar problems – made mistakes, didn’t train enough, flipped, or crashed into other boats, debris, or perhaps a bridge abutment? Being competitive can do horrible things to the compassionate side of human nature.
I wrestled my boat off the dock and lugged it up the ramp to the slings in the parking lot. Someone asked if I wanted help and I was too much in a hurry and was too cold, wet, tired, and – in the back of my mind – disappointed. I knew I did not have my best race, and that’s a really crappy feeling. Last year, on a gorgeous sunny, warm day, Greg Benning came running down the ramp and said, “You’re in second so far!” That was a nice greeting. He then helped me with my boat. Oh well. That was last year.
I went up to the gym where Pete, Greg Benning, and others were changing and showering. I spoke to Mahe Drysdale, who won the past three years in a row, about his race – curious what the Greatest Single Sculler in the World might have to say about the course, conditions, and his experience. He was very pleasant – I had introduced myself at the hotel two nights before, so at least he recognized me – and said he was amazed by how much the wind affected him on the way back. He said he was hoping for another course record (he has a few already) and realized, in the wind, that he might not get it. He still came in first, of course, by a solid margin of 38 seconds. It was fun talking to him…he could not have been nicer. I de-briefed with Greg and Pete, but I was on a mission – get my stuff, get in my car, and get to my hotel (and hot bath) as fast as possible. All of which I did, and never has a bath felt so good.
But then…it happened. After dressing, I started looking at the results on my laptop, which were streamed on the web site in real time. And of course, I compared to last year. No matter how many times a coach tells you that the past means nothing – it’s all about, “What have you done for me lately!?” – it is our nature to compare. I saw that in the preliminary online results, I was 81st overall. That hurt, after being 53rd last year. But I was in 2nd place in the Masters C category, so a medal was still possible. I drove back to the boathouse for lunch feeling hopeful, but with a small black cloud over my head.
In the Club Cerea dining room, I sat next to Greg Benning, who was sitting next to Mahe and his girlfriend. We looked at the results online as they streamed in. Greg told me that Claudio had taken 2nd, so far, but that I was still in line for a bronze (and a podium). But after lunch, and after all the results were in, I studied the results, which were streaming across fairly quickly, so I had to really look carefully for the “MMC” (Men’s Masters C) next to each name. And then I saw Jan Bergland, who had started waaayyyy back, with bow number 433. He had edged me out for the bronze. I had this sick feeling in my stomach and let out a somewhat muted “shit” or “damn” or something. I looked at the screen in disbelief. I believe this is the DENIAL stage of grief. It’s not that I couldn’t believe it – I didn’t want to believe it. I definitely could believe it. But as they say, the truth hurts.
Then I started processing my grief. Back and forth, analyzing things in the confused jumbled pain of harsh reality. Don’t get me wrong – I have had real pain. As past blog readers know, in 2007, I lost a brother to sudden death, my father to a battle with emphysema, and my marriage of 15 years – all in one year. I know what real pain is. That kind of pain takes many many years to process. This kind of pain is sharp and deep, but it’s short-lived. You move fairly quickly through the stages. After denial, I moved very quickly to ANGER. My tantrum, my sickening feeling, my desire to get the hell out of there, and my complete loss of interest in buying all the “Silverskiff 2009” clothing and trinkets to bring home – either as presents or for myself. Ok, I bought one t-shirt for 14 euros. But I was pissed off and had no desire to talk to anyone or be happy about anything. The whole world could just go to f-ing hell, as far as I was concerned.
Amazingly, however, a few brief conversations with other rowers who had similar problems helped ease this phase, and within 10-15 minutes of “post-row discussion therapy” I moved quickly to BARGAINING. Which in rowing is also known as MAKING EXCUSES. “Well let’s see…I was 100 seconds behind Greg last year, and I was 100 seconds behind him this year. So really, I’m not that much slower, on a relative basis. Those other two bastards just snuck in there!” And “I was the 6th best master last year but 16th this year – but there were a lot of new entrants this year….” “I overtrained – should have rested up more.” “I hated my boat this year – it was slow, clunky, and would not set up properly (all true)” – my boat last year was MUCH better…” I can tell you, I heard that last excuse from several people I talked to.
But the cold, hard reality was still setting in, leading to the fourth stage – DEPRESSION. I was 2nd last year, proudly showing my wonderful silver medal to all the world. Or at least the handful of friends who cared. I was 6th last year out of 178 masters. Wow. I must be super-human. Or just super, in general. I am truly one super guy. This year…16th. UGH. I am old, weak, and pathetic. It won’t be long before I can’t walk anymore, let alone row. And the worst of all: I was 53rd last year, out of 471. Wow. Including all the national teamers, youngsters – everyone. God, I’m awesome. I mean, I really am incredible. I am one awesome dude. Look at me – I rock!! This year…………sigh. I dropped to 81 out of 460. Good Lord. Worst on an absolute AND percentage basis. I suck. I really suck. And my sucking is trending in the wrong, sucky direction – not the good direction. I guess I just don’t have it anymore. I used to have it. But “used to” is about as good as your kid saying “Well I got an A last year.” Yeah but you got a C- this year. Maybe you should stop smoking dope, skipping class and hanging out at Cumberland Farms all day! (Fortunately this does not apply to my two Perfect Children.)
According to the Kubler-Ross model, from which I am borrowing, “It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.” Yup – you shrinks got THAT right. Don’t talk to me, don’t come near me, and definitely don’t be happy about YOUR results around me!!
Amazingly, for me anyway, I tend to zip through these stages pretty quickly. ‘Twasn’t always so, however. I burned over a 2nd place in the Head of the Charles in 2001 for months – which, looking back, is ridiculous. I burned over 2nd in Canadian Henley in 2004 for…much longer than I should have. But that’s all part of it. I have made some progress over the years, and within a few hours I had moved to the next stage of ACCEPTANCE. Now, in Kubler-Ross (via Wikipedia), these five stages are designed for people with cancer who know they are going to die. So it’s just a teeny bit different than the whiny rower thing. Which is why I created a sixth stage for the competitive rower, known as PERSPECTIVE. This is the all-important stage, I believe, that should permeate the entire process. So after going through this process for some time, I now try (emphasis on “try”) to get the perspective thing going as soon as possible. It’s a little tough during the “anger” (or, if you will, “internal temper tantrum, boiling-blood” stage), or the “depression” stage (“awww, poor me…poor little ol’ me…woe is me…sighhh). But with a lot of training, and some good racing buddies around, of which I had many today, it is possible, fairly quickly, to get past it and say, hey, I really AM lucky to just be out there. Rowers, as a group, are well educated, generally affluent (or affluent enough), and are able to participate in this amazingly wonderful sport, which, unfortunately, and despite many good efforts and intentions, remains pretty exclusive. There are huge parts of the world, the U.S., and even Boston, where I am from, that simply do not have access to this sport for one reason or another. There are people who are sick and dying. There is sadness beyond belief all around. It doesn’t take much to be grateful. Do I have food, clothing, and shelter? Yes. And I’m also in Italy rowing. Life isn’t so bad after all.
So for those of us here in Turin, we get to come to Italy – a truly beautiful country, physically, culturally, and gastronomically – and enjoy the scenery, the people, each other, and this incredibly fun and exciting race, which brings us together with the true masters of the sport – the many Olympians and National Teamers from all over the world. We get to paddle upstream early in the morning and see the snow-capped Alps in the distance. We get espresso in the parking lot where we rig our boats. We get a company like Filippi that graciously and patiently provides us with brand-new racing shells. FOR FREE. Honestly, there’s nothing like it.
So, having come full circle, I know that I will go to bed tonight happy, content, and with everything in its proper perspective. As my friend Igor says, “John, it’s only carbon fiber.”
But for those of you out there who believe, as Lombardi did, that winning isn’t everything – it’s the ONLY thing, and perhaps may think that I’ve gone soft, I leave you with these words. There’s only one guy in the Masters D category (which I’ll be in next year) who would have beaten me, had I been in that group this year: one Jurg Schneider from Lucerne, Switzerland. Well Jurg, I will be BACK next year. Oh yes, I will be back. And I will be better.