On an October morning in 1985, a man named Steve Jones did something incredibly brave or remarkably stupid. He blasted through the halfway point of the Chicago Marathon all alone in 1:01:42, minutes ahead of the world-class field, light years ahead of world record pace. Jones basically ensured that his final miles would be inexplicably painful, intentionally putting himself through hell as he gritted through the final 10k and won the race in 2:07:13, missing the world record by one second. The nickname “The King of Pain” landed on Jones and stuck.
Ironic, isn’t it, that Reebok, the sponsor Steve Jones and I share, chose as its slogan Live with Fire. There is no other option, no other path to greatness in this sport.
For centuries, Buddhist monks have gathered for hiwatari-shiki, a purifying religious rite that revolves around a fiery alter. Once the flames die down and only red coals remain, the monks walk back and forth barefoot across the embers chanting prayers for good health and fortune.
In the Old Testament of the Bible, three young men chose to walk into a raging furnace rather than renounce their faith and were rewarded with immunity from the flames and an encounter with the son of God inside the inferno.
In Greek Mythology, the Phoenix, an immortal bird endured a fiery death every millennium only to reemerge from the ashes reborn, fierce and lovely, spreading its sunlit wings and rising once again into the heavens.
Choosing to stand in the flames is a beautiful kind of pain. Fire heals and it kills. It rejuvenates soil and purifies gold.
At the starting line of the Olympic Trials this February, hundreds of souls willing to leap headfirst into the furnace will spill out across 26 miles of hopeful agony, because out of the ashes of the Olympic Trials no phoenixes will rise, but three athletes will.
I don’t know much about the science behind what makes one human being genetically faster than another but I do know that no champion was ever born. It takes more than talent and it takes more than hard work. Champions refuse to bow before pain. I don’t know about you, but I want that. I want to grab a race by the horns and laugh at the pain that tries to slow me down. I want to straddle the line between bravery and stupidity.
I’ve run 140 miles per week. I’ve ripped my body apart during intervals. I’ve broken down and rebuilt a hundred times, but I’m not a good racer. I’ve been more invested in running fast times than in beating people and it’s time that I changed that. THAT is my resolution as I head toward the trials, to not only live with fire and train with fire, but to race with fire.
“The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire”