Perhaps the most over-quoted line in all of Billy Shakespeare’s work is “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them.” But can you name the circumstance in which these words are uttered?
In The Twelfth Night, Malvolio receives a letter from Olivia which eludes to her choice of him as the next duke. “Greatness” in Shakespeare’s time meant something different than it does today. Lineage and ancestry have less and less to do with greatness in our society as most who are considered great achieve it in one form or another.
I mean, sure. If Meb and Deena had a baby, that human is certainly genetically predisposed toward being the next hope for an American medal in the marathon. However, if that child trades trainers for an iPad and miles for muffins becoming a lazy, undisciplined little wretch then all of the super-genes that baby possessed will never see the light of fulfilled potential.
See, in the sport of distance running those who are born great must also work to achieve it and likewise, must not falter or crack when the moment of greatness is thrust upon them. Those who reach the pinnacle, the final plateau of the world’s most respected podiums, must fulfill every single word of Malvolio’s silly pondering. The problem I’ve found is that many runners, regardless of talent or ability, fear greatness far more than failure.
Let me explain. Being out of shape sucks. Returning to training after an injury or a long break is tedious. To attempt your first speed session back rarely feels good and the pace that was once an easy, comfortable marathon rhythm now feels like a daunting task for just a mile or two. But there is also comfort in that. No one expects their first workout or race of the season to be a homerun, and when it isn’t, there is ample explanation why. Peak fitness takes time to come back and requires a big grace period while you slowly chip away at it, letting you hit foul balls and grounders in the meantime with no guilt because you have time. You have plenty of time.
But when that grace period is over and you have rounded the corner and felt the switch flip, when every run suddenly feels bouncy and light, when you blaze through speed workouts with double-takes at your watch and you lay in bed at night listening to the sound of a slowly beating heart sending oxygen-rich blood through muscles that are coiled like springs, your excuses have been chiseled away.
There is nowhere to hide.
The most vulnerable thing you can do as a runner, and perhaps as a person, is to stand on a starting line and admit to yourself that you are in the shape of your life and that if you don’t hit your goal, there is nothing to blame but your own mental weakness. And beyond that, we fear the unknown. We are wary of the first time under the barrier and afraid of the splits on our watch that tell us we are running faster, pushing harder than we ever have before.
It is fitting, then, that the next words that the playwright draws forth from Malvolio’s mouth are:
“Thy fates open their hands. Let thy blood and spirit embrace them.”
There is a reason that after Bannister broke the first four-minute mile, 24 others did too within the next 365 days. It was no longer a barrier. Though we do not break four minutes, we are each chasing a distinctive objective. I know what mine is and you know what yours is and we both know that it will take blood and spirit and pain and hope to get there. When we dare to attempt our improbables we are the pilot for the first time breaking the barrier of sound not knowing whether or not we will withstand it. And if we withstand it, how will it change us? Who will we be when the next door has opened and we have been welcomed onto the step above? We fear not the Gods but becoming the Gods ourselves.
But we must dare. We must try. Eleanor Roosevelt could not have put it better when she said, “We must do the thing we are afraid to do.”
Why? What does it matter? Why can’t I simply spend every single waking hour I have left reclining on a sagging couch, covered in Cheeto dust and balancing a remote on my gut?
Because I owe it to Sarah. Not to me, but 2070 Sarah.
I have seen in the past few months several athletes write letters from their 80-year-old future selves to the current 20-something athlete they are today. I’m not going to do that. I can’t do that. I do not yet have the perspective that 80 years on this planet will bring. I am 27 and I know very little about anything, but I have a simple promise I would like to make to her instead.
I will not waste my youth. I will not let this small window of opportunity pass without sinking my teeth and fingernails into it with every ounce of strength I possess. I will do my utmost make you proud of who you used to be.
This is my pledge to her.
And if I can stay true to that then I can continue to weather this storm. I have not set a personal best in any event in two years, three months and three days. But I will continue to fight as though my best days are ahead of me because I firmly believe that they are. I must decide to believe this and I suggest you do the same.
Whether you are 27 or 67, do not let the fear of greatness be what keeps you from it. And continue to chase your own greatness, whatever it may be.