The Fun Dome (#9): Falling Down

I ran the mile in high school. I often ran so hard that I wound up hurling my guts up into the grass. This became tiresome, so I came up with strategies to prevent it. If I ran past the finish to a quiet place and collapsed onto my back and remained perfectly still for five minutes, I could avoid seeing my breakfast for the second time.

One time, I was quietly regaining my composure after a mile when a group of girls from my team came over and said, “Come on. Get up. Walk it off. You’ll feel better.”

“No,” I said.

“Come on! Get up!” They all grabbed onto my arms to lift me up.

“Don’t touch me.” They didn’t stop. I knew what was next.

I puked. They scattered. Oh, where’s your empathy now?

My son recently finished a regional junior high championship in 2nd place. He walked up to me in the parking lot, and said, without prompting, “I felt like I was going to die out there, but now I feel fine.”

I told him to remember that. I also said something awful like, “Pain is temporary. Glory is forever.”

There’s been a lot of commentary about how it’s so funny to see the leaders of the Olympic cross country ski and biathlon events collapse at the finish. Funny to people who have never pushed themselves that hard. They find it unusual and comical. I look at it as natural and familiar. These are great athletes who are able to push themselves so hard they are physically unable to stand. I view them as explorers. Adventurers. They do things that, to a couch potato (which means almost all of America), look as fantastic as walking on the moon. Fat ‘Merica can’t fathom V1 up a hill that’s like the pitch of your roof. Fat ‘Merica scoffs the people collapsed at the finish line. I look at it as the by-product of exploring the outer regions of human capability. Their trips into the Pain Cave are like climbing Everest or skiing to the South Pole. They go places few can go. Few have ever seen. But the overweight smoker points at the TV and laughs at the skiers sprawled on the snow.

In the Air National Guard, there’s an annual fitness test. You do situps and pushups and they weigh you and measure your waist. Then you finish with a mile and a half run. Two years ago, at age 45, I had to run a 9:45 for my age group to max out the fitness test. I always felt like I deserved a 100 on the test. I mean, I do marathons and crap. I trained hard that year to beat that time. At one mile in, I could feel the wheels coming off. At fifty yards to the line, I could see the clock and realized I might just make it after all. I gave it everything and crossed the line in 9:44. I Frankenstein-walked across the road past my fellow Guardsmen and started to actively dry-heave.

A chief master sergeant who I barely know came up to me and said, “Come on, let’s walk it off. Put your arms over your head.”

I was pretty cross-eyed and barely conscious so I did what he said like a child doing what he’s told. I’ve never put my “arms over my head” in hundreds of races. Never. I regained my awareness, put my arms down and kept dry-heaving and stumbling along.

The Chief said, “You don’t want the troops to see you like this, sir.”

Now I was pissed. I said, This isn’t my first rodeo. It came out something like, “Nahmufushodeo.” I’m not good at talking after a race, even if it isn’t cold out. I may have frightened him with the incomprehensible words and my now angry face. He bolted as fast as the girls did when I puked in high school. Several minutes later, as advertised, I was a human being again.

I was a lieutenant colonel. A 45 year old.  One of the pilots on base. Allegedly, someone that people pay attention to. See how they act, how they behave. You don’t want the troops to see you like this? Are you kidding me? Almost puking after I just went as fast as I could humanly go was precisely how I wanted the troops to see me. “Look at that old silverback. He just ran 6:30 miles and he’s pushing 50.” Part of that means looking like I’m going to regurgitate some oatmeal after the finish. I want people to see that.

As an aside, leading by example is futile, in my opinion. The only people who notice what you are actively trying to publicly display are those who don’t need an example anyway. If they notice what you did, they are already good people. The people who you were trying to impress aren’t paying attention. Those types usually need a cattle prod, not an example. I can only hope that my kids notice, at least.

I didn’t go to college. I was institutionalized at a place where I got an aeronautical engineering degree. At that place, you get yelled at every day, all day for the first year. They make you memorize everything in this pocket-sized book you have to carry. I should hate every word from that book. But, one of those quotes is my favorite, and relevant to just about everything:

“Be an example to your men, in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered and teach your subordinates to do the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.” –Erwin Rommel

I’ve tried to live up to what this quote says. I hope I was good at the first part. I’m a tremendous failure at the second part of this advice. I have shortcomings to hide. I am grateful that life sometimes seems long so I can improve.

So, when you look at the TV you may ask, “Why are they falling down?” When I look at the TV, I’m more likely to ask, “Why is that dude still standing up?”

Women's Skiathlon carnage.

Women’s Skiathlon carnage.

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