King Of The Desert
At the end of my first season as a pro, running out of shekels (despite some cash flow from delivering pizzas in the evening), and wondering what the future held, we traveled to an exciting new race in Palm Springs, CA called the Desert Princess Run-Bike-Run World Championship Series. The race was touted as a showdown between the world’s #1 ranked triathlete, Scott Molina, and the world’s #1 ranked duathlete (run-bike-run specialist), Kenny Souza. It was so exciting to be in the same field as these two superstars! The race was surprisingly difficult, with the desert heat and brisk winds, and the unusually long distances of 10k run-62k bike-10k run. Again focused on personal peak performance, I kept a steady pace and let the marquee athletes and over-excited challengers leave me behind right out of the gate. I was 24th out of 27 pros after the first 10k run. By the end of the 38-mile bike ride, I’d (unknowingly) passed everyone on the course. Running “like I stole something” for the final 10k, I broke a tape on the pro circuit for the first time. At the finish, I was approached by media members asking two questions: “What’s your name?”; and, “Did you complete the whole course?!”
Six weeks later there was a rematch race on the same course in the desert. With a target on my back this time, I prevailed by the ridiculous margin of five minutes, chronicled in a magazine article titled, “King of the Desert.” These rookie year victories legitimized my efforts to become a professional athlete, and teed me up for a 9-year odyssey on the global triathlon circuit. Alas, the blissful disposition and pure motivation that facilitated my success in the desert was often swallowed up by the measuring, judging forces of the modern world, and also the realities of professional athletics as a business and the athlete as a brand (although we never said that word back then, geez.) The allure of fixating on results would cause me to become influenced by pressure, ego demands, impatience, or greed. Instead of taking what my body gave me each day and being satisfied, I would force the issue and overtrain. This would lead me to breakdown, burnout, illness, and injury. Then, through the painful and raw self-reflection that defeat forces upon you, I would eventually reconnect with my source of power and contentment: I was a young person (freed from the prison of the high rise!) pursuing a dream, challenging my body every day to improve in three sports, and traveling all over the world to compete with the best. I’d take a break from heavy training and enjoy a vacation, then eventually “get up off the mat” (like my friend Johnny G says), get back into the groove and turn things around with some good results.
At my peak in 1991, I was two-time US national champion and ended the season ranked #3 in the world. When the hard work starts to pay off and you get into a good rhythm as an athlete, things feel easy. I remember after several of my best victories feeling like I had barely exerted myself, and wondering why main competitors weren’t able to keep pace on the steep hills of the bike course. Alas, the experience of being in the zone is fleeting. After a binge of 45 races, including 15 victories, a seven-race win streak, and 80,000 miles on Pan-Am airlines over my two best years of ’90-’91, I was cooked. I had to sleep 12 hours every night and take it easy over the entire winter. Well, that feeling of deep exhaustion never quite cleared when I returned to training, travel and competition. This was a clear signal that the end of days on the circuit were fast approaching.
Re-immersion into real life was challenging (read my reflections in this article, “How To Retire At 30“), but I carried with me valuable character lessons learned through pushing my physical limits, overcoming my fears, and striving to accept both victory and defeat gracefully. I have a maxim that sums up the most valuable attributes that I learned in the most intense and dramatic of competitive arenas that is athletics. It applies to all other peak performance goals I’ve pursued in life, such as parenting and career goals: Get Over Yourself—hence the title of my podcast. This describes cultivating a pure motivation for peak performance goals, releasing the attachment of your self-esteem to the outcome, and thereby unleashing a healthy competitive intensity to be the best you can be. The late Sir Roger Bannister of Great Britain, the first human to break four minutes in the mile back in 1954, put it this way in one of the great sports quotes ever (up there with Mike Tyson stuff). “The essence of sport is that while you’re doing it, nothing else matters, but after you stop, there is a place, generally not very important, where you would put it.” I think you replace the word “sport” and fill in the blank with whatever challenge you are facing.