It’s the racing season and, inevitably among the race reports written by friends, there are a few disappointments among the successes, the days that didn’t quite go as planned. One friend aimed higher than most: achieving a Boston Marathon qualifying time, a goal he has pursued, always with meticulous planning and preparation, for more than a few years now. He is an excellent marathoner, a diligent trainer, and an intelligent planner. This year he finished just over 60 seconds away from the time he needed to qualify for Boston – faster than previously, a wonderful finish of 3:26 and a well-executed race with pretty consistent mile splits most of the way, but still agonizingly short of his dream.
In the immediate post-race disappointment, during which he actually apologized to us for not qualifying for Boston, it was easy – for him and for some others – to overlook the outstanding achievement of having finished a marathon in three hours and 26 minutes. That’s something only a small percentage of the world’s marathoning population have achieved. And yet, it wasn’t what he wanted, and it wasn’t what we wanted for him. All of us wanted more.
Now he is trying to decide (how seriously I’m not sure) whether to run another marathon three weeks from now and try to qualify again. I am sure this has been done, but for most people it’s not the greatest idea on several levels – especially the need for both the body and mind to heal from such an intense effort, and the potential psychological damage for potential future attempts should a second quick attempt not work out.
But I raced for many years, and I understand there’s a voice that’s almost impossible to ignore and nearly as impossible to hold at bay: our egos. When we don’t get what we want, especially if we worked hard for it, our pride is wounded. And the ego, that nagging voice inside, starts its whispering: I didn’t get it, and it hurts, and I don’t like hurting, and I need to do something to stop hurting as quick as I can. In this case, rushing to another marathon starting line seems like the only way to get the voice to shut up.
And yet, you can never really shut it up, because that same voice whispers and whines in many languages: our sons and daughters make life decisions that bemuse and dismay us, our favorite store is out of a particular color in a men’s dress shirt, we can’t get the work promotion we wanted, the last of our favorite beers has disappeared from the refrigerator. Every day, our desires are thwarted and frustrated on a hundred levels, and that voice tunes up again and again. Learning how to respond to it, or not respond to it, is the primary work of Buddhism, and of being human.
Those times when our races don’t work out as planned, all of that emptiness and disappointment suddenly looming in front of us, is when we are often at our most vulnerable. That’s when you should listen especially carefully to that whispering within. Whatever you whisper back, make sure it’s your own voice, and not just the pale echo of your ego.