Ideacity is a three-day bonanza of new ideas held every June in Toronto. Host Moses Znaimer brings in some of the world’s best and brightest (and quirkiest) minds to create a sort of playschool for grownups.
One session about extreme athletes grabbed me – not because I am one but because I’m of an age when you not only want to get all the help you can about staying fit, you have to! I figure if it works for these all-stars, maybe some of their gold dust can fall onto us.
I was drawn to hear two of them, Rasmus Ankersen, a long-distance runner and author of The Gold Mine Effect, and Jean-Guy Sauriol, the novice rower who marked his 60th birthday by rowing solo across the Atlantic Ocean from England to Bermuda.
Rasmus Ankersen makes his living as a speaker and a high-performance trainer of both athletes and executives. He became intrigued by the sheer numbers of high-performance long-distance runners from the village of Eldoret in the Rift Valley of Kenya. It seems this tiny area generates an inordinate number of very fast runners, both men and women. One of his statistics was a ringer for this.
“America,” he said, “in the past 10 years has produced 17 sub two-hour, 20-minute marathon finishers. Kenya has produced 32 in the last year alone. ”
When Ankerson travelled to the village to see for himself what produced the magic, he was impressed with two things. Not only could he see that everyone ran everywhere, he could hear their footsteps and their passion. Running became a part of them, not something they had to sign up for.
Secondly, Ankersen observed in talking with the legendary coach Colm O’Connor that an outsider could often provide extraordinary insights into what worked and what didn’t. The same was true when he travelled to Jamaica to see how a virtual non-runner, Stephen Francis, trained their elite speed runners including Usain Bolt. His most valuable asset – a seedy, barely maintained grassy track.
“Too much convenience – no real improvement” was his comment when asked why the facilities didn’t match the stellar reputation of the club’s progenies. Both these coaches, looking from outside-in saw in those youngsters some elemental fire, some extraordinary desire waiting to be tapped.
The essential ingredient for excellence even if you have oodles of talent is that you have to believe with your whole being that you can accomplish your goal.
This is also true for another speaker Jean-Guy Sauriol. As an actuary approaching 60, he did his own self-assessment. Unfazed by having no experience in rowing, he took on the challenge of self-propelling a rowboat thousands of kilometres across the Atlantic.
True, it was a self-righting rig, which he capsized three times and, true, he wasn’t out of contact totally with home base but he was out there rowing in circles against the tides for seven weeks until he “got it” and, conserving his energy, made a beeline for Barbados from mid-ocean.
So why was this heartening news for me?
Well, I have had some experience in getting out of the way of passion and even more in getting with the program.
Years ago, my husband and I trained hundreds of women – we called them JeansMarines to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. Much of the same grit and toughness of these elite athletes rang true for them as well.
Most had never run around the block, let alone 42k. All had huge doubts. But they had passion galore to accomplish their mighty challenge. And they got on the bus – adapting to a simple program of “Just do it” in increasing increments of endurance, fortitude and strength. A big part of what helped them cross the finish line “upright and smiling” was buddy-ing up, being able to count on help and encouragement when the going got tough – and believe me, it did.
What did having a goal provide these women?
They sure weren’t doing it for fame or being the best (they were far from it).
They did it for themselves and for each other. At first, many of the JeansMarines didn’t own not having a purpose.
For many of them, life was too full, not too empty.
But they did need to do something for themselves – a challenge of their physical capacity – after years of sliding into domesticity, caregiving, work. In other words, “other-care” as opposed to “self-care.” They were out of shape, out of confidence.
But nine months of training gave that all back to them as they approached the start line of the fall marathon. They wouldn’t be the world’s elites but they sure felt better than at almost any time of their lives.
And that provides the last element of the “gold dust” shaker, so evident that it was never referred to but it underscored every story told.
Simply felt, it was pride. Not in doing it in the top tier but in doing it at all. Our women brimmed with pride; they wore their medals home, going through immigration at the airport, the next day at work. Puffed with pride, they owned it as a rare feeling in themselves and overflowed with it for their teammates and friends.
That feeling had taken them through long months of gruelling training, injury and the tenacity of accomplishing each step of the program – each race, each training run that got longer and longer. And it continued to take them outside – and keep many of them there for years after.
So, what did I learn?
One of the oldest lessons of all that doesn’t dim as you get old.
Setting any goal – be it running or stopping smoking or learning how to play the oboe – can and will fire the embers of your own passion, no matter what your age.
Because the pride in realizing even the small dreams doesn’t fade with time.