Not Medal Worthy

I was recently scrolling through my Facebook feed when a totally unexpected photo flashed up on my screen — and flashed me back to a time worlds apart from today.

Taken 35-plus years ago, the photo is a standard group shot of a Little League baseball team. Now, stumbling upon an old team photo would probably make a lot of people who played sports in their younger days feel nostalgic. But for me, it sparked an entirely different reaction. I was so taken aback by the raw truthfulness reflected on my young face that I returned to the picture again and again.

It’s almost eerie how this photo, which I don’t ever recall seeing before, captures the most honest expression of how I felt about every aspect of my life back then (that’s a story for another day). Though I’d normally put up a happy front by laughing and clowning around, my mask slipped in this one instance. Take a moment to look at the photo below. I mean, really look at it. I’m standing at the end of the back row. What do you notice about me? I notice just how miserable I was. I’m the only teammate not wearing a hat and not even attempting to smile. Even the sunlight shining down on me couldn’t chase the clouds of self-doubt away. It is such a telling portrayal of my past perspective on sports — not just as a player on that particular team, but as a participant in any kind of athletics.

Flash forward to today and times have certainly changed. One of my favorite activities is running: 5k’s, 10k’s, half and full marathons… heck, I’m even signed up for a 45-mile race. And while I’ve been running as many of these races as I can for several years now, it has eluded me for some time as to the exact reason why I love participating in them so much. After all, I’m not a particularly fast runner — average, at best. And what may come as even more of a shocker is that I don’t actually like the act of running. I’m not really built for it, either, given that I’m 6’8” tall, 250 pounds and 45 years old. I also have a lung disease that limits the amount of air my body can take in during a run. So why is it that I have such a burning desire to race?

I think the photo below explains a lot of it. This image was snapped of me right after I ran the Chicago Marathon. Compare it to that first photo of my younger self up above. Do you see the difference? I do.

See, in my entire life I’ve never — not even once — been on a championship team. I’ve never felt the thrill of rushing a field or court after that final game. I’ve never helped carry a trophy-wielding teammate off the field. I’ve never won any individual awards like MVP or Most Improved, never been a team captain, nor been chosen first at a pickup game.

I’m not sharing these past events to gain pity or sympathy. No, I’m sharing these events to explain the mindset — my mindset — that set them in motion. I didn’t see myself as a champion or an MVP. I believed deep in my soul that I was unworthy of greatness. It was my truth, and nobody created it for me but me. And I found every reason to support and to live up to this negative self-view. Why practice? Why be a good teammate? For that matter, why even care? In my mind, nothing would make a difference because I was sure I was born “un-great.” I certainly wasn’t born this way, but I had become so broken that I thought I was beyond repair.

As it turns out, there was no quick fix. Though I kept up a lighthearted facade, I was trapped in a marathon of hurt and unhappiness for many years, with no finish line in sight. But everything changed when I was given a second chance with my now-wife. After a failed first date, I was given the opportunity to redeem myself three months later. This redo led to the startling realization that perhaps I was worthy of much more than my relentless self-sabotage.

After more than two decades of working on my self-view and my belief system, I now see myself as a champion. It’s not in a delusional way — I swear I don’t think I’m Rocky. It’s also probably not what most people envision when they hear the word champion. But I feel like I’m my own champion and that mindset carries over to running. Signing up for race after race may have started as a way to claim bragging rights, but it has morphed into something far more valuable: a commitment to be the best version of myself. It’s not even my finishing time in a race that matters to me in the end. In fact, how I place actually matters very little. It’s the 4:30 am training runs, the devotion to working out, the commitment to me.

Napoleon Bonaparte reportedly said, “Men will die for medals.” For many years, I didn’t identify with that line. I get it now, as I would die for the medal I’m awarded when I finish a race. The feeling is indescribable, but suffice it to say that the weight of that medal hanging around my neck serves as a weighty reminder to me. It is a reminder that I am, in fact, worthy of greatness — not just while running, but in every area of my life.

Is your self-view leading you to the life you want? Do you feel medal worthy? Comment on this post and let’s together collaborate on it.

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