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Out There: Backing Off a Bit

Columnist Susan Lacke shares how an “interesting” accessory cured a racing slump.

“You’re not really going to wear that during the marathon, are you?”

Neil gasped at me, visibly hurt. “What’s wrong with this? It’s a nice hat.”

“It has wings, babe.”

I’ve been running interference on Neil’s fashion sense for years. He’s emerged from our closet wearing a multitude of endearing/embarrassing ensembles: socks indented at the big toe by flip-flops, running shoes for “business casual” functions, tech tees tucked in to khakis for wedding rehearsals. I once had to explain to Neil why, though his rationale of “it’s a black shirt!” was solid, an Oakland Raiders polo was not appropriate funeral attire. If I die before him, a trusted friend has been designated to dress him before he attends my wake in an Ironman finisher shirt.

But his latest wardrobe acquisition was beyond comprehension: a bright red cap flanked by two giant, puffy wings that fluttered with every step. This, Neil decided upon laying eyes on the monstrosity, would be the official headgear for his race the following day.

“Wings!” he giggled as he plopped down his Visa card at the checkout. “This is the best hat ever!”

I could only shake my head and laugh. Despite my initial shock, this was one style selection I could approve.

You see, over the last few years, Neil’s perspective on racing has changed. When we first met, he was an ambitious athlete with a laser focus on his goals. If a race went well, his inflated invincibility would lead to new, harder goals of PRs and podium spots; if it went poorly, he’d declare a failure on his part and throw himself into the process of correcting his weaknesses before the next race.

One can only maintain that level of intensity for so long. The more he obsessed, the more he struggled. He became tired and grumpy. He’d throw time and money at solutions in hopes one would lead to the breakthrough race he so desperately wanted. If I suggested he pick a fun race for a change, he’d snap angrily:

“I AM having fun!” he’d growl.

As you can probably imagine, he was a freaking delight to be around.

Neil eventually became disgruntled and disenchanted with competition. One day after yet another lackluster race, he sat down on the grass outside the finisher’s chute and sighed dejectedly:

“I have officially run out of shits to give.”

To some, that declaration would be seen as waving the white flag of surrender. In a way, it was—Neil had finally realized something that had once brought him joy and satisfaction had become a burden. Caring too much had fizzled out to not caring at all.

It was this very sense of apathy that led to the red hat with wings. Everything leading up to his next race was approached with flippancy, from his piecemeal training schedule to his cheesecake-centric nutrition plan. He went into his race that morning with a shrug and a floppy-winged hat.

At mile 3 of his run, I spotted him (with that hat, how could I not?) coming down the street.

“Feeling good!” he yelled.

At mile 10, he gave me a thumbs up. As he disappeared into the distance, someone in the crowd yelled out “Nice hat, bro!” and he waved with pride.

At mile 18, he laughed: “Races are really fun when you don’t give a shit!”

Out of habit, I spent the next eight miles waiting for the wheels to fall off. They never did. For the first time in several years, Neil crossed a finish line with a genuine smile on his face.

His time wasn’t a PR. He didn’t secure a podium spot. And he simply didn’t care. The real victory was in remembering the primary rule of race day: it’s supposed to be fun.

“That was a good day,” he said as he leaned in for a celebratory kiss at the finish line. I tapped the brim of his ridiculous hat and laughed.

A volunteer came by to wrap a mylar blanket around Neil’s shoulders. As he escorted escort Neil to the post-race buffet, he chuckled and pointed at the hat.

“So did the wings help?”

Neil smiled. “You know, I actually think they did.”

****

About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.