Wednesday, October 04, 2006

It's Not About Winning - It's About Trying

I lifted this post from a report I received from Ryan Levinson, a truly incredible athlete who competes at the top level of his sport despite being challenged by a form of Muscular Dystrophy known as FSHD or "Facio-Scapular Humeral Dystrophy." Ryan inspires me. I hope he inspires you, too.

Thanks for stopping by!

James P.


Late Season Results:
New York City Triathlon (USAT PC National Championships)- 2nd
Solana Beach Triathlon- 1st
Nautica Malibu Triathlon- 2nd
Xterra Tahoe US Championships- 1st

Late Season Media:
Max Sports and Fitness Magazine- 1/2 page article with 3 photos (including contents page and a full page spread).

KUSI Television- Athlete profile. (It ran during evening, prime time, and morning newscasts over labor day weekend).

KUSI Television- “San Diego People”, interview (ran on Sunday morning).

Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon- Co-hosted and was interviewed.

The blood on my shoulder and legs had dried, there wasn’t really that much, and most of the mud had fallen off my body as I approached the log crossing in the final mile of the Xterra USA Championship. To win now all I had to do was finish, but I was nearly an hour past when I had estimated I would finish and I was in survival mode…

We started the swim with the pros and regional champions. The water was clear and cold. It was a unique experience to be swimming with a helicopter hovering overhead and SCUBA divers filming from below. Within the first ten minutes I realized I had way misjudged the impact of the altitude. Some people were panicking because it was so difficult to breath. A few people were pulled out for hypothermia, but my Zootsuit and neoprene cap kept me warm. By the second lap of the swim I could feel my face again and exited the water with a near PR for the distance.

The bike was harder than I anticipated. I reached the 8700’ summit, after two hours, three stream crossings, and 2000’ vertical feet of climbing on sandy switchbacks. The only real break from the climbing was a surreal four-mile section of singletrack called the Flume trail. Imagine a sheer rock cliff rising on your left (sometimes curving over your head), three feet of trail, and a hundred foot drop on you right. There were rescue people standing around with climbing gear ready to help people who flew off the cliff. Framing it all was an incredible view of lake Tahoe, now a thousand feet below.

By the time I reached the summit my pre-race nutrition and pace strategies were out the window. I had estimated about two and a half hours for the ride and was already at two hours ten minutes. My first crash was about 10 minutes later during the descent on a technical boulder strewn section of trail. I had just passed a woman lying semi-conscious near the trail, with medics working to stabilize her, when I had to lay my bike down to avoid slamming into a large boulder.

After the crash I looked at that section and could not figure out how the heck people rode through. A guy sitting off-trail next to a broken bike asked if I was ok. That’s what is unique about Xterra -- loosing focus during a road triathlon will make you slow, during an Xterra it can make you bleed. My Specialized Epic is a dream machine and helped saved my ass on that descent.

By the time I started the run my life consisted of pain, forcing down gels, and focusing on avoiding injuries. I had been here before, Xterra Temecula kicked my ass too, but this time I had to finish for more than personal satisfaction. If I failed, there would be no challenged athlete on the podium to represent the challenged division in the first year Xterra included the division. When I crossed that final log during the run I was overwhelmed with emotion. I was going to be the 2006 Xterra US Champion for my division, but that was only a small piece of the puzzle.

For me, over the past five years, competition has evolved to be more about the process than the result. Of course the final result is important, but this season I’ve learned, through some measure of desperate pain and tearful exhilaration, that there is no lasting fulfillment solely from standing on a podium, be it at a local race or a world championship. The search for meaning in triathlon is a much deeper pursuit, yet it all boils down to striving to swim, bike, and run to the limits of your ability.

So why compete? Besides social benefits, the value of competition comes from providing a standard by which to measure your athletic success. Sure there is satisfaction in placing in the top three and discovering that you are better than your peers, but that pales in comparison to the satisfaction that comes from realizing, regardless of your place, you have improved as an athlete. Placing mid-field after the race of your life can be more deeply rewarding than finishing first after a sub-maximal effort.

But if the primary reward from triathlon comes from improving yourself as an athlete, why not just time yourself, download your powermeter, record your heart rates and pursue life as a robot striving for faster programming? Computers and stopwatches can help measure athletic ability, but finishing higher in your division, from one year to the next can be a more meaningful measure of improvement than simply seeing faster times on a screen.

This is why divisions in the sport of triathlon are so valuable. Divisions allow you to be measured against your peers. It is more meaningful to determine athletic progress relative to peers rather than a stopwatch. There is no doubt that the very essence and value of competition is the ability it provides you to measure yourself against others, but more importantly, against yourself.

But what if you have no peers? What if you are young, but like an aging athlete, you have reached a threshold where your times will almost certainly decrease regardless of effort? If satisfaction in competition stems from the ability to measure yourself against your peers, can there still be satisfaction in competing if you are the only one in your division?

The answer is yes, but you have to embrace the fact that at times you will be racing with lonely desperation so that in the future people like you will have a division of peers, or at least a relevant standard, to measure themselves against. Because of the efforts of challenged athletes before me, the New York City Triathlon this year hosted more physically challenged athletes than pros.

At New York, after a disgusting swim in the Hudson and a PR on the bike, I started the run with a comfortable lead over my friend and fellow USAT PC National Team member, David Kyle, a man I beat at the World Championships last year by about two minutes. The race was mine to loose and I ran conservatively figuring there was no way David would catch me. But he did, with one mile to go, and we ran side by side until about 200 meters to go. David kicked, but I matched it and we went into the twisting finish shoot like two crit riders fighting for the final sprint. He kicked again but this time I couldn’t match. I jogged the final stretch and watched David win by a few seconds.

I came home with a sick feeling in my stomach. Only later did I realize that it was largely because I had lost focus about why I race. I had begun racing more for place than performance. When I thought I had New York won I pulled back. When David caught, and then dropped, me in the final 100 meters, I realized I was not going to win and I jogged in rather than continuing at max effort. Despite posting an Olympic distance PR, and placing second at USAT Nationals, I had essentially quit.

Then two more pivotal things happened. First, I began another stage of relatively rapid muscle loss (my disease tends to progress in stages), but this time I was loosing key cycling muscles. It is increasingly more difficult to hit target wattages during low cadence force-related efforts. Second, I tried out for San Diego City lifeguards, but despite two attempts I was not fast enough. Working as a first responder can be incredibly rewarding, and I enjoy working as an EMT, but my heart is in the water and serving as a lifeguard has been a long time goal.

These two events were significant because they represent the first time in a few years that, despite my efforts, my physical ability took a big hit. I was like the aging athlete posting slower times despite increased fitness. This realization, combined with my experience at New York, threw me into my lowest point of my season.

But then, thanks largely to feedback from my coach Kevin Purcell, I decided to approach racing from the perspective that what matters most is ensuring that I finish each race having given maximum effort, leaving everything on the course. Kevin’s mantra during races is, “what are you saving it for?” I used to tell Kevin I was going to crush skulls, but he helped me realize that to find satisfaction in racing, the main skull I need to crush is my own.

With this in mind I entered the Solana Beach triathlon and blazed to a PR in the swim (per hundred meters) and a season PR for the run (per mile). I won the division, but more importantly I pushed harder, longer, and with more conviction than ever. It felt good. I wanted more, and got it a month later at the Nautica Malibu Triathlon.

The Malibu Triathlon was the final event on the USAT PC National Team’s schedule. This was going to be my first chance to race against David Kyle, current national champion, since New York. I had been sick in the weeks leading up to the race, but entered the race with the calm confidence that comes from knowing that during the race pain will kick your ass but you’re going to give it the fight of its life.

I had an ok swim and finished near the front of the PC field. After a good transition, I rode solid and steady, did not blow any minds, but made up for weak climbing with a bonsai approach to the twisting sections and with an aero advantage on the downhills. By T2 I was in first with just over a minute on David. Regardless of my final place I was determined to run harder than ever before. By the halfway point David had not caught me and I was on a PR pace.

The pain was good, a familiar place you only briefly visit but never forget. I pushed harder, increased my pace, one mile to go, still not caught, was at my limit but holding the effort, saw the finish, felt a twinge… I might win. Then, with a few hundred meters to go, David caught and passed me. But this time I didn’t hesitate, I kept it nailed, flat out, max effort, crossed the line in second place spent, but satisfied knowing I had given a max effort.

A month later I was again at my limit, running across that final log in Tahoe, overwhelmed because not only had I raced to my potential, but because Xterra had, for the first time, opened a division for challenged athletes and by finishing I was about to ensure that the new division was represented by at least one athlete. I am deeply grateful to the challenged athletes that raced before me in other events so that I may now race with peers, and it is an honor to be a part of that ongoing process. I’m not the first challenged athlete to complete a full Xterra, there are a number of incredible athletes including guys like Willie Stewart, Matt Henderson, and Mike Hicks. I’m just the first to complete an Xterra championship in the new challenged athlete division. Hopefully in future years there will be a stacked field of PC athletes toeing the line.

This is how my season ended and this is why I race.

Special Thanks (in no particular order):

To the athletes who came before me, especially guys like Dan Rock who were a part of the birth of triathlon and who still warmly welcomes countless people into the sport, and guys like Jon Beeson who work tirelessly to ensure that athletes with disabilities will continue to have a place in triathlon.


B&L Bike and Sports for believing in me from the start. Coach Kevin Purcell for keeping me in line and guiding me to new limits. Zoot Sports for the fastest, most comfortable, best looking wetsuits and clothing available. Limar helmets rock. Light, comfortable, fast, if you have not tried one on you are missing out. InfinIT Nutrition- Its funny watching people mix all kinds of concoctions when they can just go to and get it custom made how they like. Vittoria tires, the first tires I raced on in the early 90s and still my favorite. Zipp Weaponry wheels speak for themselves. Nothing faster. Profile Design bars, especially the T2+, love ‘em. Rudy Project Sunglasses are now more versatile than ever with all the new lenses and frames. Challenged Athletes Foundation for advocating for a place where we belong and providing the support for us to get there. USAT for encouraging events to include PC athletes and for providing national team support for those that accept the challenge. Mizuno Shoes- who epitomizes ‘athlete’ more than the Rouses? Mizuno epitomizes the best in running gear. They are a perfect fit (pun intended). Specialized Bicycles continue to blow my mind. How is it possible for one company to make such a diverse line of incredible cycling gear? From their bikes to their shoes to their MTB tires and even gloves, Specialized gear is an integral part of my efforts. Pear Tree Pen Company provided my good luck pen, a Kurt Kinetic Trainer, but more importantly, is owned by another athlete with Muscular Dystrophy who cared enough to contribute to the tribe. West Coast Kiteboarding for continuing the dream and providing web space. And to my friends, family, and the many other people who have shared their love and support, especially Nicole Lippert (soon to be Levinson), she is everything.

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