Tianna’s Race

This blog space is not just about my stories and life lessons. During the course of this blog, I have received or come across many situations in which an athlete or a sports enthusiast has brought out some wonderful life experiences of their own. One such person who I have started to follow recently is Tianna Bartoletta; “TB” as she is referred to.

Please understand that I have never met Tianna. I can only speak from my following her website and researching her public stories. But what she has shared is worthy of reading.

For those who do not follow track and field, TB is a world-class athlete with multiple Olympic Gold medals to her credit. What has impressed me about TB is not her prowess on the track, but rather, her commitment to living a life.   

If you dig into TB’s background, you will see, as I did, that TB’s life has been full of unexpected challenges. Success and accolades on the track as well as soul crushing personal pain off the track. In March of this year, Paul Hayse of the Chronical-Telegram wrote a nice article telling about TB’s recent health issues and how she met the challenge. (See https://chroniclet.com/news/207585/a-long-jump-back-elyrias-tianna-bartoletta-still-working-for-olympic-berth-in-face-of-health-scare-virus-shutdown/).  

In December 2017, Ewan Mackenna of Independent.ie wrote about some of TB’s struggles with self-destruction and her loss of ‘self-worth’ (my words, not hers). She said something which a great many us can relate to, but we cannot find the right words;

“Once I decided to leave (her home and her then-current living situation), my self-esteem and pride in myself began to increase and I’d see in the mirror someone I was proud of, someone I didn’t want to destroy. I was proving to myself I was worth saving because I was still fighting, in the metaphorical sense.”

To look in the mirror and not like who we see looking back at us is a horrible place to live. To know that world-class athletes or local high-schoolers or casino executives (yes- I’m speaking of myself here) or anyone else for that matter struggle with our own self-perception is something of a comfort. Knowing that others share our inner-conflict is a wonderful first step.

But if you find yourself on that road, take the next step.

Seek some help. In TB’s cases, she sought help from a medical professional for her physical ailment and it saved her life. She also sought the help of friends and family for her ‘inner demons’ and it worked. In my own case, I have sought the assistance of professionals and friends to stave off acute clinical depression.

Help is out there. Maybe it’s your friends, your coach, your family, your medical professional. Let them help you. And if you are lucky enough to be that friend, coach, family or medical professional, be the support someone needs. You don’t have to have the answers. Sometimes, all it takes to make a difference is to give a little time and lend your ears to a troubled voice.

Just the Smallest Little Thing

Going into each triathlon season, I love to look at a wide variety of races and plan out the summer. I choose some races because they look fun, some pose interesting travel destinations and there always ends up being that one race that sticks out as the primary hard-core race of the season. Maybe it’s a race I didn’t do so well at in the past, maybe it’s a high profile race that draws the best competition, or maybe it’s a local race that seems to find its way onto my annual schedule.

One year, that target race was a very fast and flat half-ironman distance. When I say ‘flat’, keep in mind that I ride in the Sierras and that particular course started in the ocean and included a single overpass as its highest point. The year before, I had raced it and done poorly. I had spent the year training hills and worked on power instead of steady tempo riding.

The next year, I was laser focused on that event. I changed my bike training strategy from climbing to ‘point and shoot’. Instead of swim training in lakes, I did many open water swims in the ocean to get used to the tidal influences. Not only did I train for the event, I prepared everything. I was meticulous in thinking through anything and everything including booking my travel arrangements early, got the time off from work approved months in advance, even got my car tuned up weeks prior to the travel date.

The day before departing while on an easy taper run, something wasn’t feeling right. Instead of feeling energized and fresh, I struggled just to make the warm-up mile. What was wrong? You guessed it; I was getting sick. A flu bug that I picked up somewhere in the prior few days hit me hard. The next day, instead of heading to my big event, I was stuck in bed and could barely get up.

Important lesson learned. No matter how well we plan, something as small as a virus can derail us.

What could I have done differently? From that point on, in the week or two leading up to a big event, I shy away from people. My girlfriend (now wife) used to get upset with me when I would essentially self-isolate. Paranoid? OCD? Perhaps, but I haven’t missed a big event since due to illness. That goes for races, big work projects, or any other significant event. I may not sequester myself in the house, but I certainly keep my distance when I can.

On an individual level, missing that race was brutal. A one-year goal went up in smoke. But when it happens on the scale we see in the world today, it is far more drastic. People are dying as a result of COVID. Compared to that, missing a season takes on a far smaller meaning.

I want to cry for Olympic athletes who have dreamed and prepared for their events for a life-time and cannot compete this year. I cannot fathom how they can maintain the fitness and the focus for an entire extra year. For those who have to wait to compete, my heart goes out to you. For those of us who have to wait to watch greatness, what could we have done differently?

Team Before Self

In the world of professional sports, virtually every athlete is a part of a team. Some share the field with the athlete, but most ‘team-mates’ reside on the sideline. I am always amazed and energized when a professional athlete sets aside their personal goals and puts their team-mates first. Recently, Egan Bernal, the winner of the 2019 Tour de France has said that he will put his team before himself in the upcoming 2020 Tour. Of course he wants to win the Tour. He has said so, but his team comes first. I cannot fathom the humility of putting such lofty personal goals behind his team’s goals. To set aside the money, the fame, and the accolades because his teammates are more important is an incredible statement of Bernal’s personality.

I have never met Egan Bernal. His true nature could be vastly different than what we see as his public image. To some extent, I suppose we will find out in a few weeks when the Tour begins. For now, I’m extremely impressed and hope I can emulate such humility.

In my case, I’m an amateur. Always have been and always will be. My sports of choice are mostly an individual event. In triathlons, assistance can neither be given nor received during the race. But anyone who has competed in 10ks, marathons, triathlons or any other ‘individual’ sport will tell you that a ‘team’ is critical.

For me, that team is my family, my circle of friends and my training partners. All of these wonderful people have endured dinners delayed by my long training rides, hospital visits due to crashes or yellow jackets (see my June 13 blog), complaints of sore muscles, and hours of what must be boring talks about splits or intervals.

Without my team, I wonder if I would have accomplished as much as I have or learned the lessons I have experienced. I seriously doubt it.

I suspect Bernal and I share that sentiment.

Amazing support from “Team Sturtz Boys”.

For every one of my experiences or lessons, there is usually someone standing next to me; figuratively or literally. Or perhaps I should say “there is someone leading me or someone pushing me”. Parents, spouse, children, friends; everyone has contributed to my sporting experiences. I’m just a guy doing what he enjoys and I do it to the best of my ability. My sports experiences are a series of personal journeys that may not have a direct impact on the world, but by framing my personality on those lessons learned, I am a better manager at work, a better father or husband at home, or a more committed friend.

What lessons have you learned along the way? Perhaps more importantly, who have been those people who stood beside you while you learned them? Have you reached out told them how much you appreciate their help or guidance? Regardless of this year’s Tour, I will bet that Bernal and his teammates will be congratulating whoever wins and the winner will be thanking his teammates.

Aggravated Running

In previous blogs, I have talked about how I have found life balance through sports. In particular, as a ‘strong willed’ child, my parents encouraged me to find an outlet for excessive energy. As I have gotten older, that same strategy has been extremely important to my well-being and sense of balance.

Two years ago, I made the decision to go back to school to obtain a master’s degree. With less than five weeks to go, I can see the finish line. Unfortunately, as most racers can attest, this is when ‘the wheels fall off’. Today marks the day of my last mid-term exam. Going into the exam, I was so nervous and so happy to have gotten this far. Energy is sapped, focus is being lost and time seems to move quicker than normal. And then my trouble hit. My on-line exam session suddenly quit mid-sentence and a very incomplete exam was submitted.

Someone knew what was needed in a time of crisis.

My wife heard my expletives from the other room.

I won’t lie. My aggravation level is high.

I attempted to contact the on-line testing company via their website; “visit our on-line chat room for 24/7 support”. Link only applies if you are taking an exam. Tried calling them but their automated attendant states; “Visit our on-line chat room for 24/7 support”. Huh? I contacted the Professor who was gracious enough to talk me off the ledge. After exhausting any avenues for rectifying the immediate situation, we must wait until tech support becomes available, presumably tomorrow.

I stepped outside the office door so I would not be tempted to damage the computer and what did I find? My running shoes. Somehow they had found their way to the one spot I needed them most. Now, instead of continuing down my road of stress and anxiety, I’m lacing up my shoes and heading out to find my inner peace.

Am I out of balance right now? Absolutely. But I know exactly what I need to do to regain it. This won’t be a ‘training run’ with splits or lap times or hill repeats. This will be an emotional workout day. It’s time for me to go work off some stress.

See you on the roads!

Start a Tradition

When I say that I graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield Minnesota, most people would either think I am making it up or not know where it is. A small college located on the only hill amidst cornfields for miles, the history of St. Olaf stems from Norwegian immigrants. As students, we were reminded every year why the immigrants left Norway when the college cafeteria would serve Norwegian delicacies such as ‘lutefisk’. Please note that when I say ‘delicacy’, I am gagging. Lutefisk is purported cod boiled in lye to be served during the winter months when the fjords are frozen and the fishing boats couldn’t get out.

Even though it is a small liberal arts college, the St. Olaf choir and orchestra are internationally known. The St. Olaf sports program is not. As an NCAA division 3 program, the term “student-athlete” definitely favors the ‘student’ over ‘athlete’.

I begin with this explanation to provide an understanding that, as a cross-country and track runner, I participated in a small program that would be an after-thought to most colleges or universities. At the time I participated, we would travel by van across town to another small college to train on their track after they were finished for the day.  During the spring track season, we would relocate from the athletic center to the ‘Manitou Hilton’ to be a few miles closer to the other track. Don’t let the name ‘Manitou Hilton’ fool you. It was a small old house retrofitted to serve as a locker room for the football team during the fall and track team during the spring. As I recall, there wasn’t much heat which is why it couldn’t be used during the Minnesota winters. It was torn down not long after I graduated. Under-funded, mostly unknown, and usually cold, I loved my experience.    

As a team, we created our own traditions. The ‘Press Box’ breakfast was held annually with an early Saturday morning workout. Unbeknownst to freshmen, a jar of lollipops and a note “suckers for the suckers” was the ‘breakfast’ while the rest of us slept in. The typical Friday post-workout tradition was to jog into the football stands in formation and sing the school fight-song in unison with the football team. And yes, I can still sing ‘Um Ya Ya’, much to my wife’s embarrassment. “Us in the bus” was chanted any time we rode the van to a workout or meet. But all of these fun memories pale to the real value of my time with the team.

Thirty years later, some of my best friends were members of those teams. Over the years, we’ve lost track of some teammates and most of us have moved to different parts of the country. But we can still get together for workouts or barbeques or poker games. We can still laugh and cry together. We’ve been in each other’s weddings and we’ve been among the first to arrive at the births of our kids. We share in each other’s successes and lament together at the failures.  And all because of the foundation built on the traditions of our team.

As you read this, I would ask you to think upon your ‘team’. Maybe it’s your little league baseball team, college physics club, or your current work team. What makes you stick together? What are you doing to find and foster those ‘traditions’, those connections that will keep you focused and together? You may not find the thirty-year connections that I have been blessed with, but you may find those teammates with whom you can overcome any challenge the boss throws your way.

Riding With a Stranger

One of my favorite bicycling routes starts at the East end of Donner Lake and heads west over Donner Pass in the Sierras, down to Cisco Grove and back again. It’s about 45 miles out and back, starting at about 6000 feet elevation and traverses the summit twice at about 7100 feet.  Near the beginning of the ride is the ‘face’ which is a tough 4 mile climb followed by a fast and lengthy descent to the turn-around. Then do it in reverse.

Donner Lake with Donner Pass in the background.

I was riding this route one day and really felt strong at the turnaround where I caught up with another rider. I had never seen him before, but he was riding well, so I dropped in behind him. I started feeling my oats, so I picked up the pace and passed him. A little later, he did the same. Back and forth we went for the entire 10 miles up. By the time we got to the summit we were in a full-on hammer mode; neither wanting to give in to the other, each pushing himself harder than we thought we could. On the descent back to Donner Lake, we were hitting speeds in excess of 45 to 50 miles per hour, faster than I had ever taken that hill. All the while, I don’t think we exchanged more than a few words. We were both too focused on suffering in silence. It turned out that he had parked right next to me at the marina.

As we got off our bikes and tried to catch our breath, we were both laughing and thanking each other for a fantastic ride. Neither of us could walk well, but we grabbed some sodas and started talking. As we talked, I admitted to being a cowardly downhill rider and that he caused me to push my comfort zone on the downhill. He admitted to being a good down-hiller, but I made him climb the back half faster than he thought he could. We talked about bikes and swapped some cycling stories and just enjoyed the rest of the morning. I don’t recall his name and I’ve never seen him again, but that ride has always stayed with me as a fantastic day.

I could stop my story here, but recent events reminded me of something else about that ride.

I’m not sure I thought about it at the time (nor did I care) that he had darker skin. I suspect he noticed my lobster red, sunburnt skin color, but I doubt he cared about that any more than I cared about his skin tone. There was no discussion of politics or race or religion, only of cycling. We were just two guys who loved to ride and felt the thrill of challenging and being challenged by a complete stranger in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Perhaps I’m naive or ignorant, but I fail to understand why it matters what a person looks like or dresses like or identifies as. In life, what matters to me is how we can help each other be better people today than we were yesterday. That stranger certainly made me a better rider that day and I think I helped him too. Burnt skin, black skin, blue skin, whatever shade of the rainbow we are, how will we help each other be better tomorrow than we are today?

Balance: What happens without it.

A few years back, I had ‘one of those days’. You know the kind of day I’m talking about. You’re not sure why, but the world just seems a little bleaker, people seem grumpier, and I’m just not ‘with it’. So I did what I normally do when I need to sort things out; I ran for a few miles. Nothing major, just another weekday run to clear my head and think.

As I ran, my mind wandered and it suddenly dawned on me what had happened. Somewhere during the previous few years, I had lost my balance. I had become a ‘glass half empty’ person. I had lost my balance in life.  

I had a good job and enjoyed time with my family. I was in decent shape physically, mentally, and spiritually. Why was I so negative? I did not know why, but I knew I didn’t like what I saw inside myself. By the time I got home from that run, I had vowed that I was going to be a ‘glass half full’ person. The real question now was how could I accomplish this turn-around?

In my younger years, I would set race goals; events in which I wanted to race or times I wanted to beat. At some point, I had stopped doing that. I had stopped setting goals and then challenging myself to attain them.

In the months that followed, certain recurring thoughts kept coming up along with a few goals. Ultimately, a ‘two-year’ plan began to emerge that included three significant milestones.  

At age 51, I went back to school for an MBA. Shortly after that, I left my safe job and took on my first General Manager role in a re-emerging casino.  Five months later, the Nevada Gaming Commission approved my key employee license. In less than six weeks from this writing, my two-year plan will be complete as I prepare to graduate with an MBA. It has been exhausting and I covered a lot of miles. As I think back on the last two years, a parallel has emerged in my mind.

My life has been like a triathlon. A series of disciplines intermixed with transitions. Age, children, career; each stage has had different goals and different outcomes. If I had removed any of them, I would not be the person I am. But without a plan, I am out of balance.

My race isn’t over. I have many miles in front of me. The real question now is; what’s the next stage? Like a triathlete transitioning from swimming to biking to running, my life balance is about figuring out what that next stage is and how to prepare for it.

My challenge to you is simple. Do you have your ‘balance’? If you do, please share how you do it. If you don’t have balance, I urge you to look inside yourself and find your inner balance. I guarantee that it’s there. You just may need to ‘run a few miles’ to find it.