Out There: Their Pain, Our Gain

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This week, my handlers at Triathlete assigned me a story about the “Iron Cowboy,” a man named James Lawrence from Utah who will attempt to complete 50 Iron-distance triathlons in 50 days through all 50 states.

The sheer physicality of the feat is impressive—2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and 26.2 miles of running every day for 50 days is nothing to sneeze at. It’s uncharted territory—the current record for consecutive Iron-distance triathlon finishes is 30—and many are skeptical James will even be successful.

Indeed, as I interviewed experts for this story, many were quick to point out all the reasons why James probably won’t be successful: A thunderstorm in Hawaii could delay his flight to Alaska and ruin the streak on the second day; a minor saddle sore will likely become a debilitating, painful abscess without a break from riding; the nutritional deficit of each day could very well sink James into an insurmountable caloric hole, ending his quest.

“It’s admirable, but unlikely,” one expert says.

“It’s as close to impossible as I can imagine,” sighs another.

After finishing my research, I went to a coffee shop to type up the story on my laptop. While waiting in line for a latte, my phone buzzed with a text message from my friend Erin. “Guess who’s picking up her brand new bike tomorrow? it read.

Erin is currently training for her first triathlon. In comparison to 50 Iron-distance triathlons in 50 days in 50 states, one sprint triathlon (about 15 miles in total) may seem like small potatoes, but Erin has faced skeptics all the same. Erin doesn’t have the body of a stereotypical triathlete yet, and as a result, she’s had to deal with criticism about her weight as she swims in her gym pool or runs at the park.

“She needs to drop a few pounds,” says one critic.

“Does she really think she can finish a triathlon?” snarks another.

In both James’ and Erin’s circumstances, there’s a cluster of skeptics, popcorn in hand, waiting for failure, so they can say, “I told you so.” Schadenfreude has become sport, a way for us to feel superior not by the merit of our own accomplishments, but by pointing out someone else’s inferiority. We want others to fail, because it allows us to be that much more smug about our own success. Their pain is our gain.

When others fail at seemingly impossible tasks, the status quo remains unchanged: If James and Erin don’t raise the bar, I won’t need to either. But what’s wrong with raising the bar? Why is our default setting one of negativity instead of support? What’s so hard about saying something nice, dammit?

For many people, a fear of criticism keeps people from changing dreams to reality, be it a first 5K, an attempt to qualify for the Boston Marathon or a Guinness World Record attempt. Tackling uncharted territory of any kind is scary. Doing it alone is even scarier.

It takes the same amount of breath to say a supportive word as it does to criticize, yet one could very well mean the difference between someone achieving the impossible and giving up altogether. Which will you choose?

Of course it’s probable that James won’t be able to accomplish his goal—it’d be naïve to downplay the magnitude of the challenge ahead of him—but it’s also possible he’ll make history. Erin may not fit someone’s mental picture of what an athlete “should” look like, but she’s certainly more of an athlete than the critics munching popcorn on the sidelines.

I, for one, will be cheering them on as loudly as my lungs will allow.

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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

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