“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Acceptance of this viewpoint means that losing is equated with nothing and hence has no value. Benefits only accrue from winning. When a person like myself puts his life on hold for one prize, then the above quote has substance. In competition no one remembers who comes second, to me winning is the only thing I strive for on the sporting arena.
The Stawell Gift is a major professional athletics competition which occurs each Easter. The three-day carnival comprises of supreme athletes competing for the ultimate: the winner’s sash and the feeling of immortality within its ranks.
It is Easter Monday at Stawell. A bright crisp morning saw the running of the 800 metre heats. I was allocated to heat one with many challengers in front of me. The winner of this event makes it through to the finals, furthermore, a shot at glory. I won my heat in convincing fashion. Mission Accomplished!!!
I qualified second fastest for the afternoon final. I positively think to myself, “Hey I will win the big one”. The afternoon session is televised live, all my family and friends are watching, They have grand expectations of me perceived or otherwise. How can I face them if I don’t win? I can’t let them down. Somehow I think I have grander plans.
I reach into my sports bag and like a footballer about to head out for the grand final; I put on my sports gear. First the left sock then the right. Just before checking to see that my old, trusty gray underwear is with me.
Snapping at my shorts, an air of greatness wafts past. Today something special is going to occur: Everything’s perfect. I reach back into my bag, like a warrior going into battle. I wear my Vic Uni blue singlet with pride. It’s my armour; it repels bad luck, and emits “good vibes.”
I wore the same gear in the heat, and having success; I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Does it give me good luck or is it superstitious. No one really knows; it’s my idiosyncrasy. I am not a strong believer in superstitions but… sometimes you don’t know.
The moment I have anticipated for a lifetime finally arrives. Time between the heat and final had passed without fuss; everything seemed perfect, if not uncanny. I was settled but nervous, eager to race and I have done the work required to beat all my competitors. It is now or never – The Grand Final. I am only two minutes away from immortality.
My lead up form had been sensational. I have had a number of placing’s in finals over the distance in previous months. I was primed and ready to take out the “Big One!”
The 800 metres at Stawell has a long and creditable history littered with professional athletic greats like Roscoe, Williams, Meechan and Parsons. All of these household names within our ranks, now is my time to join that long and illustrious group of immortals.
The tension before the start of the race was electric. It is nothing I have experienced before. There have been other similar occasions, fewer spectators, and fewer starters. This race was different, greater importance, more prestige and “bragging rights”. Stories in the bars for years to come will be stretched and exaggerated over time. The winner will be remembered forever.
I looked to my training partners for support, but they are lost in sea of eyes looking expectantly back at me. The work has been done, it is now time to perform. At that moment I realise that my mates have helped me get this far, but it’s now up to me. The final hurdle, before destiny.
The athletes circling behind the start line like racehorses about to jump. The air was heavy with dagger looks between the competitors. It was similar to two boxers at the start of their fight. Who will win the mind battle? There was no love lost.
Athletes are called into position. I recollect my thoughts, I deserve to be in this company, and I have earned the respect from all. I am not ashamed to be in this “body.” The oval is thrown into silence; it had the sense of funeral. The crowd is hushed and expectantly waiting for the start of an epic tussle.
The gun is fired and I dart away quickly like a hunter after its prey. Within 30 metres I am shuffled back to last, like a deck of cards. I plead with myself to stay focused. “Don’t panic- hold your form”.
My legs are turning as fast as they can go – but I wanted to go faster. My lungs are burning, legs aching; still the runners moving away from me. In phenological terms this is a circumstance of lived time. I was frustrated, time seemed to slow down, while for all the other athletes they were moving to a different beat as if on a different planet – Mars Time.
“Hang in there” I demand. I had to be patient, my luck will change. My hopes of finishing first are dashed. Dead last: without hope. I reside to think, “Oh well there is always next year”.
Then as if out of no where, I relax. From the screams of the crowd, I hear a specific voice; it was my first training partner we were both 14. The sounds are muffled but his voice crystal clear. “Go Fuzz” It is still a vivid memory. The enthusiasm, and emotion displayed by the spectators, was electric, it was uplifting and encouraging. All eyes are on the runners as they dart around the track jockeying for the first position.
This is an example of Body as object for others.
Sartre wrote, “my body in the midst of the word as it is for others.” (Sartre, 1956)
The runners were on show for the spectators, an event a heroic display of their abilities. The spectators’ only focus is the runners, as they parade around the track like a death march just before they go into a gladiatorial battle – the likes never seen since Ancient Rome. The crowd subjectively criticises the other runners; only supporting the athlete they want to win.
With only a lap to go, I started to move through the pack. Sitting in seventh position I realise I am only 3 seconds from the lead. As the early pacesetters were tiring badly, my chance to shine was nigh. A gladiatorial effort will be required to win from here.
There is hope. I regain my focus on winning. The back marker in red is leading out the pack, “pass him-you win!” The leader, like a rabbit valiantly evading the chasing foxes – running scared. All the “foxes”, are on the scent but who will eat the meal?
A second wind, a feeling of destiny washes through me. In a runner’s sense it is the feeling of invincibility, in the flow, the running is effortless. Can be akin to an out of body experience.
“The body is an unconscious machine, as mechanical as a watch, conforming to the unwavering and rigid laws of nature; the mind (the true “essence” of man) is a conscious and free substance possessing no qualities of extension and, therefore, not susceptible to, or dominated by, the mechanical laws of nature. The two substances are thus perceived to be totally distinct and independent.” Descartes
I remember, for a split second before beginning my withering chase for home, (finish), my spirit raised out of my body, hovering above me, as if a UFO finding a place to land. Still to this day I believe that is was a sixth sense assisting me in my challenges. Assistance from the third dimension trying to make me win.
Being in the state of bliss, a sense of invincibility. This is a once in a lifetime occasion. I forget the aching calves, the burning chest, the noise of the crowd, and the other runners. This race is now in two; me and the red jacket, in a dash for the line.
With 80 metres to run along the famous finishing straight at Stawell, runners are all around me. I dash through the chasing pack out after the leader. 60 metres from the line I am bolting down the outside like a racehorse in the Melbourne Cup. The crowd waving, cheering hysterically. To me I didn’t notice a thing, the running seems effortless, the gap diminishing.
Now 20 metres to go; I have found some room to myself. No one around me, extremely unusual in such a tightly bunched races. I focus on the finishing string; “Let the line drag you” This is a running term, for focusing on an object in the foreground during a race. There is an illusion that a rope is attached to your hips and pulling you towards the finish line.
One stride out from the line I catch the leader. On his shoulder I strain ever willingly to pass him and win. This is my one last shot at glory. I gather myself for the final moment. With a burst of hope and desperation I lunge for the tape. I use all the energy I have left.
My aching muscles fail my desires. It is as if the body has given into the mind. The race is close, the crowd screams in hysteria, neither athlete, or spectators know the result. The red jacket is slumped to the ground, exhausted; race over his job is done. His running mates gathered around.
I’ve run through, dazed and confused, have I won? Showing no emotion. I stand away like a lonely figure. To be in a sea of people, but feeling so helpless; I’m scared. No one is sure of the result. Even the commentator didn’t know.
The crowd streamed on to the ground like at the end of a footy match. Many chasing their man like the press after a celebrity. The excitement, and emotion all over their faces. Some just standing, murmuring stunned to have had the pleasure to view such a sensational race.
For what seemed an eternity, I stood off to the side, people streaming past. I was motionless, unsure of my surroundings. Those 5 seconds were the loneliest, and most desperate I have ever felt. I didn’t know what to do. Scream in jubilation; or cry in pain. HELP someone save me!
My best mate is first to me. Giving me a pat on the back, and a few congratulatory words. It meant nothing to me. Mates are souls who you can count on to lend assistance when the chips are down. Denis didn’t need to say a thing he was there for me when I needed him. And at that point I knew that he was one of those people you can count on.
More of my running mates hugged me and congratulated my efforts. A big throng of people congregate around me, as if to hear god speak to his disciples. Totally exhausted I slump onto my coach’s shoulders. Wally tells me to keep moving. “Soak it up” He whispers. Still dazed, I trudge along, I felt like royalty. Runners I don’t even know want to shake my hand, and congratulate me. I felt like a champion, even if it was for 3 minutes.
But I didn’t win. I crash to the ground like an egg hitting the floor. Shocked; congratulatory words now turn to comforting one’s. Shattered I hold my hands to my face, not moving, the world has ended, no point continuing. Tears well in my eyes, but I’m strong and don’t let them flow. But I know they will come. During the presentations I stay composed tortured that I will have to wait 365 days before I can exact revenge.
The tears did flow. Five hours after the event, the solitude was unbearable. Still at the track, with the coach. He senses my despair, winks at me to go for a walk. Takes my arm, and around the track we wander. No set direction, meandering. I sob, my words muffled, emotion pours out of me like a wave over its crest. Tears stream down my face, with each droplet I release all my built up emotion. – loss, anger, depression, hopelessness.
A man of few words speaks his mind at exactly the right moment. He’s been there before; knows how I feel. All runners have experienced the despair of losing by such a close margin. At that point I knew I had someone who I can count on.
Through this episode, two people have moved closer to my inner soul. A soul mate treasured, and a friendship bond formed for a lifetime. For that to happen out of one event is priceless, something that I treasure more than anything else. Friendships are the most important human value to me
Second at Stawell is such a disappointment. To realise the extent of my achievement has taken 6 months. Although my story may seem minuscule and unimportant to some – it is everything to me. It is my life – I breathe athletics and live athletics. To have such a devastating event to occur is shattering. A treasured memory has not been achieved. A feeling of destiny, but not the result realised.
I look back at the five minutes after the race as the most rewarding athletics moment ever. The support, adulation and encouragement I received sends a chill down my spine. A boy from the “back of the pack club” has come through to win the hearts of thousands. Further more I will now be regarded as a true fighter, from all who saw me that day.
The feelings and emotions, immediately after the race are still at the centre of my thoughts. Continually processing the race in my mind, asking what if I did this? What if I did that? Would the result have changed? I mulled over the result for too long. I was in a state of despair for a month afterwards. Thus my football umpiring was greatly affected, until I could put these thoughts behind me and move on.
The aim in moving on is to take a little piece of the “bad” feelings and have them ready for next time to give you motivation for the next challenge and make right the misfortune.
In all, a positive message, which I have learnt from the devastation of Stawell, is never give up. Even if the chips are down, all hope is lost but by staying positive and focused then the breaks will go your way.
At a blink of an eye, I will be 50 years older, retired, white hair, and have the memories to look back on. My grandchildren, sitting on my lap will ask – Pops’ what sports were you good at? I can lean over to the wall and show them a photo. And say, “That’s me!”