Olympian Simon Whitfield, The Gran Fondo and Failure
September 4, 2013
As some of you know, for the past two years a few Long View employees along with some of our clients and partners have had the amazing chance to pedal from Vancouver to Whistler in the Gran Fondo. This year, we are lucky enough to have four-time Canadian Olympian, two-time medalist, and the first person to win an Olympic Gold Medal for Triathlon joining us, Simon Whitfield. He is a personal icon for me, and I have to say, I’m excited to see firsthand how an athlete of his calibre approaches a task as daunting as the Fondo. Although for Simon it’ll be a walk in the park, for myself, those hours are some of the worst (and in turn best) I will experience all year. The ride is 122km but what makes it such a beast are the 5577 feet of climbing you do along the way. The Fondo website assures riders the views are so spectacular you won’t notice the monstrous hills. I beg to differ. You notice. You notice your heart pounding like it’s trying to escape from your chest. You notice the fire in your quads as the lactic acid builds. And you notice how the second the burning subsides, it’s replaced by the sensation that your legs are now noodles. What I also notice is the voice in my head that keeps telling me to stop. I have gathered I’m not alone in the experience of mental assault that occurs during undertakings where you truly test your own limits. Last year a fellow rider admitted that he contemplated steering his bike into a ditch in the hopes that a small crash could end his misery if he managed to sustain injuries serious enough to end his race but not grave enough to incur permanent damage. For the record he ended up finishing in great time. Nonetheless, the road there was anything but smooth. The journey we’re all on with Long View is not dissimilar, it doesn’t play at the same level of intensity but there are daunting climbs, moments of doubt, and periods of fatigue. Our finish line can seem impossibly far away and at times unachievable.
I’ve only spent a few hours with Simon Whitfield in person, but in preparation for the Gran Fondo here are few things gleaned from a Google search. In a CBC radio interview shortly after the London Olympics he said “I’m not afraid of failing. I’m afraid of not putting my foot forward and trying.” As words on a page they fall into the category of colloquialisms we’ve heard in various iterations many times before. But there was a conviction in his voice when he said “I’m afraid of not putting my foot forward and trying.” He sounded legitimately afraid. In a newspaper interview he also expressed that the moment in his career he regrets the most wasn’t London, but the 2004 Athens Olympics. At a certain point in the race he was so far behind he knew he wasn’t going to medal and instead of continuing all out, he stopped trying his best, and simply finished the race. Following that experience, his goal for Beijing in 2008 wasn’t to medal it was to make sure that no matter what happened during the race, he wouldn’t stop trying his hardest.
Trying always involves the possibility of failing. The voice begging us to stop trying wants to protect us from failing. It’s why we stop giving it our all when the gold medal is no longer a possibility. But the truth is, failing isn’t actually that bad. Simon didn’t regret not medaling in Athens. He regretted not trying in spite of knowing he wouldn’t medal. It was an experience that changed him. Failing was no longer something he feared, he was afraid to stop trying. So for Beijing his goal became making sure he left it all on the course. When he finished the bike, Simon was well behind first place. But he had made a promise to himself, and he was going to keep it. He didn’t stop giving it everything he had and ended up taking home silver. His story is something I’m going to take with me, both in this year’s Fondo but also on my journey with Long View. Because I think Simon’s right, we don’t need to be afraid we’ll fail, we need to be afraid we’ll stop trying.