The joy of coming second
This newsletter was originally published on Patreon on 26 July 2021, during the Tokyo Olympics
So the Olympics are upon us. I had thought I’d just skim lightly over the first week’s action, with the athletics not starting until Friday. But first I got hooked in by the skateboarding, and then last night, just as I was about to head to bed to get my much needed recovery sleep (after my first 50-mile training week in a long time!), I spotted that the triathlon had started, and - fatally - I switched it on, telling myself that I’d watch it for 10 minutes.
Ten minutes later I was gripped, and my early night was history.
I’ve never been tempted to do a triathlon myself, put off by the amount of gear you have to buy, the silly outfits and the fact that I’m only a very average swimmer. But there is something just so compelling about the Olympics. You don’t need to know the athletes or their backstories. Nationality is enough. “Here come the Norwegians,” said the commentator. “Watch out for the Brazilians.”
The two Brits in the race I did know about. Alex Yee is one of the best 10,000m runners in the UK, famously faster than Mo Farah was at his age - although Mo Farah wasn’t actually that good when he was younger. However, when Yee latched on to the lead group in the cycling, I knew he had a chance.
It was just me and my daughter Lila left up watching by the time the 10K run began. A small group of about 10 runners had got away at the front, and Yee was among them. Triathletes have a particular way of running, very upright, square shoulders and choppy, quick steps. Except for two of them, we decided, lounging on the sofa and passing our un-expert eyes over proceedings. One was Yee, who seemed to glide, like a real runner, smooth and effortless. The other was the Norwegian runner. He wasn’t nearly as skinny as the others - we even ventured to say, in the privacy of our living room, that he looked a little podgy and out of shape - and he ran more like a boxer than a runner. We marvelled that he was there at all, somehow keeping up.
Any triathlon fans probably know all about Kristian Blummenfelt, but to us - especially in his almost see-through outfit - he looked like a mad spectator who had jumped onto the course and was trying to keep up.
With a mile to go, the Norwegian Blummenfelt started sprinting like a man possessed, blitzing away from everyone. How was he running so fast? Yee tried to go with him but just didn’t have the same frenzied energy, and in the end had to settle for silver.
“I was already deep in the well when he made his move,” Yee said afterwards. “I dug as deep as I could but that was all I had today.” Yee is only 23. He’ll be back.
It was interesting to hear that expression though, about being deep in the well. Ever since I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, in which the main character takes to climbing down an old well to find a sense of solace - and a weird, alternative reality - I’ve often thought the imagery can be applied to endurance running. When you get really tired in a long race, it’s a bit like you’ve climbed down a well - the rest of the world gets blocked out and it’s just you in your own, intense reality. And it does give you some kind of solace.
You could tell the interviewer was itching to ask Yee if he was disappointed after coming second, but I was glad that instead Yee was delighted with his silver medal. “I’m just a normal guy from south-east London,” he said. “It’s just crazy that dreams really come true.”
There is this idea in sport that if you’re happy with second place, then you’ll never be a winner. Many people noted how the England footballers took off their Euro 2020 silver medals the moment they got them, to show how little they valued coming second.
I think this is a shame. How you feel after the event, won’t change the result. And you can still be driven to succeed in the future without having to feed off the fire of disappointment. In fact, what partly makes the Olympics so compelling is that it celebrates the first three in each event, not just the winner.
Look at the Kenyans. Kenyan runners are some of the fiercest racers out there, but I’ve spoken many times to them after they’ve finished second, third or fourth, and they are usually just has happy as if they’d won. In fact you’ll often see all the Kenyans do a lap of honour after a race even if only one of them has done well.
The Olympic skateboarders, too, were a breath of fresh air in this regard, celebrating when their rivals did an amazing jump as though it was one of their teammates. The French guy who finished fourth told the BBC afterwards: “I’m just so stoked for the top three guys. We’re all out here having fun, that’s the important thing.”
Yes, you can give it everything to win, and still be happy even if you don’t succeed. Happy that you did your best, that you came close to winning, and that you are out there competing in the Olympics and living your best life. I, for one, don’t think Alex Yee is doomed because he was happy to come second. In fact, I think that makes it more likely he’ll be in the mix in Paris 2024.
As I may have mentioned, I managed to run just over 50 miles last week, still injury free and feeling fine - though my 10 miles on Sunday was more of a slog than I was perhaps expecting.
On Saturday I was speaking at a small running festival organised by Ultra X. The day started with a 20km tail run.
I’ve done group runs at festivals like these before and they’re usually sociable affairs, with lots of stopping to regroup, the run leaders joking and high-fiving, and everyone generally tripping along happily and easily. That’s what I was expecting, so I slotted in somewhere in the middle. Everyone seemed to be with friends already, so I was jogging along on my own when I noticed the people at the front were getting quite far ahead, and were not stopping to wait for the rest of us.
I couldn’t help it. It’s like they were waving a red flag in front of my eyes. I accelerated through the field and caught up with the leaders. The pace was moving along at a decent clip up here and soon we were spread out and running in pairs. I found myself next to a guy called Jamie, and we chatted for a bit, before realising that we were on a long stretch of road with no one ahead or behind us. The route was marked with little red flags, and we both realised we hadn’t seen one for a while. We must have gone the wrong way.
Not to worry, I was in training for a b-i-g race, so a few extra miles was not a problem, in fact it was a bonus. We ran back the way we had come - about a mile - before we found the spot we had gone wrong. We were now playing catch-up, so Jamie cranked up the pace a few notches. It was fun, ducking and twisting through the woods at speed. Until we came to a junction in the trail with no red flags anywhere.
Damn. Back we went. Once we found out where we had gone wrong, we picked it up again. I realised I’d been hanging slightly behind Jamie as he was the one pushing the pace, so I resolved to keep my eyes open from now on and pay more attention to the flags. Almost immediately, Jamie missed another turning, but I spotted it. “This way,” I called.
The next turning, he went the wrong way again. Only then did he tell me that he was a little colour blind and couldn’t really see the red flags.
With this new important piece of information, I navigated the rest of the way and we made it back safely, at top speed and by the end completely spent from trying to catch everyone else up. About 10 minutes later I was standing in front of 150 people and trying to tell amusing anecdotes while not fainting. All good training, I’m sure.