We compete, because unlike theatre, the story is not written until the competition is over. There may be rankings and favourites but what keeps athletes and fans coming back for more are the upsets and glorious stories along the way. If medals were awarded on rankings then the major Championships and competitions would be awfully dull – or probably non-existant! We all have our favourite underdog stories, it is what makes sport such a compelling and addictive pursuit. Let me introduce to you Mr. Jesse Thomas, of Eugene, Oregon, the latest underdog turned hero story.
A former Stanford teammate, friend, and husband of my BFF pulled off a stellar underdog move this past weekend at the Wildflower Triathlon in California. Previously a top 10 rookie pro, Jesse Thomas’ story is a perfect example of hard work, dedication, and good old fashioned dreaming. As an All American in steeple at Stanford, he suffered a blow to running with a navicular stress fracture, not to mention a number of other body blows, including a few serious bike/car accidents which left him with a broken neck. An adrenaline junkie, Jesse shocked doctors with his recovery and got back on his bike and in the pool all while balancing his role in a start up company and as an MBA student.
About two years ago he decided to take advantage of youth and opportunity, and to train full time as a triathlete. It was a big move for him to put “real life” on hold to pursue his athletic dreams and aspirations. And as all his closest family and friends can attest, when he commits to something, it is with gusto. Nevertheless, after earning a Pro card in triathlon last summer, Jesse had yet to put all the pieces together. While I was training with his wife Lauren this year, she would frequently say how fit and ready he was for a breakthrough but nothing quite clicked until Saturday when he defeated some major tri studs, rising his stock from unknown to hot commodity. And giving all us in the cheering section a major reason to celebrate as well. (You can watch his entertaining post race interview and read his accounts on his website).
As an athlete myself, I love a good breakthrough story, made all the more sweeter when it is someone you are already rooting for. And from the personal point of view, it gives us all the reason to believe that if it can happen to Jesse, it can happen to other hardworking dreamers, too. So when my husband gave me an unexpected call yesterday suggesting I do something a bit crazy and unscripted, I decided to “carpe the diem”. After racing two nights ago at Stanford (link to race video, interview and results) and finishing a narrow second in 4:09, I was supposed to fly to Eugene, Oregon for a few weeks of training and possibly another race. But what Graham suggested was something that had never entered my mind: why not jump on a plane and fly to Doha for Friday’s first Diamond League meet of the year?
“Doha?!!!” I laughed. “Seriously? You want me to go the Middle East after Bin Laden was just sacked?” But then I thought about a few minutes and in a wild way it started to make sense. You see, for the past three years I have struggled to get my running where I want it to be. For a whole lot of reasons – including a stubborn navicular stress fracture, loss of fitness from two years of rehab, some decisions that in hindsight would have been made differently, a bit of bad luck, loss of confidence, a love of running and a dream of gold – running was not giving me back what I was giving it. In the last two years I have run countless races that have tactical 4:08-4:10 type races and I have more or less the same experience and results, leaving me frustrated that I was not reaching my goals. I would love to be a in race where all I need to do is hold on for dear life and run my lungs and guts out – a race which challenges me to step up to the next level. Given the tactical nature of many 1500m races, a big part of running fast is being in the right race. With hot weather, a fast hard track and a line-up of world-class athletes, the Doha Diamond League is the perfect opportunity for me run fast.
Most runners like plans and such a drastic change to my schedule could be seen as a bad idea. However, always playing within the script also can mean missing opportunities. Like any successful entrepreneur or business-person knows, sometimes deviating from the plan is the best plan: follow your instinct and do the unexpected. Nevertheless, the idea never crept into my thoughts until Graham suggested it today* at 1 pm – four hours before my flight to Eugene, Oregon. (I must add that when I discussed the idea with my coach he reminded me he had suggested it much earlier in the year but I dismissed the idea at the time).
Propelled by thought to “carpe diem” and feelings of optimism, my husband and I exchanged about 20 emails trying to figure out how to pull it off. While riding the Cal Train from Stanford to the airport for my scheduled flight to Eugene, I was madly making a dozen attempts to call the airline to cancel my soon-departing flight, emailing with Graham to research flights from San Francisco to Doha, and most importantly, trying to reach the meet organizers to see if I could get such a late invitation to the meet. There were other considerations too, such as visa requirements and the cost /benefit of flying out of LA versus SF, and what my next move should be while I waited for answers and for the pieces to fall into place.
As the train pulled up the airport station I had to make a final decision: get off the train to fly to Eugene or try to pull off this Doha idea? I stayed on the train bound for San Francisco, not sure where I would end up but also not ready to throw in the towel and fly to Eugene. In the end, I had to wait until this morning (Tuesday) for an answer to the most critical question: could I get a spot on the line at the race? I found myself a nice little affordable boutique hotel (a Green certified hotel at that!) in San Francisco and settled in to bed for a nice long sleep to wait for my morning answer. It brought good news – an invitation to the meet!
The morning ended up being a bit chaotic as I made flight arrangements for a same day departure to the Middle East out of LA, worked on pre-arrival visa requirements, squeezed in a run, and drove to the airport by 11:30. Of course, I did it Malindi-style (the only way I know how) and somehow pulled off a ten minute turn around between the end of my run to shower and pack before my taxi pick-up, while promptly spilling coffee on my remaining clean shirt as I jumped into my cab. There would be plenty of time to relax on my 16 hour flight from LA to Dubai – thankfully I scored the entire row to myself for some good sleeping. To quote my hubby, “better than Bizznazz Clazz!”
I am happy things have worked out so far and believe that sometimes you need do the unexpected to make things happen (like running fast!). I hope this will be a successful example of making things happen, “carpe-ing the diem”, and letting pieces fall together and not just an expensive and jetlagged race.
For me, winning Doha would be like Jesse winning Wildflower; since he did it, I know it is possible. But most of all, going to Doha it is an opportunity, a risk and an adventure. And good things happen when you give yourself the chance.
* I wrote this blog on my travels but uploaded it after I had arrived in Doha
Diamond League on CBC
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