5 Lessons on Life From the Greatest Sporting Event

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What can the world’s greatest sporting event teach us? A lot, even outside of sport. But wait…we’re not talking about the Super Bowl here. What event then? The US Olympic Marathon Trials, which occurred a couple of weeks ago.

It’s a once every 4 years event, a single race to determine which 3 men and women represent the US at the Olympics. The one-off event combined with the unpredictability of a marathon makes it an incredible two hours, consistently chalked full of drama. This year, we had the deepest women’s marathon field in history, plus a kind of changing of the guard on the men’s side. It all added up to a crazy race of fulfilled dreams, unbelievable underdogs, gut-wrenching efforts that just fell short, and much more. But for our purposes, there are some wonderful lessons that we all could learn to

1. Know when to throw the watch away!

We live in a world where we can measure anything. From readiness to sleep scores, many of us are inundated with data. Sometimes, that data can be good, telling us to speed up or slow down, to get some more recovery. But, sometimes it gets in the way.


At mile 17, while in the lead pack, Sara Hall did the ultimate boss move, took her watch off and flung it into the crowd. No use for the data. The splits didn’t matter. And they may get in the way. She was there to race. While Sara fell just short, settling for 5th place after battling for 3rd for most of the final miles; it’s this attitude which has propelled Sara to be able to be in this situation in the first place. As a 40-year-old in her 8th Olympic Trials, she didn’t quite make the team, but she had the best finish of her career. Sometimes, you’ve got to ditch the data and metrics, forget the time, and trust yourself to compete!

2. When you’re hurting, create some distance.

Emily Sisson is the American Record holder in the marathon. Four years ago, she entered the trials as a favorite to make the team; and it all went wrong. This year, she entered as a favorite again but sealed the deal with a 2nd place finish. Part way through, when fatigue and discomfort started rearing their head, those doubts of whether she could hang on surfaced. She looked at the lead vehicle right ahead of her and saw US marathon legend Deena Kastor sitting there watching the race as a commentator for the press. Emily asked herself “What would Deena do?” It led her to think about how Deena would handle the discomfort, recalling the strategies she outlined in ​her book​.

It’s a masterclass in what I wrote about in Do Hard Things: one way to deal with discomfort is to get yourself out of your own head and ask how a respected friend or role model would handle that situation. It dulls the emotional impact of what you’re going through and puts you on a path to coming up with a coping strategy that works.

3. Hope allows us to find more

Four years ago, Leonard Korir finished in the worst place in sport, 4th. Just three seconds short of making the team. This year, it looked like a repeat performance. At the 24-mile mark, he was in 5th place 37 seconds out of third. He resigned that it was over. He all but gave up.

But then, all of a sudden, he saw the two runners in front of him start to falter ever so slightly. The crowd started yelling at him that he had a shot. Reenergized, Korir pressed forward, and over the final two miles made up that gap, to clinch his Olympic spot on the final stretch. Korir explained, “When [the fans] were screaming and cheering, I got some extra energy. It was like a superpower.”

So what? We never reach our actual limit. Our perception of fatigue is influenced by our situation. If we feel like we have no hope, like our goal is out of reach, we literally feel more tired, and our motivation wanes. But, if like Korir, we start to feel a bit of hope, we often find a little extra gear. In your own endeavors, find ways to keep hope. To make sure that progress is possible.

4. Talent is not one-dimensional

In high school, Dakota Lindwurm’s best mile was 5:35. For those who don’t know track, to put it nicely, that wouldn’t make a good varsity high school team. Lindwurm walked on to a NCAA Division 2 school. She got better, turning herself into a respectable college runner. But, she was still over a minute behind her peers who were considering running professionally in the 5k. She was respectable. Fast forward a few years, and after climbing the ranks from unknown to underdog, she ran the race of her life to make her first Olympic team.

Often, we think talent is easy to spot. We fall for the prodigious. The talent that expresses itself right away. The phenom. But that’s just one form of talent. Sometimes, talent takes a while to express itself. Some people need to have years of training to let their true talent express itself. Too often, these people get lost in the talent identification machine. They are high responders, who just need some time to train. Our society neglects them. And that’s a shame. Fortunately, Lindwurm found a way and support to stay in the sport. We need to afford that opportunity to others, to give the late bloomers a shot!

5. Match Skills and Demands

The secret to just about any endeavor is being able to match your skill to the demands you face. This is easier said than done, and there is no better example than the marathon. It’s about riding the line. If you go over that line, you might feel great at mile 13, but not so great at 23. If you play it too cautiously, you might come trucking home, underperforming because you had more in you than you realized. The problem is… you never know if you got it right until after the race?

There were many examples of each at the trials. And some should be commended. Zach Panning made the men’s race, leading for the majority of the middle miles and dwindling the pack down to just three, before finding out he kept it just a touch too hot in the last few miles. But there were a few who nailed it. Jessica McLain may have come in 4th, just missing a spot, but she ran one of the best races at the Trials. She came in with a 2:29 best, over 10 minutes slower than favorites like Emily Sisson. Yet, going into the race, she thought top 10 was well within her reach, and top 5 was possible. As a self-coached, unsponsored runner, no one else was thinking about McLain reaching those goals.

Yet, she knew what she was capable of. But she didn’t do that by going for broke. She ran her race. At halfway, she was in 13th, about a minute behind the leaders. By mile 21, she was still only in 10th place. Barely at her first goal. On a hot day, she ran nearly even splits. Riding the line perfectly on what she was capable of. She may have come up just short of her Olympic dream, but she undoubtedly got the most out of herself. Which is all we can ask.

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