Levels in Sports
I have always been intrigued by the phenomenon of levels in sports. My mission is not to write about the obvious levels in sports such as those demonstrated by the likes of Lance Armstrong and Michael Phelps, but to expound on the subject in relation to how levels tend to bring us personally back to our own sports reality, and facing that reality, how we should respond.
My first conscious awareness of this subject was when I was an avid tennis player in the early 70s. I played almost daily at a tennis club in Forest Hills, NY. The club champion and runner-up were doubles partners and they would thrash any doubles team who had the audacity to challenge their prowess. They were the local club tennis “studs,”and most of us coveted their skills. They entered a doubles tournament in New York City, and I was looking forward to watching others than myself fall victim to their incredible skills. I was astounded as I watched them get soundly defeated by another team certainly well above their “A” player status. Levels!
My first painful experiences with levels in sports came about through running. I was a high school miler in the 50s, and I returned to the sport at the age of 34. My first goal was to break five (5) minutes for a mile. It was not a particularly easy task in that to achieve that goal, the six (6) minute barrier stood in my way first. Finally, at a master’s track meet on Randalls Island, NY, I clocked an incredibly painful, but delightfully exciting 4:57.
I was elated, and probably felt similar to Roger Banister the day he became the first person to break the 4 minute mile barrier. My elation was short lived when I read that Bill Rogers had just run 2:09:27 at the Boston Marathon equivalent to running twenty-six (26) 4:57 miles in a row without stopping! Levels!
My masters running career was becoming very successful, and I was winning many first place age group trophies and medals. I often finished among the top few places in large, open road races. In 1979, I won the national sub-masters cross country championship (I was 39 at the time) at the venerable course (known as “The Rock” for good cause) at Van Courtland Park in the Bronx, NY. It was a very difficult course comprised of two laps when the distance contested was 10 kilometers – the distance contested at the nationals.
The start was on a grassy flat that led to a very difficult trek through narrow, climbing, twisting, blind turns strewn with vegetation and rocks. The footing was quite treacherous, and often, it was necessary to hurdle a fellow competitor who had fallen. The runner would pass through an area known as Cemetery Hill (it apparently was an old Indian burial ground) which I always thought was appropriately named based on the way I typically felt at that juncture of the race. Finally and mercifully, the runner entered the flats again only to be confronted by a repeat of the above described course negotiating lap 2.
I finally turned 40, and I was enjoying many wins in the master’s category at various road and track running events. One of my career highlights was winning first place master’s prize by a margin of 40 seconds at a road race with hundreds of participants covered by Sports Illustrated. One of my most enjoyable experiences was pacing prolific author, teammate and cardiologist, Dr. George Sheehan (the then medical editor of Runner’s World magazine) to an American age group record for 1500 meters at the AAU Eastern Regional Masters Track Championships at Princeton University. I was starting to think that I was a pretty darn good runner. I fantasized to myself, “I probably could have been an Olympian had I never stopped running after High School.” I was however, about to get a dramatic demonstration of the phenomenon of levels.
Fast forward to the national cross country championships at Van Courtland Park the next year. I had trained very hard that year to win the gold as the masters cross country champion. On race day, there were the usual familiar faces from the racing circuit except for one chap, a rather fit looking stranger. The gun sounded, and the aforementioned runner left the rest of the pack in the dust. I commented to another competitor with whom I had raced on numerous occasions, “This guy is going blow up very quickly.”
I was soon running in second place (behind the breakaway runner), and when we entered the hills, I lost track of the runner in front of me due to all of the turns, trees, and brush. Finally, I broke out on to the flats, and my suspicion was confirmed – the other runner had apparently dropped out, and I was leading the race! I pushed myself wanting to post a good time, and entered the dreaded hills for the second 5K loop of the race.
The practice at this meet was for an official to hand an ice cream stick to each competitor as he finished, with his place embossed upon it. I made a last valiant sprint to better my winning time, contorted my face in an “enhanced” grimace for the benefit of the press and photographers, and fell to the ground clutching my first place stick. I lay there moaning and retching from the effort, and finally recovered enough to glance down at my stick which mistakenly sported the number “2” on it. I staggered over to one of the officials to point out the error, and gasped to him as I approached, “You gave me the wrong stick – I won the race and my stick says 2nd place.” He pointed to my right at the runner who I thought had dropped out of the race and said, “He won the race.”
Oscar Moore, a 1964 Olympian at 5 kilometers had not dropped out of the race, but had won by a substantial margin in a new master’s course record time. He had apparently never stopped running and was currently the track coach at Glassboro State University. He had trained hard for this championship event which was going to be his (very successful) masters running debut. I’m too embarrassed to tell you Mr. Moore’s winning margin, but I had just gotten my best ever demonstration of Levels in Sport!! I also got a close up look at a true Olympian – not a wannabe such as myself! Levels!
So here you are, a hardcore competitor who is used to winning first place in your category at whatever sport you happen to participate in. The day of reckoning rears its ugly head and you come up against your equivalent of Oscar Moore in your next competition. What do you do? Do you give up because you must be the best? Do you get depressed or become impossible to live with? Do you find another sport? The answer is “none of the above.” We must each realize and acknowledge that there is always someone who is going to be faster, better, more skilled, etc. We must turn the experience into something positive. Let the phenomenon of levels work for you – not discourage you.
After my ill-fated meeting with Oscar Moore, I trained even harder than before, and I continued to set personal bests in subsequent years. Unfortunately, I never met the chap again in competition. Had that happened, he might have defeated me, but I can guarantee you that it would have been by a much lesser margin than our first meeting. I might have even kicked his butt!
In March of 2005, I had been cycling for just a few months, and, much to my glee, I discovered that I apparently had good genetics for the sport. I was “hanging” with the fast boys and started to consider the possibility of competing. I decided to enter one of the many Senior Games events offered throughout the year in Florida, and decided on an out-of-the-way venue where I could probably start my racing career with a win. The event was a 5 kilometer time trial, and I raced my heart out only to discover that not only did I not win (I took second), but I had lost by 33 seconds over a rather short distance! “Maybe bicycle racing was not for me,” I thought as a silver medal was hung around my neck.
The person who had defeated me, was Leon Burk, a multiple state and national time trial and road race champion who had broken numerous time trial records. In that obscure venue, I had stumbled on to a competition with one of the best racers in the country in my age group! As an aside, Leon is one of the most incredible gentlemen one could ever hope to meet. He is the prototype of a nice, unassuming, modest, but extremely talented man – the type of guy who you almost don’t want to defeat.
I had run into another example of levels, but I used it to inspire me rather than discourage me. I vowed that I would train diligently and someday – although it seemed an impossible dream at the time – defeat Leon in a time trial race. I kept a picture of him riding his time trial bike on my computer. Finally a year and 10 months subsequent to the first meeting, I defeated Leon in a 5K time trial. The margin was a mere 3 seconds, but I was elated.
Off the subject of levels for a moment: Let your defeats and failures inspire you. I mentioned in an earlier article dealing with the subject of time trial racing, that at the 2007 Senior Olympics, I went off course in a 10K time trial that I was sure I would win. I must honestly say that I still cannot help but thinking, “what if,” but I used the incident to inspire me to become a better cyclist. I trained harder than ever, and as of this writing, I have not lost another time trial in almost three years since the incident at the Olympics.
Train hard, treat your losses as inspirational fodder, and, perhaps, someday a competitor will tell the tale of the time he crossed your path only to have the phenomenon of levels painfully demonstrated to him or her!
There is a post script to this article (added 8-5-11). I alluded to going off course at the 2007 Senior Olympics. I stayed focused for four years, trained my butt off and contested the Olympics again in Houston on June 20th, 2011. I not only took first place in the time trial, but set a national record and oh by the way, defeated my former nemesis mentioned earlier in the article by one minute and 32 seconds and turned the top time of the day for all age groups (there were about 360 cyclist competing) including over 200 riders in four younger age groups (commencing at age 50)!
© Sandy Scott, May 2010