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At mile 25, he asked if she wanted to walk. She acted like she didn’t hear him.

At mile 25.5, she began to run in the ditch bordering the road. He retrieved her. Back on the road, she began to zig zag. They could see the finish line.

At mile 25.6, she sat down on the side of the road. Then she lost consciousness.

On luck, science and quitting. 

If you believe Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow and a Nobel Prize winner, we tend to underestimate the role of luck when good things happen in our lives. For instance, managers of successful businesses tend to overestimate the role of their skills and underestimate the good fortune of operating in a particularly strong economy or market. Likewise, an investor whose contrarian choices make her very rich when her investments increase dramatically more than the market in general may attribute her success to unusually keen insight and intelligence.

On the other hand, Kahneman would say that we tend to overestimate the role of our circumstances when we suffer misfortune. A business’ manager may cite rotten timing to introduce an innovative product that fell flat in a sagging economy, evading blame for mismanaging the product’s development or marketing. A similarly contrarian investor may lose a fortune despite a soaring market but may blame particular circumstances facing businesses and industries in which she chose to invest, ignoring the investor’s responsibility for poor investment choices.

So, when we fail, we tend to blame our circumstances and bad luck. When we succeed, we credit our intelligence and hard work. Of course, assigning the proportionate contributions of luck, skill, intelligence and hard work to any single life or any single event within a life is practically impossible.

A short essay on luck seems like a cold way to address that poor woman lying unconscious in a ditch, especially when that woman was our daughter Katie.

An ambulance collected Katie from the July 4th marathon held on Sauvie Island near Portland, Oregon, where Katie and Marcus were living while both worked at Nike. Marcus had paced Katie through 97% of the marathon. He tried to prevent Katie from running in the ditch but quickly stood helpless on the side of the road while Katie lay unconscious.

Plans to eat strawberry pie at in the finish area and attend an afternoon barbecue changed quickly, four liters of IV fluid administered rapidly replaced plans for a Gatorade or two followed by a post-race beer. Instead of catching a shuttle bus back to Portland, Katie and Marcus took the faster route in the racing ambulance. In her stupor, Katie kept trying to remove her oxygen mask.

When it appeared as if Katie was regaining consciousness, the EMT asked her name.

“Katie,” she said.

“And what is your birthday?”

“Katie,” she said.

36 hours and a battery of tests later, Katie left the hospital with the understanding that she had probably just suffered from profound dehydration. Everything checked out fine except for one thing: Katie couldn’t remember what signs of distress she might have missed. How could she have let things go so wrong?

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Katie enjoys a somewhat expensive post-race drink of water in an effort to rehydrate.

Digression.

Katie was a nordic skier in high school and a rower in college. Nordic skiers and rowers have virtual dashboards that they can consult during races to determine their level of exertion and distress – heart rate, muscular fatigue, respiration. The last thing a nordic skier or rower does before starting a race is to take that virtual dashboard and flip a master switch to the “off” position. No red lights flash, no needles strain at the peg on the right, no warning buzzers or bells sound. No, nordic skiers and rowers go as hard as they can despite acute distress. They tend to be young and races tend to be short relative to marathons. So it doesn’t matter how hard they go; they’ll probably live. Nordic skiers and rowers don’t know when to quit.

Science.

Following her July 4th experience, at my suggestion, Katie visited my coach, Jared Berg, at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center. If Katie couldn’t remember the race, much less the signals she missed (or ignored), maybe Jared could test her to make sure that there were no otherwise undetected problems and could instruct Katie on the things she must do in the future to avoid a repeat ambulance ride.

On her way with Marcus from Portland to Evanston where Katie and Marcus will attend business school, they stopped in Boulder so that Katie could submit to science. Jared ran Katie through some of the tests I had suffered the prior November. Jared made Katie run on a treadmill wearing a mask measuring CO2 output. He poked her finger and measured lactate. He assessed her musculature and energy storage. In short, Jared made Katie a lab rat and measured everything.

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Katie prior to learning that the treadmill test would involve multiple finger pricks to draw and test blood.

Then Jared asked Katie about the race. How much water had she drunk? How many calories had she taken in on the course? How much sports drink did she consume? Jared scratched down some facts and figures. He concluded that Katie should have collapsed about two hours, forty-five minutes into the race. Katie outperformed, yielding to gravity and unconsciousness, cozying up with the pavement, at about 3:20.

So Jared gave Katie a wealth of information, all backed by careful measurements. Science. Jared restored Katie’s enthusiasm, not by giving her a pep talk but by equipping her with science. Jared let Katie know the exact heart rates at which she should train and race, the amount of liquids to drink, the number of calories to consume.

Sports, particularly endurance sports, romanticize will power. People talk about “pushing through the pain” or “running through the wall.” These acts of will have their place. Marathons and Ironmans are hard: That’s the whole idea. There are lots of chances to quit, so convincing yourself not to quit is the point. Less negotiable, however, are needs for simple things: food and water at a sustainable pace. Should your will power push you beyond the limits your body will endure when deprived of hydration or nutrition, your body takes over. Biology and chemistry make decisions that the most determined mind won’t. Your body shuts you down. Gravity beckons.

Luck.

Strangely, this brings us back to luck. For reasons none of us can entirely explain, some of us can bear a tremendous amount of athletic punishment and keep going. Others sensibly heed the signals that say, “stop or die.”  Call someone lucky if she can push through almost unbearable exertion and deprivation. But maybe it’s OK to call someone lucky if he listens to the still, small voice that says “enough.” Until your body robs you of the option to keep going, knowing when to quit is subtle and difficult.

Luck comes in additional forms. In 2011, I was lucky that only two faster guys showed up in my age group at Ironman Wisconsin. In 2014 and 2015, I was unlucky that two faster guys showed up in my Ironman Wisconsin age group and I had to stay home in October while they raced the Ironman World Championship in Kona. (In 2014 and 2015, I was in a smaller age group and needed to finish in the top two to qualify for Kona; in 2011, I needed only to finish in the top four.)

In 2018, unbeknownst to me, I entered a drawing in which my name was allegedly drawn at random. I was one of 40 entrants in Ironman events throughout the world selected to race the 40th Ironman World Championship. This time, my appearance in Kona will be all luck. And I had so wanted to qualify to race Kona again to prove that 2011 had not just been luck.

Life and endurance sports are similar. The people who work harder tend to get luckier. But some of the hardest working people end up with almost nothing but bad luck. Some people ignore science and seem to thrive. (Think of perfectly healthy lifetime smokers or runners who don’t take a sip of liquid during a marathon.) Others eat nothing but Whole Foods-sourced meals, exercise frequently and get brain tumors. (Think of Warren.) It’s a strange mixture, each of us inheriting or earning different amounts of skill, will, intelligence and luck. Separating that which we can successfully control to thrive and that which we can’t control is a lifetime enterprise.

Grass and rock.

So I look forward to racing Kona again in 2018. I cannot deny the role of luck in affording me the chance to enter Kailua Bay, the sun just rising above the palm trees and church steeple on the eastern horizon. Later in the afternoon, when I crest Palani Hill for the second time to head out onto the lava fields, I need to hold science dear, to observe its limits, to drink and eat enough to run by the desiccated tufts of grass that poke out of deep crevices in the swirls of brown lava rock. How do those tufts of grass grow there under the sweltering sun where heat bends light wavering on the horizon? Even in nature, some things just don’t know when to quit. They hang on, shrouded in the mysteries of luck, science and persistence.

Postscript.

Katie and Marcus have made it to Evanston and will start business school this week. Katie will take a break long enough to come to Kona to see me race the Ironman World Championship on October 13th. Margy, my mom, sisters and brother-in-law Rick Long will be there, too. It will be a long day. Best that they mind their nutrition, hydration, and sunscreen, too. I already feel enormous gratitude that they will cross half the country and half of the Pacific Ocean to be there for me. Talk about luck.

 

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