Currently I’m working on a book called The Comeback Quotient, in which I attempt to answer a very simple question: What is it that enables some athletes to overcome major setbacks and make the very best of the very worst situations?
The answer I offer will surprise many. Comebacks come in infinite varieties, but the one thing that every athlete is doing in every improbable comeback is fully facing reality. To make the very best of the very worst situations, I argue, an athlete must first accept their current reality, then embrace it, and finally address it to the best of their ability. In the terms of a popular expression, the athlete must first face the fact that life has given them lemons, then commit to making lemonade from those lemons, and then actually make lemonade. Fully facing difficult realities is way harder than it sounds, and this is why only a small fraction of athletes are truly able to make the very best of the very worst situations. I call these athletes ultrarealists.
I do not make this argument merely because I think it can sell books. I really believe in it, to the point where, as an athlete myself, my entire mental approach to training and competition is focused on facing reality fully. It’s difficult to overstate how helpful it is to me to consciously endeavor to first accept, then embrace, and finally address reality each time I face a major challenge or setback. Like right now, for example.
Few setbacks I’ve experienced have been greater than my recent monthlong battle with an illness that I’m 99 percent certain was COVID-19. Never before have I been so sick for so long, or done so little exercise for such a long period of time. I was in really good shape when I got sick, having just finished 15th overall at the Atlanta Marathon. Then the bottom fell out. During the worst period of my illness I went 13 straight days without doing any exercise. I couldn’t even walk the dog some days. It’s difficult to quantify how much fitness I lost, but I can tell you that when I did the first outdoor run of my comeback a couple of days ago my Garmin 935 rated my Performance Condition at -9 and told me to rest for 3.5 after I completed seven miles at 75 seconds per mile slower than my former easy pace.
The big mistake that a lot of athletes make when they’re in a situation like mine is to compare their current selves to their former, fitter selves throughout the process of coming back, which breeds discouragement. That’s a failure to accept reality, plain and simple. As a coach, I’m always telling athletes to look at it this way: As long as you’re training, you’re either already fit or you’re getting fitter. Neither of these things is bad. Yeah, being out of shape kind of sucks, but improving is fun, so if you’re out of shape but improving, focus on the latter part. That’s what I’m doing here in the early stages of my comeback.
After acceptance comes embracing. If I hadn’t gotten sick, I would now be pursuing the goal of winning my age group in some ultramarathon. Instead I’m pursuing the goal of rebuilding my fitness to the point where I can contemplate setting an ambitious competitive goal of some kind or another. I’m embracing my situation by finding as much enthusiasm for my actual goal as I would have had for the goal that was obviated by my illness. I’m genuinely eager to see how quickly I can get fit again.
Champions are really good at embracing Plan B when Plan A goes out the window. One of the athletes whose story I’m telling in The Comeback Quotient is Petra Majdič, a Slovenian cross-country skier who came into the 2010 Winter Olympics as a favorite to win gold in the women’s sprint event. That goal went out the window, however, when Petra flew off course while warming up for the qualifying round and fell into a 10-foot gulley, breaking five ribs. Incredibly, she still competed, though her goal now was not to win a gold medal but to try her best and not give up. Even more astonishing, Petra advanced from qualifying to the quarterfinals, from the quarters to the semis, from the semis to the final, and came away with bronze—all in the span of four hours and despite suffering a punctured lung during her semifinal—and she did it because she not only accepted her freak setback but embraced the new situation it put her in.
Accepting that life has given you lemons and resolving to make lemonade from them do not guarantee that you’ll end up with lemonade. Athletes often fail to successfully address the reality of a bad situation through failures of will and failures of judgment. Either the reality they confront in the effort to make the best of the situations is too much for them or they misread the demands of the new reality and apply the wrong solution. Petra Majdič did not do the impossible when she won a bronze medal with five broken ribs and a punctured lung. She simply accepted a level of pain that very few athletes could. It so happens that I injured several ribs during my recent illness as a result of violent coughing, and they still hurt like hell when I run, and I can tell you there’s no freaking way I would be able to force myself to produce four all-out cross-country ski efforts with the injuries Petra had!
I will, however, be willing to do the hard work necessary to regain my lost fitness as quickly as possible. The thing I mustn’t do is try to do it more quickly than possible. I will need to exercise discipline and restraint throughout the process, making smart and sometimes disappointing decisions to minimize setbacks. Too many athletes try to make the best of bad situations through brute force alone. They want the solution to be, if not easy, then at least simple. Like all forms of wishful thinking this is a denial of reality.
In a way, it is actually very simple. No matter what sort of setback you’re trying to come back from, the way to do it is to fully face reality in three steps: accept, embrace, address. In short, be an ultrarealist!