Overcoming barriers is a common theme in sports. In my sporting discipline, the 3,000m steeplechase track race, the notion is not only figurative, it is also literal.
Five barriers over the course of a lap (including a water-jump) and having to cross them 35 times over the course of a 3,000m steeplechase race has a way of sapping the strength and power out of a runner’s legs like no other event. And, mind you, these barriers are no hurdles; while hurdles fall when one hits them, the barriers are immobile to the impact of one’s leg. And, when that happens, the consequences range from a knock and the resultant soreness you will rue post-race or an abrupt crash to the track that is as good as an immediate end to one’s race. (Examples of the latter abound on the world wide web.)
I will mark a return to the track (for the first time in over one-and-a-half years) later today at Choa Chu Kang stadium at 4.40pm for the Singapore Open Track and Field Championships in the 3,000m steeplechase.
I have raced various distances on the track, roads, and turf over the years but the 3,000m steeplechase offers a psychological challenge unlike any other. In the marathon, you might allow your mind to wander as your training allows you to slip into autopilot as you churn away kilometre after kilometre at a target pace. In the 800m, a racer mentally gears up for that final 300m when, operating at lactate threshold and arms and legs seizing up with every step, he cannot afford to think of anything else except pressing on in hope that the finish line would arrive soon enough (it almost always never is — soon enough).
The 3,000m steeplechase, however, does not afford the runner any space to lose focus nor cast his thoughts too far ahead. There is always an approaching barrier to sharpen one’s focus to ensure one navigates it (adroitly or haphazardly depending on how much fatigue has set in).
Approaching these barriers, there are always adjustments to be made: will my final step before I make the leap be too far away from the barrier? Will I be on my preferred foot when I am at the optimal distance from the barrier to make the jump? Am I carrying enough speed into the barrier? Make sure you take off with your right foot. Oh wait, I usually take off with my left. No, right. Ah, yes, right foot … darn the barrier is too close now, whatever foot it is, better jump and clear it.
With all these thoughts going on, doubt and fear have room to creep in, and they have a way of holding back a person, injecting caution into the confrontation of these challenges. When that happens, I find it is always useful to strip away the complications, simplify the challenge ahead (which in this case is clearing the barrier), and look at the barriers not so much as obstacles to hinder but obstacles to be attacked.
The antithesis to attacking a challenge is to allow a challenge to approach oneself. The former is active, the latter passive. Adopting an active mindset in relation to a challenge, as in a 3,000m steeplechase race, is crucial to conquering the challenge. Leonardo da Vinci articulated this concept eloquently when he said:
It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.
This recalls an episode titled Crossroads (link to short YouTube clip here and streaming link to whole episode here but I sincerely recommend you purchase the box set, which is well worth the money) from World War II miniseries Band of Brothers (BoB) when then-Lieutenant Richard (a.k.a Dick) Winters decided to conduct an assault on a German position, which was overlooking a key crossroads (hence the title of the BoB episode) dyke and turned out having at least 300 Germans (discovered only on hindsight), with only a platoon of 35 men.
I recall watching an interview (embedded below) of the late Winters where, in reference to the Crossroads episode (an excerpt of a different interview by American History magazine which recounts the same incident is appended), he said (and I paraphrase) that the Germans would have easily overrun them had they attacked but, because the German commander chose to be passive (and Winters, as the commander of his own troops, decided to take the initiative), Winters’ platoon was able to win the battle with the element of surprise in their assault.
Pardon my BoB indulgence there for, while my race and its attendant barriers (both literal and figurative) have no pretensions to being of equal standing as a challenge, the mantra to be brought confronting it similarly is: attack, attack, and attack.
Winters’ account of the Crossroads episode (7:14-19:00)
Major Richard ‘Dick’ Winters in an interview originally published by American History magazine, June 12, 2006
It was on October 5 at a place we called the crossroads. Earlier that evening one of my patrols had encountered a large number of Germans and been forced to withdraw. When they reported in to me what they had encountered, I decided to take a group out to stop these Germans from infiltrating our lines. When we got to the spot where the Germans were and I could see how many there were, I immediately gave a hand signal back to the men in the squad I had with me to follow me up to the dike. As they came up to me, I assigned each a target. I stepped back and in a quiet stage whisper said, ‘Ready, aim, fire.’ We eliminated all of our targets. At this point we are on the German side of the dike, and there are other Germans on the other side of the road leading to the Rhine River that intersects with the dike.
There was only one thing to do. I withdrew my men to an adjoining gully to assess the situation. I got in touch with company headquarters and told them to send up the reserve platoon. After I was joined by another platoon and some additional machine guns, I went off by myself a little way to assess the situation and decide what to do. My group was the only thing separating the Germans from the rear of my battalion. So I decided we must charge them. I returned to the gully where the rest of the platoon was, and after ordering fixed bayonets, which makes every man have a second thought, I signaled when to throw a smoke grenade. This was the order to charge. As I leap off and begin the charge I am pretty pumped up. In fact, I have never been more pumped up in my life. I ran faster across the field separating us from the Germans than I have ever run in my life. All the men in the company are behind me, but they seem to be moving so slow. Nobody seemed to be moving normally, only me. When I got up to the road where the Germans were, there was a German in front of me, so I shot him. I then turn to my right, and there I see a whole company of Germans. I began firing into them, and they seemed to be moving so slow and then the rest of the company joined me. As the boys said later, it was a duck shoot. They never had a target like that before. We had caught two companies of SS soldiers pinned to the dike, and as they retreated we poured fire into them, and then I called in artillery fire. We destroyed those two companies.