The idea for this post came as I was watching a very moving, yet brilliantly shot documentary about Ayrton Senna last night on the plane home to Sydney. Ayrton tragically died aged 34 at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. The reason why this film inspired me is because of the way the documentary captured so accurately the type of person Ayrton was and just how much of a driven competitor he was on the track – he was a born winner.
I’m of the opinion that you can spot people like Ayrton a mile off. They’re the type of people that have an extra something about them that makes them not just a champion, but someone who utterly dominates a sport so much that they become part of this elite group where the status of ‘legend’ is appropriate. Michael Schumacher, for whatever you may think of him was the same. Kilian Jornet is fast becoming this person as well.
For those not in the know, Ayrton was a Brasilian Formula One racing driver who by the time of his accident had won three world driver championships and was clearly head and shoulders above the crowd. He was a national hero in a country which was struggling socially and economically. He represented hope for millions of poverty-stricken Brasilians who looked up to their hero as a God of sorts. Ayrton was in turn very publicly open about his relationship with God, and some say that it was this attitude of putting his faith in God that may have ultimately seen his downfall – while he didn’t think he was invincible, there was certainly an amount of trust and faith that he put in God when racing. The weekend of his death was without doubt the worse in Forumla One history. In practice, Roland Ratzburger suffered fatal injuries in a horrific crash which left the community stunned, and then in the race itself, Ayrton lost control of his car and was killed too by a wheel axle that unluckily smashed into his head.
So why the inspiration? Well, the documentary showed for me two perfect traits that Ayrton had that made him stand out from the crowd. The first was humility, the second was the single-mindedness to win at whatever cost. These two traits are undoubtedly required for any sportsman wishing to make a success of the thing they love, but it strikes a lot of parallels with ultra running.
This article will create some debate for sure and will divide people but I think it’s an important one to have given where ultra running is right now in Australia. As ultra runners, we all tend to know each other given the close community here in this country, and for the most part there is a sense that the crowd is a nice crowd to be part of i.e. we all get along and there’s a good respect for each other. But here’s where I think ultra running needs to get a little nasty for want of a better word if Australians are to succeed on the international stage. Generally, we’re all pretty nice and given the range of emotions that one goes through on a long race, there tends to be more of a sense of being happy just to complete – after all, it’s only running isn’t it?
But are we happy with just completing, or should we be taking this sport slightly more seriously and should we start getting a little more focused on competing? There’s no doubt that ultra running in Australia is still in its relative infancy and that we are going through a growth phase right now, so will this see more of us competing now? Certainly this happens at the top end of the sport in this country, but what about a little further down when you get outside of the top ten? Are we really that bothered?
Here at Ultra168, we do tend to have a little joke and a giggle about the ‘joint finishes’ we see in races, but just how much does it matter? If we took a half-marathon for example, I’m sure we’ve all seen those fighting for 124th and 125th spot sprinting for a finish at the Blackmore’s… so why doesn’t it happen in the bigger races?
I’m not proclaiming to know it all here, nor am I fighting one corner or the other, but when it comes to ultra running… are we just a little bit too nice? One thing I will say is that in ultras, there is a tendency to spend a lot of time with one another on the trail and in the race. So when it comes down to the final few kms, it can make it that much harder for one guy to push on and leave the other given the emotions you’ve been through together. But should it really have got to that point in the first place? Is it the sign of us being too lazy to push on ahead in the early stages to take this out of the equation? Are we simply happy just running with our mates and having a merry singalong? But isn’t that what training is for? A race is a race is a race.
Back at GOW100km in 2009 I had been merrily running along the course not really expecting much at all. I found myself in third place at the final checkpoint, just as my good friend Gareth Parker was leaving in second place. It then hit me that I was actually in a race and not some tree-hugging competition to hold hands with one another. I ran as hard as I could to try and catch him as I wanted to beat him for second place. I didn’t catch him, but for the first time I’d actually ‘raced’ a race. Admittedly this was for the higher placings, but should it matter which place? I argue no. I had the same instance at the 2008 Deep Space marathon in Canberra. I was sitting in last position and I sure as hell didn’t want to finish last, so I tried as hard as I could to catch the next person, but failed. The fact was it was still a race.
I remember chatting to Andrew when he came back from Western States and he recollected just how hard it was to make up places once you hit the top 50. People fought for their right to hold that place and would make it damn well clear to those trying to take it that it wouldn’t be given without a fight. So why don’t we see that here? Are we not mature enough yet in terms of race numbers for that to happen? Does it happen here but on a smaller scale in the top five or ten?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, hence why I’m putting the questions out there for you to debate. One things for sure, is that we could all do with a little bit of Senna in us. Humility is a must for any self-respecting sportsman, but so is a single-bloody mindedness for a desire to achieve and win if we want to become truly great. Over to you…