The art of accepting defeat

2009-05-08 00:00

For the past three years, in the Karkloof aQuelle mountain bike half marathon, I have come 10th from last. Or thereabouts. I always start in the middle of the 700-strong pack. I always overtake a few nervous beginners on the downhills and then get overtaken by a few hard workers on the uphills. But I always end, thinking that I am far from last, comforted by the noise of voices way behind me.

Relaxing at the finish line, I turn to smile nonchalantly at those I have beaten - three elderly men, one retired couple and a few Bingo players.

"Hold on, hold on, wait a minute. There were more of you. I can't have come 10th from last, again. Third year running."

It's not so much coming last that bothers me, it's that all I have ever been able to do is come last.

From the chubby little girl in her red costume finishing three strokes behind the rest, to the frantic 10-year-old trying hard not to look at the crowd as she puffs in a few minutes late, to the dejected teenager who only ever made the C-team, failure has cheered from the bandstand of every game I have played.

And now, long past the age when athletes peak, I have finally realised that I might never peak.

"I don't know what's wrong," I complained to my sister after last year's race.

"I go to gym three times a week, but still I always come at the back of the pack."

"It's not so much going to gym that helps," she replied, "it's what you do at the gym.

Do you push yourself, do you get out of breath, do you move your heart rate up?" The next day, I decided to make one final attempt to change my past forever.

The year 2009 would be the year when my name was near the top of the Karkloof Classic finishers' list. And so I began going to gym four times a week, ignoring the magazine stand and heading straight for the exercise bikes.

I began setting the heart-rate control at 155 and I began pedalling furiously. But days turned into weeks, weeks turned into boredom and boredom turned into a year before I noticed that the heart-rate monitor was beeping. And the heart light was flashing blue to show that I hadn't moved from resting to warm-up - for the past six months.

Now the white-and-red posters, lining the Pietermaritzburg streets: Karkloof Classic: Entries Open - send stabs of panic into my heart.

What to do, what to do? I can smell defeat in the autumn air.

Perhaps I could trade in my faithful, striped Bermuda shorts and my golf shirt for some genuine cycling gear. Then at least I'd look like I should have come in at the front of the pack, if only I hadn't developed those unfortunate cramps. I could put a Bell sticker over my no-name-brand helmet. I could trade in my old Giant for a Kona Hoss Deluxe. That might push me up a few extra places. Or, I could finally lay to rest the ghost of that chubby little girl.

I could give her a proper burial: "You don't have to win anymore," I'll reassure her. "No one's timing you now." And I'll explain to that 10-year-old: "Don't worry, just relax and enjoy yourself, it's all about the scenery."

And that teenager: "Don't chase after your youth. Don't wish you could do it all again. You're so much more pleasant to be around these days. So you're too old now to win the Classic. But with age comes wisdom, a sense of humour, and the hope that in 10 years' time your mind will just about be starting to peak."

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