Back on Track: Exceed Your Limits and Achieve Greatness


by Brad Barton


Bam! The discharge of the .45-caliber starter gun reverberates off the vaulted ceiling as my wife and I step in from the cold and enter the arena. I run down the ramp to see which race is being contested. I’m startled to see greying, middle-aged runners jockeying for position around the banked 200-meter indoor track.

“Alydia! What is this?” I ask my wife. “Old guys at a high-school track meet?”

“It’s the Coaches’ Mile,” she says. “It’s an annual tradition at the Simplot Games.”

The Simplot Games is one of the largest high-school indoor track meets in the world. We’re here to support our son, Jacob, a high-school junior who will be racing later in the day.

I have no idea my life is about to change.

I watch, mesmerized, as the field of aging runners settle into pace. I shake my head at the absurd spectacle before me. Come on! What is this? Coaches racing at a high school track meet? Old athletes trying to recapture past glories?

Something stirs deep within me. A longing. Fascination. It draws me in with inexplicable force. The potency of this reaction takes me by surprise. Driven by a long-forgotten competitive compulsion, my pulse quickens, my imagination surges.

The race nears its halfway point. I could do this. Two laps later. I should do this. So strong and vital are these sensations that I feel powerless to resist. As the race leaders struggle to the finish, “I will do this. Next year, I will be on that starting line. It’s time to get back on track!”

Good Enough...Isn’t!

Much of who I am, I owe to collegiate athletics. Distance running was my life. Competing in a highly successful NCAA program was intense—and I loved it. My teammates and I poured everything we had into the accomplishment of specific, lofty goals. We gave athletics a lot. It gave a lot back.
Now what? We’ve grown up. We lead busy lives, with myriad obligations, responsibilities, and details. Maintaining healthy balanced lives is increasingly difficult. Still, at some time during our settled or harried lives, have we not all felt that transcendent call to greatness, the urge to attempt something spectacular?

Charles “Chick” Hislop—celebrated collegiate track coach, former coach of the US Olympic team, and US Track & Field and Cross-Country Coaches Association Hall of Famer—made excellence his career. Our small college didn’t attract world-class recruits, yet Hislop consistently produced nationally ranked NCAA Division I cross-country teams and dozens of NCAA All-American 3000m steeplechasers. He took local, fairly ordinary runners and molded them into world-class competitors. He made us ordinary kids great.

As scholarship athletes, our job included reviewing the prerace plan and executing, discussing tactics and their implementation, and participating in a postrace interview conducted by our intimidating coach. There was almost always a discussion about mental toughness. Hislop’s profound grasp of fine detail, and the way he connected cause to effect, was amazing. I usually left those sessions chastened, instructed, and rededicated to running smarter and harder.

Occasionally, this ordinarily exhaustive postrace interview would consist of just four words. With a haughty look, tinged with disdain, Coach would look me in the eye and intone, “That was good enough.” He would then turn on his heel and leave me steaming.

“What do you mean ‘good enough’? Haven’t I suffered? Didn’t I sweat?”

Why was I so outraged? Because I knew Coach was right. Like a military strategist or a CEO, he had the uncanny ability to know when individuals on his team were holding back, selling out, or simply failing to reach their potential. Coach saw greatness in me that I didn’t see in myself. He knew that if I aspired to make an Olympic team, if I were to excel personally and professionally, I had to understand that good enough isn’t. I needed to build the habit of always getting better.

Running a race is hard. It’s tempting to ease up after the initial push, pull back on the pace, settle into mediocrity. Just as in life, after a powerful start, we tend to settle into routine. Life is stressful, our jobs are demanding, our plates are full. It’s easy to give in or hold back, and compromise our destiny.

Good enough might keep us employed or married; it might keep the bills paid, but good enough doesn’t stretch us. It doesn’t feed our souls. A dim glow doesn’t become us—we were born to shine.

Get Better at Getting Better

When you’re a competitive runner, you’re constantly chasing excellence. You’re focused on being better today than yesterday and better still tomorrow. Tiny improvements represent huge victories. You’re an organism constantly evolving toward an approximation of perfection.

This quest for excellence is isn’t just an ideal, it is our job—and it’s the coach’s job to see that we get our job done. Maybe that’s why these old coaches were out there running on that cold February day.

Watching the Coaches’ Mile, I realized there was something I missed about my NCAA experience, and I missed it a lot. For myself and my teammates, running was more than a sport. We strove to be the strongest, the fastest, the best. Our habit of continuous improvement, our quest for excellence, set the pace for our young lives. When we were running well—not just getting better, but getting better at the process of getting better—we created a positive wake. This slipstream effect drew along other important aspects of our lives as well, and we tended to excel academically, socially, and spiritually.

Then what happened? We graduated. Some of us started families. Some of us focused on our careers. We moved on. As we moved forward on our separate journeys, did we continue to nurture our passion for excellence? Did we maintain our commitment to continuous improvement, to getting better? Did we feel we were good enough at whatever we were good at? What became of our quest for excellence?

Why does this matter? Life is good. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family and a challenging, though rewarding, career. But, on that February day at the Simplot Games, I realized I’d somehow stagnated. I’d gotten good enough at too many things. I’d lost focus, abandoned the quest for excellence. Watching those gray-haired coaches run, I determined that even at forty-five years old, I would be a runner again.

Back On Track

So, I got back on track. A five-minute mile is a towering goal for someone my age, so I aimed for that. I pushed myself—hard—and ran that mile in 4:32. I called Coach Hislop, now retired, to share the results.

“Hey, Coach! I just ran a 4:32 mile. What d’ya think of that?”

A long pause.

“Hmmm…What’s the world record in the Masters 45–49 age group?”

“4:20.19”

Another long pause.

“Well,” he said quietly, “I guess we both ought to come out of retirement. You ready for one more adventure, Brad? Let’s go do some things that have never been done.”

Thus, the quest began anew.

By late March, under Coach’s guidance, I ran 4:26. By mid-April, 4:23. Then, just as we were about to make our first attempt to break a world record, I broke my foot. The quest was painfully terminated—but I had learned some things along the way.

You Don’t Always Get What You’ve Earned

Tough breaks happen. Bones break, hearts break. Referees make bad calls. Networks go down, stress goes up, less-capable colleagues get the promotion. We may be plagued by problems, but focusing on the unfairness of life induces self-doubt, rationalization, and mediocrity—and despair. We must get back on track and keep running anyway.

Rules Change

Breaking world records is serious business. Everything is open for reexamination. We discovered—painfully—that the training strategies we had used with great success in my college days didn’t work anymore. Training mileage, duration and intensity of hurtle ritual, rest during interval training, pacing, the warm-up cycle, negative race-pacing tactics, diet, nutrition, sleep: almost all of the weekly targets were significantly harder to achieve than they had been twenty-five years earlier. The parameters for each had to be tested, adjusted, tested again—with me as the guinea pig.

Reinvention Required

We had to completely reinvent how we handled the business of exceptional running. We usually got things right. On occasion, Coach and I committed destructive, fitness-compromising blunders.

Reinvention can be a painful, heartbreaking, soul-numbing process. But just like life, just like being great at anything, reinvention is necessary if you’re going to do something that’s never been done before. Constant reinvention and continuous improvement are fundamental requirements of world-class performance.

Back On Track...Again!

My broken foot was supposed to take four weeks to heal. It took three months. When I finally got back on track again, fitness returned slowly. But with consistent, determined effort, things started to come around. It wasn’t fun. Often, in the middle of a difficult interval workout, I would wonder how on earth I could continue. Coach Hislop offered perspective and encouragement.

“Brad, you need to understand the importance of four critical elements and the difference between them. Those elements are vision, mission, strategy, and tactics.”

Our Vision: Do Things That Have Never Been Done

Vision is what the thing you are aspiring to achieve looks like. When the process gets muddied by competing priorities, inevitable failures, the sheer suffering in the midst of difficulty, you’ve got to have a clear picture of what you’re to accomplish. Your vision is your guiding star.

Our Mission: Break Four M45 World Records

A mission is a specific objective or set of objectives. Missions can typically be tied to hard numbers, specific figures, or an organizational matrix. Our mission was to break four M45 world records: the indoor mile, the outdoor mile, the indoor 3000m, and the outdoor 3000m steeplechase.

Our Strategy: Low-Mileage, High-Intensity Workload

A strategy is a method or plan for bringing about a specific outcome. It includes marshaling resources and putting them to their most efficient, effective use. Coach and I decided that because of a previous knee surgery (to repair a severe lateral meniscus bucket handle tear), our best chance of avoiding injury was to limit my overall mileage. This was a deliberate quality-versus-quantity decision.

Our Tactics: Varied by Scenario

Tactics are the methods by which strategies are executed. They’re purpose-built to meet the demands of the moment. Tactics are fluid, often changing to fit the needs of a dynamic situation, sometimes in the midst of an interval workout or race.

Vision Illuminates the Path

My second failed indoor world-record attempt began with a brutal fall. In a crowded field of talented young collegiate milers, I was forced to run the first lap in lane three. Desperate to get to lane one, I shot a small gap at breakneck pace, was clipped by another runner, and took a hard fall on the inside rail, landing on my shoulder. I fought back to pace, and even managed to finish ahead of most of the college kids. But, I wasn’t even close to my goal.

“Coach,” I lamented, “this is too hard. I can’t do this.”

A classic Hislop pause.

“Brad,” Coach growled, “if this was easy, it woulda been done already.” Then, more gently, he said, “I understand. You’re hurting. You’ll hurt a lot more tomorrow. Remember what we’re doing, Brad. Get back home. We’ll patch you up, make some adjustments in your training, and get you to New York in three weeks. You’ll break the record there.”

And that’s exactly what happened. Because my coach kept my vision clear, I stayed the course, overcame the doubt, and approached my final attempt with determination and confidence. On March 2, 2013, at the Columbia Last-Chance Qualifier at The Armory in uptown Manhattan (the most famous indoor track in the world), I shaved 3.5 seconds off of John Hinton’s M45 indoor mile world record, finishing in a stunning 4:16.83.

There have since been triumphs and disappointments. I missed the steeplechase world record by a mere 1.5 seconds in Seattle last July. But I also claimed two US Masters championship titles, two American records in the 3000 m steeplechase, and two World Masters Games victories. Not bad at all!

If It’s Broken, Fix It

True to form, Coach had a plan. I couldn’t have run any harder in 2013, and 2014 would find me one year older and probably a little bit slower. To have any chance at that steeplechase record, we decided to take a higher risk, higher mileage approach to our 2014 campaign. We weren’t sure if my forty-eight-year-old knees could absorb the strain of increased mileage, intensity, and frequency. It was a Secretariat gamble.

In March 2014, the gamble netted us our second world record: 8:26.15, eight seconds faster than Spain’s Jesus Borrego’s 3000m indoor world record.

In April and May, new injuries robbed us of training time and compromised my fitness. After a grueling rehabilitation period and intense training, we were ready for a third world-record attempt. On June 8, in Nashville, Tennessee, we shocked the Masters Track & Field world by shaving nearly ten seconds off Norway’s Nils Undersaker’s 30-year-old 3000m steeplechase world record.

The next month, in San Diego, at forty-eight years old, I narrowly missed achieving our fourth goal—the outdoor M45 mile world record—clocking in at 4:17.45. In the process, however, I became the oldest sub-4:20 miler in history!

It has been quite a run.

*    *    *    *    *

Though difficult, my Masters Track & Field career has blessed my life immensely. Coach and I fulfilled our vision of doings things that have never been done, but the best part is experiencing that marvelous feeling again, that focus and determination on the quest for excellence. And, just as in my college days, the effort and momentum of this quest have created a slipstream effect, a positive energy wake that has drawn every part of my life along with it. I am a better father, a better husband, and a better neighbor. I read more, write more, and speak with greater authenticity and power about the joys of being alive and of pursuing difficult and worthwhile dreams.

Join me. Let’s get back on track!

 

Brad Barton, CSP, is a leadership and continuous improvement expert who helps companies create record-setting team cultures. He is the author of Beyond Illusions: The Magic of Positive Perception , and the forthcoming book Back on Track. This father of six is an NCAA All-American and holds several Masters Track & Field age-group world records. Follow him on Twitter @BradBartonTweet and on his website.

Tag(s): leadership, supportworld

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