There’s a kind of grace to our forgetfulness.
I mean that, as humans, we find within ourselves the deep-seated tendency to remember the glory of the past while forgetting the pain. Add this to the fact that humans naturally think in terms of competition, and we can account for the fact that more often than not, we think that the past is in some way better than the present moment.
Hence, we find ourselves ever in the shadow of past greatness.
This kind of nostalgic language pervades athletics: “Those were the glory days,” some might say. “I was such a better runner in high school,” or “I was just so much more motivated last year.”
This way of thinking reminds me of an underhanded track tactic: runners form a tight pack, allowing the outside runners to control the pace and preventing the trapped runners from breaking away. The inside runners are “boxed in,” and it could cost them their race.
If we fall into this thinking, we essentially box ourselves in during our own race. There’s no possible way to improve if we believe that we have already reached our peak. Moreover, we implicitly minimize the validity of our struggle and the challenges we face today.
Overcoming this way of thinking requires a spirit of authentic humility. Humility allows for a detachment from one’s failures and the quiet striving for self-improvement. Rather than subscribing to a self-inferiority complex, humility frees us to engage with our own limitations with a sense of ascendancy.
Perhaps no better athlete embodies overcoming the “glory days” construct than Shalane Flanagan, the 2017 New York Marathon female champion who went to the race this year, not as a competitor, but as an ESPN commentator.
Flanagan was an unmistakable presence in the world of professional running for a decade and a half. She represented the United States in four Olympic games and was the first American woman to claim the New York Marathon title in 40 years, according to the New York Times.
Flanagan announced her retirement from professional running on Oct. 21 this year, and that she is now a professional Nike coach. Rather than bemoaning the end of her gold medal days, Flanagan recognized that this new chapter is a continuation of the ascent of her accomplishments.
On her instagram, Flanagan said that she can look back on her career with a sense of fulfilment because she constantly improved. She never allowed one victory to be the peak of her career—she was constantly moving forward.
“I am most proud of the consistently high level of running I produced year after year,” Flanagan said in the post that announced her retirement. “No matter what I accomplished the year before, it never got any easier. Each season, each race was hard, so hard. But this I know to be true: hard things are wonderful, beautiful, and give meaning to life.”