IT'S GREAT TO SUCK AT SOMETHING

Emilio Previtali

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Santini

min read

Over the last 15 years, I’ve become sort of obsessed with running. I run four times a week and in winter, I do more running than I do training on my bike. The reason is...

Over the last 15 years, I’ve become sort of obsessed with running. I run four times a week and in winter, I do more running than I do training on my bike. The reason is, of course, that, aside from cycling and ski mountaineering, which is my sport of origin, I like triathlons. I’m crazy about them, in fact. The IRONMAN circuit competitions have become my main sporting passion and now they are the only competitive events I take part in. I do regular long distance running training. I do short and fast training sessions, pace training, repetitions, interval training, technical work on the track to improve my ground contact efficiency; I have spent hundreds of euro on running shoes with carbon midsoles of all shapes, sizes and kinds in a bid to improve my speed. Though I never use them because I am too ashamed to put them on, I even bought the shoes that Eliud Kipchoge was wearing when he went under the two hours in a marathon.

And after all that, nothing. I am a crap runner.

I have been a genuinely very poor runner forever. In Italian, they call runners like me a tapascione, someone that runs slowly and badly with little in the way of grace or style. And yet I’m a properly good cyclist. When I’m competing in triathlons, I quite often clock the fastest time in my category in the cycling section. I swim well too, I cycle very well without straining and when I get to the final running running part, I find myself up there with the best athletes in my age-group. And that’s when the trouble begins. As I run along, I am passed out at double my speed by almost every other competitor in the race, be it man or woman, be they thin or overweight, young or not so young. It hurts like hell.

But I don’t give in.

Triathlons came into my life by chance in 1980. One day my father came home after an all-day running + cycling training session. He’d read a very short piece in the Corriere della Sera about this kind of crazy event in the Hawaiian Islands with a 3.8 km swim, 180 km cycle and a final 42 km marathon. He wanted to try triathlon his own way in a solitary training session, shortening the distances by eye “to get a good idea of how difficult it is”. Or so he told my (furious) mother and I to justify his actions. I was at the time 13 and his favourite companion on his sporting adventures. The two days that followed that monster training session my father spent lying in bed with a high temperature – the only time apart from his final illness that I saw him stay home from work.

My personal long distance triathlon adventure, on the other hand, began almost 30 years ago in 1993. My father had passed away very suddenly from cancer four years previously. Before then, I had never run seriously at all. Just skied, climbed, swum and cycled a lot. Along the road to Embrun, home to the Embrunman, one of the planet’s toughest Ironman events because of its 5,500 m D+, including the Col d’Izoard climb, I’d noticed a banner advertising the event. I went to experience it at first-hand out of curiosity because I wanted to see what kind of nutcase athletes there might be competing. The following year, at the age of 25, I was one of them, ready to start.

I finished the event no problem and I continued to enthusiastically do others and then others still. So far I have done around 40 over the longest distance, which qualified me to enter in the Ironman World Championship in Kona in 2023. I didn’t do anything particularly heroic. I didn’t qualify on the field by winning my age-group category. What I was given was a kind of career award thanks to the IRONMAN Legacy Program, through which the organisers give the most stubborn and patient athletes that have completed a certain number of races, the chance to take part at least once in their lives in the final event on the circuit, the one in Hawaii where it all began.

I came close to qualifying several times. Once I missed out by a mere 14” seconds compared to the competitor ahead of me and that was a huge disappointment. When I got the call when they were picking the slots, I just stood in the middle of the room with a dry mouth and an enormous lump in my throat. I was the first of the athletes ruled out. But come hell or high water, I never stopped believing and trying, turning up for IRONMAN distance events all over the world. It was fun, a lifelong experience, something that pushed me to keep myself young and improving, but it never spilled over into obsession.

It might seem stupid to say so but at the end of the day, I am happy I have never managed to qualify for the final by winning my age-group (so far at least). If I had managed to do it easily, I would probably have quickly moved on to something else. But instead here I still am, motivated and enthusiastic.

I will be at the start of the IRONMAN Arizona in November and then next summer, before the final in Kona in October, I will try to qualify again for the umpteenth time. I will try to run a perfect race, the one I have been dreaming of for a lifetime: a perfect marathon. The kind that only exists in my imagination and that I have never managed to actually run. There are athletes that train to compete and athletes that compete to train, to feel alive, to stay motivated. I belong to the second category. I will try to qualify on the field and when I get the call for when it comes to picking the slots, I would like to be able to say: “No, thank you. I have already qualified for the final in Kona,” leaving my place to the athlete after me in the classification. That’s my dream: to give someone else the chance that I never had and to enjoy their unexpected happiness.

So why do I keep plugging away at something I keep failing at you might ask? Why keep going with the triathlons and training for the marathon with the aim of improving even though I will never be a real runner?

Because being poor at something and not giving a damn yet still plugging away is a wonderful thing.

There’s a book by the climber Lionel Terray called “Conquistadors of the Useless”. It is a very famous book that I read when I was very young and which left its mark not just on my imagination but also on that of many climbers the world over. This phrase pops up about halfway through the book:

“And so where will we be able to go? Can we say we really know ourselves? We are chasing adventures. We aren’t chasing success. We are seeking hours of intense suffering and joy. What interests us is the battle not the victory. We rise high above the most beaten tracks and avoid the most popular peaks. Our kingdom is the kingdom of the useless. We want to feel the doubts and the unknowns of the first mountain pioneers and we contemplate the possibility of failing” ― Lionel Terray – Conquistadors of the Useless

My reasons are as follows: I am not interested in winning or even conquering: I am competing against myself not others. I am seeking a state of being, a feeling, a way of bringing my life into balance using my sporting performance as the excuse to boost my tenacity, to learn and persevere, to try to do a bit better every time. The IRONMAN competitions are just a pretext, an opportunity, a way of testing myself with others in a kind of collective game. If I look around me, I get the feeling is that a lot of us think like this. Maybe that is why IRONMAN competitors feel part of something, a community, because what they all have in common is not a sporting goal to be achieved but a desire they want to nurture.

What IRONMAN athletes dream of regardless of whether they finish it in under eight hours or in 17, are dreaming of is becoming the best version of themselves. If someone tells you that doing an IRONMAN is beyond you, don’t listen to them and throw yourself into it. It really is worth it.

Emilio Previtali
A man with a passion for cycling, triathlons and writing in equal measure, Emilio Previtali was once a professional skier and mountaineer. He has done Telemark and snowboarded on some of the world’s highest mountains and is managing editor of Rouleur Italia. At 54, he still regularly and unashamedly shaves his legs. He also hopes to one day ski Everest and do the Ironman in Hawaii.
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