Sunday, January 20, 2013

Lance Armstrong, Kirby Puckett and the harrows of hero worship

“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” -- F. Scott Fitzgerald

In some ways, I feel obligated to write about Lance Armstrong. After all, he built himself up to be Michael Jordan of cycling, and as an avid cyclist myself, I should be devastated in some way to hear him admit to Oprah that it was all a steroid-fueled lie.

However, if I tried to claim devastation, that would also be a lie. Armstrong's much-anticipated interview aired for the first time on Thursday, but I didn't seek it out on TV, nor did I really care what he had to say. In my mind, Lance admitted his guilt back in August when he announced he wouldn't fight the charges leveled against him by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. He hadn't publicly confessed to steroid use at that point, but silence often says more than words ever could in the court of public opinion. The Oprah interview did little more than confirm what the majority of us already knew about the fiery Texan.

From a personal standpoint, even before the announcement last August, it didn't really matter to me whether Armstrong was guilty or innocent. Armstrong may have been the most decorated cyclist in history, but he was never a hero or inspiration to me. I got into cycling for the health benefits and because I enjoyed the travel and adventure aspects of it; I didn't get into it because I dreamed of winning the Tour de France.

Consequently, the cyclists I look up to most aren't the Greg LeMonds and Lance Armstongs of the world. It's people like Eric and Christie Nelson, who biked from Minnesota to Argentina because they wanted to "let the world impact them." Or people like Delicia Jernigan, who biked across the U.S. by herself to raise money for suicide awareness.

Mind you, that shouldn't suggest I wasn't impressed by Armstrong's achievements. I admired his ability to dominate the sport as much as the next person, but I'd feel the same about any athlete regardless of what sport he or she played. His story of beating cancer and raising millions for cancer research was and is heart-warming, but it would be just as inspiring to me if it were a different person of similar fame and fortune.

I tend to be very skeptical when it comes to worshiping pro athletes and other celebrities. They may be revered in the public eye for their personality and accolades, but who they are privately could be something completely different.

In my own experience, hero worship of athletes often leads to heartbreak and disappointment.

Growing up, Kirby Puckett was more than just a baseball player to me; he was a God. The star center fielder for the Twins represented everything I loved about baseball. He hustled, he played Gold Glove-caliber defense, he delivered clutch hits and he did it all with a smile. I idolized Puckett to the point where I wanted his number on all my little league jerseys, cried during his retirement announcement (a tough day for 11-year-old me) and watched the 1991 World Series highlights on a regular basis.

I didn't just admire his talents as a baseball player; I looked up to him as a person as well. Puckett was long considered one of the "good guys" of baseball; a short, stocky, happy-go-lucky dude who played the game with joy and worked tirelessly as a humanitarian when he wasn't hitting home runs. Other ballplayers dealt with steroid accusations, substance abuse and legal troubles, but Puckett always seemed to rise above it.

However, that turned out to not be a lie. Only a year after being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001 -- an induction ceremony I begged my dad to take me on a road trip to see -- reports surfaced that Puckett's wife Tonya threatened to kill a woman over an alleged affair she had with him, and that another woman filed a protection order against Puckett, claiming to have an longstanding extramarital relationship with him. Later in 2002, Puckett was arrested for allegedly assaulting a woman and groping her in a restaurant bathroom. He was later acquitted of the charges, but the damage to his image had already been done. The nice guy persona he spent years cultivating was replaced with that of a cheating husband who showed about as much respect to women as he did to opposing fastballs at the plate.

In 2003, Sports Illustrated published a revealing cover story about Puckett's fall from grace in which both his ex-wife and former mistress described his behavior as being "erratic" and "abusive." Some of the more eye-popping revelations in the story include incidents where he strangled Tonya with an electrical cord, threatened her by putting a gun to her head and once admitted to his mistress that he openly despised doing the charity work he was so revered for. "He always said how much he hated going to the hospitals," she told SI. "He became more [vocal] about how much he hated it after he retired, but he always said he hated it."

I remember being absolutely devastated by all of this. The beacon of virtue I looked up to all my life and dreamed of meeting one day turned out to be anything but virtuous. I didn't know what to do with myself after that. It was like finding out that Gandhi was secretly a KKK member or something.

Eventually, I adopted the same mindset about Puckett that I currently have with all pro athletes: I don't need to respect them as a person to admire their remarkable gifts. That's probably the biggest reason why I wasn't heartbroken by Lance's admission: I never held him on a higher pedestal than being a great athlete. He may have SEEMED like a good person in all the fluff pieces written about him over the years, but then again, so did Puckett.

Now that Lance's confessions are out in the open, some of his more vehement supporters over the years have been the most critical. ESPN's Rick Reilly wrote:

"When he says he's sorry now, how do we know he's not still lying? How do we know it's not just another great performance by the all-time leader in them? And I guess I should let it go, but I keep thinking how hard he used me. Made me look like a sap. Made me carry his dirty water and I didn't even know it."

I sympathize with Reilly's feelings of betrayal. They're pretty similar to the feelings I had back in 2002 when I found out my hero was a hoax. It hurts when you deeply admire lets you down, especially when it's someone you defended so passionately. But in a way, it also makes you more of a realist and serves as a reminder of two important life lessons: Nobody's perfect and perception doesn't always mirror reality.

I'll never look up to another athlete like I did with Kirby Puckett. And truthfully, it's probably better that way.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Lapping it up: Nicole Porath and the concept of running an indoor marathon

Venue means a lot when you're running a marathon.

If it's a course with a few hills sprinkled in, the inclines will likely look more mountainous as the race progresses. If it's on a course with little to no tree cover, you keep your fingers crossed for cloudy weather and gentle breezes.

Or, if it's the Zoom! Yah! Yah! marathon at St. Olaf College in Northfield, you better be ready for a few turns and very little scene variety, because it all takes place within the confines of Tostrud Field House. Where you run around a track. For 150 laps.

The annual race took place this past weekend and, as reported by my colleague Jordan Osterman of the Northfield News, Northfield native Nichole Porath set the world record for fastest indoor marathon time by a female, clocking in at 2:57:34. According to Runner's World, Porath's time obliterated the previous record (held by Melissa Gillette) by more than 11 minutes.

Nichole Porath leads a group of runners at the
Zoom Yah Yah! indoor marathon at St. Olaf.
(Photo by Jerry Smith of the Northfield News)
"I must take the time for a brief aside to mention that I know this is an obscure world record, and I in NO way think that I am a world class runner. I am just merely the fastest crazy woman to run an indoor marathon!" Porath wrote to Runner's World.

Incidentally, the record-breaking time wasn't even Porath's fastest marathon. She ran a 2:44:12 last year at the Olympic trials in Houston and is currently training to qualify again this coming fall.

The concept of an indoor marathon isn't a new one. Joie Ray held the record for fastest indoor marathon time for more than 80 years until Michael Wardian broke it with a time of 2:27:21 in 2010. 

It is however a type of race with sparse participation. Despite its growing popularity in recent years, most indoor marathons have modest turnouts. The Zoom! Yah! Yah!, for example, had 44 racers this year. Of course, this is partly due to practicality, as it'd be near-impossible to cram the 10,000-plus runners who participate in Grandma's Marathon onto an indoor track. It would also be difficult to provide all of those runners with individual timers, as the Zoom!  Yah! Yah! does thanks to strong volunteer numbers.

Despite the low participation numbers, indoor marathon enthusiasts assure that it's a sociable race. Crowds are close to action at all times -- rather than just picking one viewing spot like you would at a conventional marathon -- and the time spent running next to each other on a track gives competitors a chance to get to know each other.

"It's one of the easiest marathons a person can run. It's a really controlled environment, and there is a lot of interaction with other runners," runner and Northfield native Joe Winegardner said in a Star Tribune story last week. "It's just a wonderful experience."

As with any marathon, indoor races have injury risks. The constant turns can have a serious effect on a runner's hips, feet and knees and the hard track surface doesn't do any favors either. Porath herself dealt with a blood blister on her foot for the last hour of her race.

However, most indoor races try to limit the effects of constant turns by allowing runners to switch directions every so often. The Zoom! Yah! Yah! race, for example, allows runners to switch every 30 minutes.

And as Porath told the Northfield News, the close quarters of the field house also helped her keep focused on what she wanted to accomplish.

“It’s much more of an intimate environment. Everyone is watching you literally every step of the way,” she said. “It was cool to have that support throughout."

I can't say I'll be one of runners converting to indoor races anytime soon. I love running outside too much and when I think of marathons, I visualize crossing the Brooklyn Bridge or conquering Heartbreak Hill. Running on an indoor track makes me think of the mandatory gym class I took in college and how I wished our professor would let us play badminton instead. Big difference.

I will however tip my hat to Porath for her amazing accomplishment and extend my admiration to the runners who make indoor marathons a regular race for themselves. It takes a lot of focus to get through a marathon even with the most picturesque setting as a backdrop. I can only imagine the concentration it takes to run 26.2 miles with nothing more than field house walls and an indoor track to look at.