Let me tell you about one of my heroes.
In 2003, while studying abroad in the Czech Republic, Andre Kajlich waited by a train one night after hitting the bars with his friends. The next thing he knew, he was on the tracks, struck by the train, and fighting for his life.
The accident severed both of his legs and, remarkably, left him alive.
Eight years later, in 2011, he competed in his first para-triathlon. Rather than remaining crippled emotionally and physically by the accident, he found a way to explore his limits. Now a world famous para-athlete, Kajlich blogs openly and honestly about his setbacks, aspirations, and his journey.
I first read about Andre in a Runner’s World interview a few years back, before I officially took up running. I was pretty stunned at the raw honesty of some of the statements he made about his life. I guess I was in a place where I needed a wake-up call of my own. I encourage you to read the interview just to get a hint of why this was life-changing. Here's a quote:
“It’s an amazing thing, running- especially at that maximum turnover. It’s also amazing to never do something again because you can’t. I’d like to transfer that concept into everyone’s head, because inevitably it will happen to all of us.”
Soon I began stalking him as I tend to do when I find extraordinary people with stories I can't shake. I eventually reached out to Andre and we exchanged a few emails about the psychology of motivation, failure, and the allure of extreme sports. I’ve been particularly interested in the concept of failure, because in order to achieve anything really large, you tend to run into failure along the way. And, you have to learn to handle it like a champ. After attempting his biggest feat yet, the SoCal400, this May, Andrei agreed to do an interview with me.
Failure is a strange subject to discuss in the world of extreme sports. When an extreme athlete fails to reach a set goal, there is a sense that it doesn’t matter: They’ve already gone above and beyond norms anyway. But many athletes argue with this notion, insisting that the goal you set is the one by which you measure your success. Dean Karnazes says, “You can’t be afraid to fail. But unless you fail, you haven’t pushed hard enough.” When Andre stopped short of the finish line at the SoCal400, I knew I needed to interview him to hear some thoughts about what happened:
M: You set out to achieve a goal that surpassed anything you'd done before: a 400 mile ride with a 32 hour time limit. Going into it, what was your mindset like? Did you entertain the idea that you might not finish?
A: I definitely entertained the idea of not finishing but was pretty confident that I would. I don't think I would consider it over-confidence but I did make a major mistake of seeing this race as just a small thing on the way to Race Across America. Considering it is the biggest race I've ever done, too much of my focus was on what came next. Because of that, my planning, preparations and even the trip surrounding the race were totally inadequate. I got down there about 36 hours before the race, behind on sleep and with a ton of things left to do. Without trying to make it sound like physically I should have completed the thing... scratch that... physically I should have finished it.
M: Talk to me about thoughts along the way. What were strategies you used when things got difficult? What obstacles did you face?
A:The race was going great. I think in the first 100 miles you go up from sea level to 5300ft. back down a couple thousand before climbing up again and then you drop down into the furnace that is the Salton Sea basin. It's a tough start but I was going well. During the big climb my sister drove up with music blasting and we had some fun; then I'd tell her to buzz off for a while when it started getting tough and I felt like focusing for a while. Then I saw a group of riders ahead I started to just reel them in, caught up, chatted a bit, and then took off with some extra hop in my step. It really helps to have a diversity of emotions and a diversity of things to give your attention to over the course of a race.
M: Many athletes know that we must have reasons to call on when things seem insurmountable. Do you remember the reasons you called on?
A: I don't call things like “what I'm doing this for,” “what I've sacrificed,” or anything like that. I try as much as possible to go with the experience and the emotions that come with it, because ultimately that's why I'm out there - to experience this thing. In the past, I've had strategies worked out in advance—normally just ways of seeing the race. For example, during my first Ironman I decided I would not think about the end of the bike. At the time the distance was really daunting. So I just tried to get myself to be okay with pedaling forever. That actually worked really well. Often I get tired in the longer than 24 hour races and come to a point where I want it to be done—I want out. Thankfully some switch gets flipped finally and I'm like a machine. I don't care how hard it is, I actually relish it, and no matter how long it takes I'm going to finish "this thing." Unfortunately that didn't quite happen in this last race.
M: What did the failure to reach the finish line mean for you? In what ways was it positive? In what ways negative?
A:At the time I didn't really care. I mean, that is why I quit. The entire point alluded me. It was lack of sleep and the same thing has happened in the past to me but I have been able to get over that particular point in the race. This time that didn't happen. I told my team I'd continue another 30 minutes but we chatted about it and I just decided to stop. I'm sure if I'd done that much more, it would have got me going again. So really, at the time I didn't care but now I'm pretty bummed about it.
M: What would you go back and say to yourself at the start line, or during that race, if you could?
A: It would probably require going back a bit further than that. I got to the start line too tired and I don't know how much I could have done. More importantly, I don't think I'd say anything to myself, other than "Be safe and enjoy this,” because I’m glad this happened. I learn best through experience. If I really found myself at that stopping point or was advising someone else, I'd say get in the van and sleep for 30-60 minutes and then make up your mind.
M: What's next for you as an athlete and a human being?
A: In my mind, it’s an unnecessary distinction. It's all part of my life and for me it doesn't matter so much what I do as long as I can make them quality experiences. Right now, I'm hoping that I can go race this fall. There's a number of races (Silver State 508, No Country for Old Men, 24hr World Time Trial Championships) that I could race and try to qualify for Race Across America. At the same time, I really can't afford any of them and have other important things to figure out in my life. Well, riding and racing seem to help me think on those things so maybe I'll just pick one and go for it.
I used to think that many people never truly have to face failures, because big failures require big risks, and vice versa. But now I realize: We all know what failure feels like. We've all, at some point, taken a risk at something that didn't pan out. It doesn't have to be an ultramarathon or a business idea or an application to Harvard. It can be a human relationship. It could be a phone call to your mom. It can be a time you tried to give somebody a Valentines Day Card in middle school and they laughed in your face. Failure is an experience, and it helps you understand limitations and obstacle so that you can push against them like the little obstacle-crusher that you are.
When have you failed? Why did it happen? What would you have done differently? Share it. The world wants to know.
~Stay tuned for more interviews with heroes and athletes I've stalked. ~
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