“Older” athletes often ask me what else they can do to prevent heart disease. As, by virtue of their athletic lifestyle, most have none of the usual cardiac risk factors. High blood pressure, smoking, diabetes and obesity are infrequent concerns for the competitive athlete.
A more vexing, and highly intangible problem for those who compete is the notion of self-worth. And this is important for the heart, as those who reach inner peace with themselves clearly have less inflammation–less chronic unremitting stress. The heart at peace just rolls on rhythmically, like a cyclist with an endless tailwind.
A wise friend, on a long car ride, once taught me about the metaphor of the pegs in your coat rack. That is, the notion that one’s self-esteem, self-worth or whatever we call that which gives us comfort in our own skin, needs to be hung on pegs, in a coat rack per say. Self-esteem gets to be a heavy load sometimes, so the wise man suggests not hanging too much on one peg, rather, it is much safer for the heart (soul) to spread one’s self-worth over many pegs.
For cyclists, an important question to ask ourselves, is how much of our self-worth do we hang on just one peg, the cycling peg for instance? If the answer is a lot, the peg had better be a strong one.
The most obvious example of having a strong cycling peg is Lance. Eventually, though, even his cycling peg will wear down and break. Like his peers, Michael Jordan, Roger Clemons, Brett Farve, to name just a few of many, did Lance return to competition after retirement because as a highly focused professional athlete there are few other pegs in which to hang self-worth upon?
But Lance is Lance, and his cycling peg is amongst the strongest. In the master’s cycling world, populated by middle-aged humans on the cusp of heart disease, it is too often the case that the cycling peg holds the heavy load of self-esteem. This is unhealthy, and even inflammatory, as amateurs are amateurs for a reason.
For me, I could consider myself an outstanding cyclist, an average cyclist and a terrible one all at the same time. In racing over-trained triathletes, I would be outstanding, against the local bike racers, I am a tick above average, and against world-class competition, I would fail miserably. And no matter how much I focus on one race, or one discipline, this pattern is impossible to change. But it would be possible to mess up my heart, or life trying to be world-class, or even just trying too hard to win a local criterium–and the fifty dollar prize.
The peg metaphor works in all aspects of life. In doctoring, there are still single-minded, work-obsessed doctors who round early in the morning and late into the night–although many fewer these days. Also, sadly, some doctors, like athletes that persist past their prime, keep working past their retirement age, again, in no small part because they have no other pegs in their coat rack on which to hang their self-worth. How many times have I seen the elderly doctor finally retire, only to be felled by a heart attack, or cancer. A result of chronic inflammation, perhaps? If only they had other pegs, retirement would surely be much less fearsome.
Finally, few better examples exist for the peg metaphor than kid’s sports. We want our children to be excellent at whatever they do, be it chess, swimming, math or whatever. But in striving for excellence, society seems to have convinced us (parents, coaches and teachers) that specialization is mandatory. For example, many seem convinced that Tiger’s success was because he golfed before being potty trained and persisted in single-minded focus throughout his life.
Perpetual specialization brings success, and with success comes fulfillment, seems to be the current dogma in children’s athletics. But the wise man knows this isn’t true, and in fact, it may indeed be the opposite, primarily because specialization and single-mindedness requires hanging too much self-worth on only one peg. For all but the 0.001% of children who go on to make a living in professional sports, having many available pegs in which to hang one’s self-worth is the most likely means of avoiding unnecessary inflammation of the heart (and soul.) Even the professional athlete would be served by having a few back-up pegs available for the future. Think, Eric Heiden, a former olympian, and professional bike racer, and now successful surgeon. Many pegs.
The wise man isn’t suggesting one should avoid getting really good at one thing, like mastering a skill, or trade, or learning a profession, but, in the journey for excellence in a singular goal, having other pursuits–other pegs–is critically important for the inner tranquility of the heart (and soul).
To my fellow cyclists, or over-achievers of any sort, kids and adults alike, listen to the wise man who suggests having many pegs in your coat rack, as self-worth is often a heavy load. Have no fear, having numerous pegs will not impede your progress in the endeavor of the moment. And, remember, life changes quickly, pegs crack under strain, or they just wear out with age. So it seems immensely wise to not hang too much weight on just one peg, rather, sharing the heavy load of inner peace over many pegs will serve a heart (and soul) well.
Ride on, but dwell less on the results, and more on the good sensations of the moment.