The Cardinal Virtues Of Endurance Athletics

In Christian tradition there are four cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.

St. Augustine said of these virtues “For these four virtues (would that all felt their influence in their minds as they have their names in their mouths!” Far be it from me to question the great Augustine, but it seems to me he missed something. Would that all felt their influence in their minds so that they feel it in their legs.

Yes. I said legs. As it happens, the four cardinal virtues, whose cultivation prepares us for heaven, are equally necessary for success (however one defines it) in the world of endurance athletics.

As a Catholic and an endurance athlete, I am constantly reminded of the parallels between an active and conscious Christian life and endurance training.

Prudence is the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time. In the Ironman triathlon, one must complete a 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles on a bicycle, and then run a full 26.2-mile marathon. Training for such an event is all about balance achieved only with prudence.

As in life, some abilities come easier to us than others. Some people are naturally patient; others are (ahem) not. Training for such an event as the Ironman forces us to focus our efforts on the areas in which we are weakest. Swimming comes the easiest to me and as a result, I really enjoy it. Biking, on the other hand, can often seem like such a chore. It would be great if Ironman success could be achieved mainly in the pool, but it is not so.  To finish my first Ironman, I spent over 50% of my training time on the bike because that is where I am weakest.  Less than 20% of my time was in the water.  Now if I just spent 50% of my time cultivating patience, I might get somewhere.

Justice.  What does justice have to do with endurance athletics?  Justice, loosely defined, is the proper moderation between self-interest and the rights and needs of others.  Trust me when I tell you that your average endurance athlete is all about self-interest.  Training for endurance events, whether 10k or marathon, regular triathlons or even the Ironman requires time, Lots of it.  However, there are many things in our lives, things we choose to have in our lives, things like television, reading, or even bowling that take up our time.  Justice demands that we do not find the time at the expense of the rights and needs of others, typically our families.

When I first got into triathlons almost a decade ago, it was all very new and exciting.  I hooked up with a local triathlon club we ran together, biked together, and swam together, usually at night.  This has a profound and negative effect on my family time and it was often unjust.  I soon realized that something had to give and it could not be my family.  So rather than train with the group, I started to get up very early and I did 90% of my training before my family even got out of bed.  My wife once remarked that my Ironman training (which sometimes required more than 20 hours per week) was much easier on my family than my early short distance triathlons, which required much less training. 

Temperance: The practicing self-control, abstention, and moderation.  I often think that this virtue is the hardest to learn in life and in training.  When training for a marathon, something I am doing right now, you must run.  A lot.  That seems rather obvious.

What seems less obvious is that to be successful at the marathon distance, sometimes you must NOT run.  It is easy for any of us to get in the mindset that success, whether in life, business, or marathon training requires more.  More hard work, if I just put in those extra hours in the office, of if I can just squeeze just one more workout into my schedule, that will make all the difference.  To a certain extent, it will, but not usually the way you want it to.

Speak to any long time successful runner and they will likely tell you that the days you don’t run are just as important as the days that you do.  You can sometimes skip a training day, but never skip a rest day. Fitness comes with rest.  It is a good lesson for all of us.  We all need to rest sometimes, to moderate, to say “that’s enough now.”  Temperance is often tough for type-A personalities, and I know it can be for me.  (See section above about working on your weaknesses.)

Fortitude.  This is the big kahuna in a Christian life and in endurance athletics.  You must endure, you must forbear.

I love to plan.  When I prepare for a big race, I will plan everything months in advance, everything.  Workouts, meals, travel.  You name it.  I plan it.  Planning is good, but plans do not always work out.  What you do when something unexpected and disappointing happens (and they always do) determines whether or not you will make it to the finish line.  I think of this in terms of injuries and sin.  We all sin, all of us.  What we do when we sin is the key.  Do we give up?  Do we convince ourselves that we were doomed to failure from the start and bail?  Or do we move on, confess our sins, keep our eyes on the prize, and just keep going?

I trained for my first Ironman for a year, very intensely for six months.  To finish an Ironman was a lifelong goal for me ever since I saw Julie Moss crawl across the finish line in 1982 on Wide World of Sports.  To me, this race was the Everest of endurance events requiring mastery of one’s self as well as multiple sports disciplines.  I wanted it for a long time, I trained for it for a long time, and on race day I hoped and believed I was ready.  I had planned and executed, nothing could go wrong.  Except it could and it did.

Over the course of my training, I had repeated problems with an injury to my IT band, a muscle that runs along the side of your leg from your hip to just below your knee.  But I tried to take care of it and it hadn’t bothered my for months before the race.  But when I got off the bike, I had to jog into the transition area and immediately I knew I was in trouble.  My IT band hurt, hurt badly.  But I kept going into transition and changed into my running gear.  As I exited the tent, embarking on a full 26.2 mile marathon, I couldn’t run five steps.  The pain was too great.  Walking hurt, perhaps even worse.  I was in trouble, big trouble.  Everything I had worked for was going down the drain.  There was no way I could finish in this kind of pain.

I stood there, just feet from the transition tent and wondered what to do.  Do I call it quits here?  No.  No way.  I might not make it, but I wouldn’t quit here.  Not here.  I ran five more steps and stopped.  I rubbed it out the way the doctor had done before and ran a few more steps.  I repeated this absurd little ritual I don’t know how many times.  Ten minutes into the marathon and I could still see the tent.  But I kept on doing it.  Then a strange thing happened.  I found that I could run 10 steps without stopping, then 15, then a quarter mile, and then a mile.  By the time I made it to mile six, I didn’t even need to stop anymore.  I still felt some pain, but I could run.  And I did.

As I ran the last mile, the lights of the finish line in my eyes and the cheers of the crowds in my ears, the pain and despair of those first six miles were long gone from my mind.  The end, the dream was in sight.  I crossed the finish line and the announcer said “You are an Ironman!”

And that is my hope.  That after all the travails of this life, all the mistakes, all the setbacks, all the times I thought that I could never make it, but I persevere so that one day I will see the bright lights of the finish line. I will cross that finish line and hear the words “Well done my good and faithful servant.”