31 July, 2019

When the Good Night Beckons

I've long felt a kind of distant, undeserved kinship with Renaud Lavillenie. We're within 5 months of the same age. We're both pole vaulters, and we both started over 20 years ago.

He's much better, obviously. But whenever someone's questioned me about the realities of pole vaulting at our age, I would point out Renaud as a canonical example of what's possible. "The world record holder is still competing, and we're the same age," I would retort. If he can keep going at his level, then I can keep going at mine.
Even so, I've been struggling with injuries for a number of years at this point. But with each passing season, I learn something new; I take the time to recover; and I come back a little bit more prepared. And as those years have progressed, Lavillenie was always my beacon — an existence proof that I could still get a good season once I found the right balance of training, rest, and dedication.

So it was unnerving when, two seasons ago, his fate took a turn towards my own. Chronic upper leg issues caused an early end to his season. And then after a very promising 2018, another upper-leg injury put his 2019 season on pause when it had only just begun.

Lavillenie skipped his indoor season and a number of outdoor competitions, and this meet, the Prefontaine Classic, would be his second outdoor competition of the year. In interviews reported by AFP, Renaud said he wanted to use this meet to prove that he was back on a trajectory to be competitive for the French championships and World championships.
There are many cruelties in track and field, but two in particular feel especially bitter. First, your failures are often public. Everyone knows your story. Everyone can compare your performance now against the performances you used to accomplish. So when you fall short, that suffering is clear for everyone to see. And those feelings are often compounded by the sense of public exposure.
The second is that your body will eventually fail you. You will eventually make the transition from "I just need to adjust my training," to "maybe there's not much I can do about this."

That loss of agency is heartbreaking.

That betrayal is in the cards for everyone, but it's still a shock when it happens. It's even more of a shock when it starts to seem like a habit. A pattern. When your best efforts are about preserving what you had yesterday, rather than building toward a better tomorrow.
So it was unnerving, again, when I watched Renaud compete at the Prefontaine Classic. His entire demeanor exuded frustration. His body language after a second-attempt miss at 5.61m seemed to whisper, "I give up."
As he lay on the pit after that attempt, it reminded me of innumerable tortured souls in paintings of old, turning away as they realize that they're living out a nightmare. Pole vault is always bittersweet, but in this moment, the sweetness seemed completely absent.

Sometimes the simplest questions in life are the most painful: do you stop, or do you keep struggling? Do you accept what is, in many ways, unavoidable?
Or do you rage against the dying of the light?

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