Thursday, November 17, 2011

THE RACE: Supreme Court or Ironman Kona?

I've worn the hat of an attorney for 14 years, runner for the same amount of time, and the hat of triathlete for 3 years. Each of these hats has required extreme dedication and investment of time. Each also has brought me various blessings and happiness, while at times filling me with frustration and doubt. Over the course of my Ironman training this year, I've had a lot of ups and downs, struggling often with my fear of failure. As a type-A, motivated, perfectionist, fear of failure drives me and, contrary to what some people think, actually has brought me great success rather than failure.

Earlier this year I came to two immensely enlightening realizations, one of which I'll share now and the other I'll share in a later blog. The one I'll share now occurred after a period of time during my Ironman training this year when I was experiencing a wave of emotions that were eerily familiar. I had been focusing for months on one goal, dedicating a huge amount of time to that single goal, missing out on time with family and friends, and fearing the potential failure to meet that goal. The central focus of my summer was training for Ironman. Then one day the reason for my familiarity with these emotions popped into my head: I'd gone through this same wave of emotions and mental stress back in 1997 during the summer I was studying for the Nebraska bar exam. That summer of '97 was spent obsessing about the bar, spending the bulk of my time studying, going to prep classes, and taking practice tests, spending less time socializing, and living with the weight of fear stemming from the possibility that I could fail the bar. Unlike Ironman training, however, my entire future and career rested on passing the bar. Fail the bar, you may be screwed on getting a job, face financial hardship, and end up working as a temp contractor (if you're lucky). Fail to finish the Ironman, well it's months of hard work down the drain, but it's not going to impact your livelihood.

There also were other similarities between studying for the bar and Ironman training. Aside from the "fear of failure" factor, there was the fact that my workouts or my practice legal tests never left me feeling particularly confident about my abilities. I'm the kind of person who doesn't practice well. I thrive better under pressure. So practicing always leaves me feeling like I'm falling a little short, and then I spend time focusing on the weak areas where I need to improve, which actually helps me succeed (the topic of another future blog). Also, there is this adolescent desire among many (not all) triathletes and lawyers to talk about their stats. In law school and during the bar study, the vast majority of students want to talk about what percentage they fell in with their grades, or how they aced a practice bar exam. With triathlons, so many triathletes constantly want to talk about their time splits or the time it took them to complete a particular race. In both areas, the law student and the triathlete often freely offer up their stats without being asked (something that may come across as cocky to some, but to a psych major like me indicates that the person doing the bragging actually has low self esteem). Finally, I feel constantly surrounded by people who don't know when to just let it rest: the law student who is still cramming for the test 5 minutes before walking into the room or the triathlete who can't stop talking about all the intricacies of the race as your wading into the water. Just give me a 30-minute zone of peace before my event, please!

Cut to the chase - all of this made me realize that there's one more thing the legal profession and triathlons have in common: there is a penultimate, highly sought after cherry-on-top for each of these fields. For lawyers, it's arguing in the Supreme Court. For triathletes, it's competing in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. I'll admit- I'd love to do both of these. As a litigator, it just don't get any better than arguing before the nine most brilliant legal minds in the country who are the final say - above Congress and the President - on our nation's laws. I get filled with an overwhelming sense of pride, patriotism, and humility when I step foot into that beautiful majestic building and watch legal arguments that will shape the lives of the American people. It's truly moving shit and something I think every American should witness (and you can - Supreme Court arguments are open to the public).

The Ironman triathlon in Kona also is moving to watch, but for different reasons. There you will see and hear all kinds of stories of triumph - from people who have overcome life-threatening illnesses, to a drug addict/ex convict who used triathlons to turn his life around, to people with amputated limbs, to an 80 year old who finished Kona 21 times. Watching these every day people with regular jobs compete in and finish such a grueling race of 140.6 miles in under 17 hours is a true testament to the human spirit.

Both the Supreme Court and Kona represent the best of each field. They are the stuff of which dreams are made. Few, however, get to realize those dreams. In fact, each year, roughly 120-150 attorneys get the opportunity to argue before the Supreme Court, and, in 2011 roughy 1,800 people competed in the Kona world championship. Small numbers given the number of lawyers and triathletes in this country (and the 1,800 Kona participants are from all over the world). So for many, these are pipedreams, but dreams nonetheless.

Because I am both a lawyer and a triathlete, I have to wonder: if given the chance - and setting aside what it takes to actually qualify for each - would I rather argue before the Supreme Court or participate in Kona? Drumroll please....

I'll take the Supremes, hands down. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to compete in Kona (will never happen though); but, the Supreme Court, for all the reasons I mentioned above, would be sheer joy for me. To know that I had a role in shaping this country's laws in front of the most elite legal minds, would be beyond humbling and gratifying. Plus, I think my Grandoa would be really proud. He'd be proud of me no matter what, but the Supreme Court would probably make tears well up in his eyes - and mine. For a government lawyer like me, the Supreme Court would be my crowning moment.

So there you go. Maybe I'll change my mind after this Sunday's Ironman Arizona. In the meantime though, bring it on Justice Scalia...


CoachTrey said...

That is a great article Michele and is a good way of putting it all in perspective. Great job and I am very proud of all you have gone through this year in preparation for your Ironman! You will do great!
-Coach Trey

Anonymous said...

I love the comparison between work Understanding what motivates and supports ones goals is key I feel to a successful fulfilling life. I think you've got yourself figured out, fear-based or not, it works! We should all be that lucky.


Angela (Dominion Tri)

MOM said...

That's 'My Baby Girl" - the most self-driven, insightful, compassionate individual I know!! I have no doubt that one day I will have the honor of watching her in the Supreme Court too!