There's a powerful force we can call on in sports, which is rarely used thesed days but which I'm now ready to use. I doubt that Muhammad Ali was the first to invoke it, but I don't know of any athlete who ever deployed it with more nerve and verve. I'm referring to the power that's unleashed when you take the risk of predicting, with no hesitation or reservation, that you are going to do something fantastic.
From the moment he appeared on the world's athletic stage in the 1960s, the young Cassius Clay--who later renamed himself Ali--provoked as much uproar with his mouth as with his fist. Though he was America's most formidable fighter, he refused to support the misguided fighting in Vietnam--and said so publicly. "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," he said. "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger." He was stripped of his title and not allowed to box for four years in his prime, but he never relented. And when he returned, though he made his living as a boxer, he declined to abide by the rule that you never provoke an opponent lest you provoke him to a fiercer performance than you'd otherwise have to deal with. Ali liked to provoke, and did so with panache.
In the decades since, most top athletes have been far more circumspect. Part of it may be cultural: the rebelliousness and nonconformity of the '60s and '70s receded into the conservativism of the '80s and '90s, And part of it may have been the"locker-room bulletin-board" phenomenon--the now common practice of seizing on the comment of any forthcoming opponent who does say something provocative, and posting it as a spur to heightened motivation. These days, athletes are cautioned by their sponsors, agents, managers, coaches, and owners (yes, these pro athletes are owned) not to say anything that might spur an opponent. Even Superbowl quarterbacks and NBA All Stars who grew up taunting their playmates with "your mother" jokes now know well enough to keep their mouths shut., When top jocks are asked by reporters whether they're going to whup their opponents, they almost never say they will, the way Ali did. Instead, they mumble polite, forgettable cliches like "He's really tough, and I'm going to have to really get out there and, you know, do my best."
What's unfortunately overlooked in this enforced non-offensiveness, I think, is that holding back in what you say may result in some subconscious moderation in what you do. "Attitude" isn't just about how you feel and what you say. The word "attitude" is a dead metaphor, originally referring to a physical stance. Taking the sting out of what you feel or say before a big game, or race--pulling your punches--could subconsciously take some of the sting out of what you do in the competition itself.
Ali never pulled his punches. He stung like a bee!
As it happens, I'm about the same age as Ali. I just turned 70; he turns 70 in January. I still remember, with admiration, the ballsy candor he had when we were young. And now, suddenly, I've had an inspiration. As an amateur athlete in a relatively unpublicized sport, I don't have to worry about upsetting sponsors. I don't have any sponsors. So, why should I, like all those corporate athletes, be constrained by the enforced false modesty we see in 21st-century spectator sports? The only reason I can think of, for guys like me, is that we're afraid that if we think we're ready to do something big and say so publicly, and then fail to do what we said, we'll be terribly embarrassed. But if holding back in expression might also mean subconsciously falling short in performance, are we condemning ourselves to falling short for the whole rest of our athletic lives? At age 70, how many chances do I have left?
On November 19 (just over two weeks from now, as I write), I'm running the JFK 50-Mile, America's largest and oldest ultra. I'll be entering the 70-79 age division, and--here goes--I'm out to win the division and break the age group record. Winning won't be easy, because there are 10 very tough guys entered in the division, and one of them is Anthony Cerminaro, a former over-60 winner of the Boston Marathon. Cerminaro also holds the age group record of 9:09, and since the race is now in its 49th year, that's not a soft record. But I'm not just going to say "I hope to break it." To paraphrase Mae West, "hope" has nothing to do with it. I'm going to break it.
There, I said it. The results should be posted on the JFK website on November 20 or 21, so, life being what it is, it's possible that I'll end up very embarrassed. But I'm now going into my 55th consecutive year of competing in long-distance races, and God only knows how much longer I have. If ever I'm going to put it all on the line, it's now.
I met Muhammad Ali once in the 1980s, at the start of the Los Angeles Marathon. I was there to report on the event for Running Times, and when I climbed up on the photographers' platform overlooking the starting area, there was Ali, who'd been brought in to fire the starting gun. I shook his hand and asked, awkwardly, "So, what do you think of all these thousands of people warming up to run 26 miles?" I supposed (because by then we were well into those PR-conscious years) that he'd say something politely appropriate to the ceremonial nature of his presence, such as "It's a great thing, it's inspiring!" Instead, Ali fixed me with that baleful stare he'd so often laid on reporters, and replied, "They got to be crazy!"
I laughed. I knew it was just a little jab, but it was a Muhammad Ali jab, and I was still on my feet! On November 19, I'll be bouncing on my feet at the starting line in Boonsboro, Maryland, and for the next 9 hours and 8 minutes or less, I'll be leaping rocks like a butterfly, floating like a bee, liberated from inhibition, and still crazy after all these years.