“Stupidity is doing something even though you’ll fail. Bravery is doing something even though you know you’ll fail.”

–Probably a Proverb

At a little over halfway through the marathon portion of the Kona Ironman Championships, Mark Allen had a revelation: he was holding back. He had had a not-bad-but-not-comfortable race up until that point, and was sitting in second place, four minutes behind the leader, when he realized “if I didn’t give it 100 percent, I definitely wasn’t going to win. And I knew that I had to give it 100 percent but there was no garuantee. It might mean that I catch him, it might mean that he finishes five seconds in front of me, but that’s what I had to do.”

Allen passed his opponent with five kilometers to go, won the race, then immediately retired. Delving into the deepest recesses of the well is traumatizing, and Allen dove deeper than he was ever prepared to go again.

The people most likely to break under torture are victims of previous torture. Dealing with pain is difficult. Sometimes knowing how much you have to endure makes it easier, sometimes it’s so daunting that you break. Runners inflict pain upon themselves– at a certain point, it becomes too torture yourself again. Bravery is a finite resource.

I once ran a hilly half marathon in Ireland coming off of an injury. I had zero idea what kind of time I could manage, so I went in with zero expectations. I ran the first mile a bit too fast, but not too too fast. I settled, felt good, and continued. I got itchy at mile four– I felt better than I expected and was in sixth place. I wanted to go, but, unfamiliar with the course, I waited. Over the next few miles I kept the effort as even as possible while traversing hilly terrain. I ignored my watch. Somebody passed me; I did nothing.

I got to mile ten and the course flattened out. At the mile marker, I did some simple math and realized I was running, all things considered, pretty well. In my hazy brain I realized that if I could run 5000 meters faster than I had all season I could run my fastest half marathon ever. Upon close analysis of my lungs and limbs I realized, with some amusement, that I could probably do that. If I went right now. So I did.

I passed the guy who had passed me halfway through. I saw the guy a hundred meters ahead in fifth place and could feel him, that inexplicable gravity that tells you– without any visual evidence– that you’re gaining. I caught him with a mile to go and knew I had maybe one thousand and eighty steps left but only if I ran as hard as I could so I gave everything I had left and counted each agonizing footfall.

I ran thirty seconds faster than I ever had before.

I began with a humble assessment, I remained patient and focused throughout the race then, when the time truly came to be brave, I had enough bravery left to rise to the occasion.

Starting a race takes courage. Maintaining a pace takes courage. Hopefully, however, with enough training, we become calloused to the starting and to the maintaining. They are easy enough to fake with fitness.

If we are fit enough, then we can save our bravery for the end, and accomplish something truly great.