Every Second Counts by Lance Armstrong
Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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There are at least two meanings in the title of Lance Armstrong’s new book, Every Second Counts. Clearly, in competitive cycling, races are won and lost based on shaving seconds here and seconds there versus the competition. As a cancer survivor, Armstrong understands that each second of life is a precious gift, one he wants to spend making a difference.
Here’s an excerpt from the middle of Chapter 7, “My Park Bench,” pp, 218-223:
By the time I left Washington, I had new questions about my peculiar status as an athlete. Athletes are public figures, yet we tend to believe we shouldn't engage in politics or the issues of the day because our job is just to be excellent with our bodies. But to me, that's not quite enough. It's not about the bike. It never has been. It's about causes: I think everybody should have one.
I still struggle with whether or not it's my responsibility to make public statements. For instance, as war with Iraq became imminent, both the American and the foreign press wanted to know my thoughts on the subject, since I'm friendly with President George W. Bush. My reply was that I wasn't in favor of war—who is?—but that I support my president, and our troops. Somebody said, "So you disagree with him?" I said, "Well, the nice thing about America is that it's the kind of place where it's okay to disagree with a friend."
But a far more significant answer to the question came from my friend Lee Walker. One afternoon I was sitting around visiting with Lee at his house, and I asked him what he thought about Iraq.
Lee said, "I'll tell you two things. First of all, I'm not sure what I think, but I'm an American and I follow my president, I go where he goes. But the second thing is, that's a global issue and I can't affect it. I can't do a damn thing about Iraq, and Saddam Hussein doesn't know me from Adam. But here's what I can do. I can go down to the street corner and make that place a better place. I can do that. I can affect the park. I can affect the bus stop. I can go affect that park bench right over there, and maybe change somebody's day, or minute, or life. I can do that."
Lee pointed to a bench on the sidewalk in front of his house. Lee had literally bought the bench and placed it out front, just to contribute something to the neighborhood. His neighborhood is full of elderly people, and they walk to various shops for what they need. It occurred to Lee that they might need a place to sit down and rest their feet. So now that's what you see in front of Lee's house, people sitting on the bench, with bags, resting their feet.
Lee says his philosophy is just to break problems down to their smallest parts, right down to the person or to the child, and work backwards from there. "There's a lot we can't do anything about," Lee explained. "But we can affect the things right here in front of us, make them better, as best we can."
So that's what I'd like to do, too. I'd like to build park benches. Cancer is my park bench. And so are the kids in my arms.
There's no difference between a man with no power and a man with power who doesn't use it at all. That's what I've come to believe about athletes and participating in the issues of the day. If I were religious I'd say cancer advocacy is what God would like me to do, but I'm not. So I'll simply say that's what I have the opportunity to do, and what I'm designed to do.
When a book is over, people always wonder what happened next. Does he live or does he die, does he win or does he lose, is he happy or is he unhappy? Who does he turn out to be?
Here are just a few things that happened after the summer of 2002. On September 2, 2002, the French doping investigation was finally, officially closed. Bill Stapleton was right—it went away quietly. After 21 months of inquiry, investigators admitted they'd found not a shred of proof, and they issued just a small discourteous announcement from the prosecutor's office. The case was dropped for lack of evidence.
We had a party at Milagro to celebrate the six-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, and, after the fact, my 31st birthday. Children ran everywhere. The girls crawled around on the lawn while I put Luke on a four-wheeler and drove him around. We had barbecue, cases of Shiner Bock beer, and two cakes, one that said CARPE, and one that said DIEM.
The girls began to walk, and Kik painted their toenails pink. That fall, Luke started preschool. By then he was a seasoned world traveler, so his first trip to school was no problem. He bolted into class with a wave, and he got an excellent report in his first parent-teacher conference: he was lively and played nice with the other kids. "He participates, and he's outgoing," the teacher said. "He's the leader of the class, and friends with everybody. And he loves the girls."
When I got home, we sat down to dinner and discussed the day. I said to Luke, "Do you like your dinner?"
"Yeah, I like my dinner."
"I also hear you like chicks."
"Yeah. Chicks for dinner," he said.
As he grows, Luke has more and more questions, and I just try to have good answers. But there are things I struggle to answer for myself, let alone for him and for his sisters.
In February of 2003, Kik and I agreed to a trial separation, and we entered marriage counseling. I moved into my one-room cabin at Milagro, the small ranch that I had cleared and planted with a soft green lawn. I sat on a rocking chair on the porch and cast around for the specific cause of our marital difficulties, but they were cloudy to me. All I knew was that in trying to do everything, we'd forgotten to do the most important thing. We forgot to be married. It was like being in a current you didn't know was there. One day we looked up and realized we'd been swept downstream from our landmarks, all the points of reference.
People warn you that marriage is hard work, but you don't listen. You talk about the pretty bridesmaids' dresses, but you don't talk about what happens next; about how difficult it will be to stay, or to rebuild. What nobody tells you is that there will be more than just some hard days. There will be some hard weeks and perhaps even some hard years.
In February I returned to Europe for training alone, and Kik stayed behind in Austin. But we continued to talk and to work at rebuilding our relationship with a better foundation. In April, Kik came to Europe and we went to Nice, where we had lived together before we were married. It was the first time in four years that we had really been alone, without children.
As of this writing, we didn't know what the future would hold, but we did know this: we intended to bring the same dedication and discipline to counseling that we brought to the rest of our lives. And whatever our personal shortcomings, and no matter the outcome, the marriage is a success: we have three great prizes.
I know this, too: the seize-the-day mentality that I carried with me from the illness doesn't always serve me well. It's too tempting, in the throes of it, to quit on any problem that seems hard or inconvenient, to call it a waste of precious time and move on to something more immediate. Some things require patience.
The question of how to live through cancer, for me, has become: how do you live beyond it? Survivorship is not unlike competition; both are emotionally complicated, and neither necessarily delivers pat answers, no matter how nice it is to think so. In both cases, you have to constantly ask yourself what the real lessons are, what's worth transferring to the rest of your life?
But both cancer and competition have taught me one great, incontrovertible lesson that I think every person can learn from, whether healthy or ill, athlete or layman. The lesson is this: personal comfort is not the only thing worth seeking.
Whether the subject is bike racing, or cancer, or just living, comfort only takes us to a point that's known. Since when did sheets with the right thread-count, a coffee maker, and an electric toothbrush become the only things worth having or working toward? Too often, comfort gets in the way of inner reckonings.
For instance, there's no math that can tell you why some people ride in the Tour de France, some never enter the race, and some ride but don't risk. I've known guys who never quite put it all on the line, and you know what? They lost. One minute, after nearly a month of suffering, can decide who wins. Is it worth it? It depends on whether you want to win. I have the will to suffer. I do have that.
There are parts unknown with regard to human performance, and those are the parts when it's just about pain and forfeit. How do you make yourself do it? You remind yourself that you're fulfilling your obligation to get the best from yourself, and that all achievement is born out of sacrifice.
The experience of suffering is like the experience of exploring, of finding something unexpected and revelatory. When you find the outermost thresholds of pain, or fear, or uncertainty, what you experience afterward is an expansive feeling, a widening of your capabilities.
Pain is good because it teaches your body and your soul to improve. It's almost as though your unconscious says, "I'm going to remember this, remember how it hurt, and I'll increase my capacities so that the next time, it doesn't hurt as much." The body literally builds on your experiences, and a physique and temperament that have gone through a Tour de France one year will be better the next year, because it has the memory to build upon. Maybe the same is true of living too.
If you lead a largely unexamined life, you will eventually hit a wall. Some barriers can be invisible until you smack into them. The key, then, is to investigate the wall inside yourself, so you can go beyond it. The only way to do that is to ask yourself painful questions—just as you try to stretch yourself physically.
So the fact that there are unanswered questions in my life doesn't bother me. I don't know what happens next, and I don't need to know, because I welcome the exploration. There's no simple and final explanation for me. Can't be, won't be. As I watch my children grow, it occurs to me that while the structure of your bones takes shape, other elements leave their tracings on you, too. I can see that in my own scars—there's no way to move through this life and not be marked by the unexpected.
As we move, we leave trails, intended or not. Trails of action, trails of sound, trails of colors, trails of light. Who knows how long they last?
Armstrong’s celebrity as a five-time winner of the Tour de France has given him an audience. Every Second Counts is the latest way Armstrong has reached out to a mass audience with his messages about life’s lessons. Readers are left asking the question, “How do you spend your time?” One memorable anecdote was the scene where Armstrong left his hotel room at 6:30 am in the pouring rain to examine a time trial course, while his main opponent, Jan Ullrich, slept in and looked at a video of the course rather that get wet. Who do you think won the time trial? How do you spend your time? Sometimes spending time on what creates discomfort produces the best results.
Steve Hopkins, November 24, 2003
ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the December 2003 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Every Second Counts.htm
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