Sunday, November 06, 2005

marathons, auditions, and Scrabble

An AP News article on today's New York City Marathon nicely captured the excitement of an incredibly close race in a highly peculiar sport:

[South African Hendrick] Ramaala wasn't sure whether he tried to dive across the finish line, or simply collapsed from exhaustion.

''I don't remember,'' he said. ''You know, coming in second is not nice.

''The last hundred meters, who wants to go the last hundred meters with Paul? I gave it everything,'' Ramaala said. ''Paul didn't want to lose, I didn't want to lose.''

Paul is Kenyan Paul Tergat, #3 in the photo; Ramaala is the outstretched figure right behind him. I sympathize with Ramaala's last-ditch effort/collapse, having staggered or crawled across a couple finish lines myself. No other sport demands such a degree of mental fortitude, I think, in the face of physical exhaustion and break-down. The women's champion, Latvian Jelena Prokupcuka, summed up with pride her own psychological battles:
''I thought it was over. (But) I saw Susan get sick, then I thought I could win,'' she said. ''I was famous already in Latvia, after this even more famous. This is a big victory for such a small country.''
Luckily bass auditions are rarely quite so cathartic and physically stressful, though they've been known to trigger vomiting and other flu-like symptoms on occasion. I would compare them more to those professional Scrabble competitions, as shown in the recent documentary Word Wars. All the same people show up in some city, having spent many weeks or months studying a tiny slice of the bass repertoire in minute detail. There is always some element of luck and chance involved - who draws which number, whose instrument is cooperating that day, etc. Still, the balance will inevitably tilt towards whoever is the best prepared, most solid and consistent, with the most mental fortitude.

That's my experience anyway, having just played an audition in Tampa which was won by the same guy who won my last audition in Louisville. He's a good friend, Aaron White, so I'm happy for him - still, the conclusion I reach (returning to the Scrabble analogy) is that this guy knows how to use the letters he's dealt better than I do. So should I try and learn more three-letter words, or work on recalling and assembling them better? Or do I just keep on doing what I've been doing, since at least I got to the finals this time, which is an improvement.

It's nice to experience vicariously the thrill of Tergat's victory, having no hope of running a 2:09 marathon myself. Reading that story my heart is more with Ramaala, though. Maybe that's part of what sports and games provide, a place to work out the competitive urges which can often drive us to destructive extremes. Like Ramaala, one never likes to lose, no matter how worthy the opponent; still, we pick ourselves up and find the strength to go for it again.

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