On August 16th 2009, at the final of the World Athletics Championships in Berlin, Usain Bolt broke his own 100 metre world record by eleven hundredths of a second, crossing the line in just 9.58 seconds. Four days later he repeated the feat, this time slashing eleven hundredths off his own 200 metre world record. In those few summer days he established himself categorically as the fastest human being of the modern age, and one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen.
So what has he been doing since 2009? Well, he's been doing fine. A few olympic medals here, a 4x100 relay world record there.
But what he hasn't done in the last three and a half years is run faster than he did in 2009.
There can't be many people who've made a commitment to a serious health and fitness goal, whether it be losing weight, doing "proper" press-ups, or becoming multiple olympic and world sprint champion, who haven't at some point found themselves lost in the dreaded wasteland of the Progress Plateau.
Those mountains look a LONG way away, huh?
Probably, things had been coming along nicely. A few ups and downs of course, but they were just minor bumps in the road to inevitable success until...
...the progress stopped. The number on the scale hammered a stake in the ground and set up camp. Your 5K record, which had been dropping like clockwork, was suddenly out of reach. Your fastest bike commute was a year ago. An extra pull-up became an impossibility, and the gym seemed to have bought in a new set of weights that were somehow ... weightier ... than before.
So, undeterred, you decide to change it up. You start a new diet; you buy new running shoes; you cross-train; you try "miracle" foods; you eat eight meals a day; you fast; you do intervals; you meditate; you avoid specific foods; you do high reps and low reps; you spend hours reading blogs and forums, trying to decide which of the seven or eight prevailing but totally contradictory opinions seems most likely to you; then you try all of them just to be on the safe side.
And. NOTHING. Works.
Sing it with me!
Then your motivation starts to suffer. You beat yourself up mentally. In your mind, you see a sign round your neck: "No progress made in the last six months!". Or nine months. Or if you're Usain, three and a half years. But is "Lightning" Bolt now somehow a failure? Are we all failures? Do the achievements of the past somehow not "count" any more, despite our stronger muscles, our slimmer waistlines, our improved agility or flexibility?
The thing is, that plateau isn't the flat piece of ground it appears to be. You're not standing still. Sneakily hidden underfoot there's a treadmill whirring away, trying to drag you back to where you started (and beyond). You probably know people who really are standing still on the treadmill. Every year they put on a pound or two, slow down a touch, tire a bit more quickly... The only reason you seem to be "standing still" is that you're moving forward as fast as the treadmill pulls you back!
How about if we take a little trip back in time, through those months, years ... maybe decades for some of us? Sit back in the comfort of your Delorean and watch the odyssey unfold in reverse. At first the plateau slides smoothly by, and you wind up the windows to avoid that nasty smell of frustration that's wafting in... But soon, the road starts to descend.
Your most recent triumph (remember how good that felt?) flies by in a waft of glory, followed by earlier achievements that ... perhaps ... seem a little less impressive to you now than they did at the time? You pass o'er hill and vale, seeing each success and every failure; the cookies that stayed in the jar, and the ones that didn't; the days you went to the gym, and the days you made excuses; the effort, the sweat and the grind as you climbed inch by painful inch toward that distant goal.
And then, finally, you arrive. Back at day one.
Your plateau? It's up there somewhere...
Can you see Past You? Hesitantly lacing up a brand new pair of running shoes, optimistically signing up at the gym, stepping off the scales and noting down the "starting" weight?
Why not take Past You by the elbow ... okay, now give them a moment to get over being accosted by a slimmer, fitter version of themselves from the future ... now let them get all the jokes about flying cars and tinfoil trousers over with (like time travel isn't impressive enough, already!). Take them by the elbow, lead them to the window and point to where you are now - give them binoculars, maybe - then ask them how they'd feel, knowing that with effort they could be way up there themselves someday!
Ask them if that tiny distant figure on the treadmill, up there on the plateau, looks like a failure to them.
Past You knew something that you've forgotten along the way. Without all the effort since that day, not only would you not be where you are now - you wouldn't even be where you were then! You'd be a little (or a lot) further down that slippery slope ... and your plateau would be an even more distant dream.
So maybe Usain Bolt will never run faster than he did in 2009, or maybe he will. But I'm pretty confident that he isn't going to give up trying, and I doubt he considers himself a failure.
And you know what? Neither should you.
Photos: Little Tunnel Climb: Caillum Smith,
Distant mountains C Jill Reed ;
Stop sign: Juhan Sonin;
Alaska mountains: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service