At some point today Mac Morrison, a former professional athlete in a sea of amateurs, will want to quit.
He won’t be alone. Almost everybody running today’s Ironman Couer d’Alene will have the same feeling at some point during the race that starts with two laps in Lake Couer d’Alene (2.4 miles), before biking 112 miles and finishing with a marathon (26.2 miles).
It’s the moment of truth and it’s the reason many are there. To see how tough they are. To see just how they respond when they feel like they’ve given all they’ve got but still have 20 miles of running to go.
Morrison, 34, has been there before. A lot. That’s why he’s certain he’ll finish his first Ironman today even though he’s really too big (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) to be a serious threat to win his age group.
“I’m not even one of the fastest runners in my training group,” said Morrison, who trains with pro triathlete Teresa Nelson’s Seattle-based TN Multisport. “I’m actually a bit on the slower side. ... But the advantage I have is the mental aspect. I know how to push myself. I know how to turn off (thoughts of quitting) and fight through like the elite runners.”
Morrison has experience as an elite athlete himself. He was a football star at South Kitsap High before twice earning all-Big Ten honors as a linebacker at Penn State University, the ultimate school for linebackers.
Shortly after college he signed a free-agent contract with the Seattle Seahawks and thought he was on his way to a long career in the NFL.
Then, suddenly, he got an unwanted lesson on recognizing the right time to quit.
After complaining of neck pain during training camp, team doctors found that he’d fractured his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae.
“(Then-Seahawks coach) Mike Holmgren called my dad and said, ‘If he was my son, I’d never let him play football again,’” Morrison said.
Just like that, his dream was over.
“It was disappointing,” Morrison said. “I worked my whole life to try to live out this dream and it was hard to have it end that way.”
Adding insult to injury, guys he played with and against went on to have solid pro careers. Fellow Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington played six season and played three Pro Bowls.
“It might have been different if the coaches had told me I wasn’t good enough (to play in the NFL),” Morrison said. “But, that wasn’t the case.”
Twelve years later, Morrison is at peace with life away from football. He lives in Leschi and has worked 10 years in medical sales. He isn’t married, doesn’t have kids and still finds joy in pushing himself physically.
“And the Ironman is considered one of the toughest one-day events in the world,” he said.
Morrison is 25 pounds lighter than his playing weight of 250 and he started doing triathlons about a decade ago. He’s stuck mostly to the Olympic distance (0.93-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike and 6.2-mile run). He often competes to place in his age group even though he often outweighs other competitors by 50 pounds or more.
He’s not sure what he’ll do after he checks Ironman off his bucket list, but he says he’ll continue to look for challenges.
So what is the trick to dealing with that moment of truth? To push on when you want to quit?
“Experience. You have to go through the struggles,” Morrison said. “You have to put yourself in those situations. If you’ve been there before and felt the pain and the aches you can embrace it and move forward. ... I know I’ll be there (during the Ironman) but I’ll know that I’m capable and I’ll keep going.”Craig Hill’s fitness column runs Sundays. Submit questions and comments via email@example.com and twitter.com/AdventureGuys. Also get more fitness coverage at blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure and thenewstribune.com/fitness.