We all want or seek validation. It’s part of life. Validation can come in public or private and we can get it through ourselves or through someone else. Some of the best and most relational validation we get is through a fictional character portrayed in a Hollywood drama. But you won’t have to go to the movies today because Branden Rakita, Xterra pro-triathlete, lived the trilogy movie series for us and gives us the validation that we crave and will help you believe that real heroes still exist.
THE FIRST MOVIE: XTERRA USA CHAMPIONSHIP 2011
Branden Rakita, XTERRA Professional triathlete, lowers his mirrored goggles as the sun reflects off the water back into his eyes making him squint. His black wet suit insulates his body as the nerves in his feet send his brain the message that the water he is standing in is freezing. That freezing water is also the starting line of the 2011 XTERRA USA Championships in Snow Basin, Utah. With him are hundreds of others looking to achieve the same goal that morning–winning.
The scene that morning was set up to unfold like a Hollywood drama. The scene we are all familiar with that opens up focused on one particular character that you end up falling in love with. As the drama unfolds the character climbs the mountain, then the sun hits them at the perfect moment, the wind blowing their hair as the music begins to play. The camera does a 360 degree view while he raises his hands and lifts his eyes to the heavens and smiles. The character who just achieved a dream, makes the viewer feel validation in this remarkable moment. What previously seemed impossible, this character just remarkably pulled off a miracle and instantaneously becomes a hero! The theater erupts with cheering! We love those stories they give us validation and that is what we were expecting at the XTERRA USA Championship watching Rakita.
Validation for Rakita that day was winning the USA championship and he is no stranger to the pressure; he has been competing in endurance sports since he was just a kid. He competed in Ironkids, ran in state championship cross country meets, state track and field (running the 2-mile), as well as all the worldwise PRO races he’s competed in. He was prepared to win and was ranked in the top 5, so it wasn’t a hope, but more of an expectation he set for himself.
At this point, if this really were a movie, you would grab a handful of popcorn, and as the movie progresses you move up to the edge of your seat and get ready for the predictable ending. The race starts–he had a strong swim and was in the front pack in a stacked field. But then all of the sudden he was passed on the mountain bike by a guy that looked awfully familiar. This familiar looking guy was wearing bib #25. The race progressed and they transitioned into the run. Then we watched the end of the movie as Brendan tried to catch the PRO listed as #25. We yell and cheer, but then we see the finish line and #25 finishes just 30 seconds in front of Brendan. Branden took 6th overall, with only 32 seconds that separated his finishing time from #25 in front of him. Where was our sense of validation? We had watched similar movies, but this one didn’t end the way WE wanted it.
At the conclusion of any movie or, in this case, race, competitors, especially pros, look inward and analyze how they could have gone faster. They think about the little mistakes that they could have avoided to make up time. But most importantly, they have to answer those introspective questions that we ask at the end of movies from our seats. “What can I learn from this?”
Branden, what is your process of moving forward and learning from each race? How do you review your performances?
Regardless of the outcome of the race I go through the race mentally again and make note of the positive aspects of the race and then areas where I need to improve. The positive points I try to focus on what I did to make that happen, so I know how to repeat it. I do my best to steer my thoughts away from a negative tone of thought such as, “I sucked at this” to looking at it as, “I can improve this more by doing this.” If I am at a loss of how I can improve something I am struggling at, I ask my coach what we can do to make me stronger and do this better and I let him know what went well and what I think helped me do that particular thing well.
THE SEQUEL: XTERRA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS 2011
We, as humans, try and learn and then move on. But deep down a feeling lingers that at some point we will get some sort validation for the effort we are putting toward our goals. As spectators the only way we can achieve this fairytale outcome is through a sequel. The sequel to Brendan’s story was released in October 2011 on the beaches of Maui at the XTERRA World Championship, where every year the best in the world compete for the crown jewel in off road triathlon. No need for a wet suit because the waters were warm. Branden looked strong and was ready to take care of business and was easily spotted wearing his sponsored tri-suit labeled with Paul Mitchell, First Endurance, Rudy Project, SRM, Enduro Bites, Pro Cycling, Colorado Running Company, Inov-8, Effetto Mariposa, SRAM.
The cannon sounded and the water drowned out all the noise from fans and the loud PA system that echoed at the start line. He had a strong swim and his bike was OK. He knew today he would have to dig deep on the run to make up some ground and move up on the leader board. He came out of the bike transition and into the run. He started to make moves and entered in to the home stretch!
While he was running toward the finish line he was closing in on another PRO that looked familiar. As he got closer he realized it was the same guy who wore #25 back at the USA Championship. He pushed hard and ran by him and believe it or not beat him by 30 seconds. But again, the music didn’t play for us, the hands didn’t go in the air, and he didn’t look to the heaven. We all knew the answer must be in the final movie of the Trilogy.
So, in two huge races, Branden and this other ‘familiar’ guy were only a total of 60 seconds apart. Sure, it’s unique that these two coincidentally finished so close, but what’s the point?
THE FINAL MOVIE: THE REST OF THE STORY
It was January 18, 2013. Branden wasn’t on a starting line. He was probably at Pro Cycling Shop hanging out getting ready for the upcoming season. A lady was interviewing a guy on TV. The mood was tense. The world for some reason was tuned in. Then it happened. The man said on national television that he had been using performance enhancing drugs to help him win 7 Tour de France titles and assist in his comeback in 2010. The lady was Oprah. The man was Lance Armstrong. He had unfairly taken titles away from many unsuspecting victims by cheating, except one guy you know.
Do you remember that guy wearing bib #25 who beat Branden? And do you remember that same guy that Branden BEAT at the World Championship just a month later? And do you remember how combined, they were only 60 seconds apart (30 seconds at each race)?
That guy,the won who wore bib #25, was the same guy talking to Oprah that day. That guy, who Branden BEAT fair and square was none other than Lance Armstrong.
Finally, the theater erupts in cheers and popcorn flies everywhere! On January 18th, 2013, many elite athletes all over the world, including Branden, knew the feeling of being beatunfairly by Lance. But that day, Branden was one of only a select few in history who knew the feeling of beating Lance. Branden beat him the only way he knew, the right way, with hard work and by playing by the rules. He was a champion before but that day a hero was born.
Branden, you are one of the few people that have experienced this on the planet. What did you learn from that experience?
It was a case where I really reinforced the race is never over, I knew at USA Champs in 2011 that I was closing the time gap down and catching him, but came up short. At Worlds I wanted to race to the best of my ability, it was in my head that yes I wanted to beat Lance, but it was not going to be the “end all be all” at the end of the day. I had a horrible race in Maui that year and early on in the bike had to readjust my focus to find the positives during the race however small. I didn’t know where I was in the race, but coming toward the finish I saw him struggling and gathered what strength I had left to catch him and pass him in the last 200 meters.
Branden, what is the most important message your parents have taught you that you would want to pass on to the next generation?
My parents have always instilled in me that hard work is how things get done and nothing replaces hard work. You can certainly work smarter, but you still have to put the work in, there are not short cuts and it is okay to ask for help, but you must do the work. No one else should be doing it for you.
Branden Rakita is a true professional. He learns from the close races and is grateful for the victories. But most importantly he gave us validation that the world is going to be ‘all right.’ He showed us that good people do still exist at the highest levels! Let’s all follow his lead and cheer for him this upcoming season on the XTERRA World tour!
You can connect with Branden on social media through INSTAGRAM @btrakita or Facebook at Branden Rakita (click the link to go to his page). Also, thank you to all of Branden’s sponsors ( Paul Mitchell, First Endurance, Rudy Project, SRM, Enduro Bites, Pro Cycling, Colorado Running Company, Inov-8, Effetto Mariposa, SRAM) for allowing him to give us this heroic story.