How philosophy powers athletic achievement: a personal anecdote.

Earlier this summer I ran the HTC race in Oregon, a well-known, hundred-plus mile relay. I was part of an excellent and enthusiastic Reed College team. I was given the more . . . motivating, if you will, leg of the race. It consisted of a set of three stretches—legs 5, 17, and 24—totaling about 21 miles. The last stretch included an 850-ft hill. I engage with running as a form of expression, and not a form of propulsion. Nowhere does the contrast between expression and propulsion become more stark than when a single group of people—each and every person with their own metaphors, mental models, and training histories—run together up a hill in heat that closes in on the double digits.

As was the case on that particular hill.

Now, I’m not the fastest runner out there. And, I gotta say: should precedent and probability have the final say, I’ll never be. But over the years, I have developed my running to be quite effortless—and therefore, quite fast. I like to run without effort, and fully engaged, like a well-oiled machine where every tiny part is playing its part in exactly the right way, all the pistons moving in perfect synchrony, all of the forces which course through my body coursing through it in exactly the right vectors. This is a story about what effortlessness means, what it does for you, and what it feels like. But more importantly I share what are, in my opinion, the most basic ideas of how to replicate it it.

I focused on expressing myself up that hill, not on running up it. I approached the hill as a question—as a puzzle to be solved. Where, and when, should my next step go? Where does it fit on this puzzle? How I did that is no mystery to me, and infinitely reproducible: I held this question in my mind in real-time, all the time. It became the focus of my meditations, and my senses were subordinated into its service.

And, on a slope that was gradually becoming steeper, I passed one person. Then another. Then another.

Even in a “simple,” “straightforward” activity such as running, there is so much to perceive, so much to extrapolate, so much information to induct from, and so much to screw with. I screw with the tiniest things as I run: the treads of my shoes on the texture of the road; the inclination of my hips relative to the lateral slope of the trail; the depth and consistency of my breathing relative to the mechanical dynamics of my legs.

That’s how I went about answering the question: where do all of these variables fit in the puzzle, and how does each provide part of the answer to the question? Forcing more juice out of my legs is a poor and paltry example of expression. Engaging with a single variable allows no no room for creativity. But increase the variables, and the vibrancy of our engagement can become that much greater.

The trail, even at that slope and in that heat—or rather, especially given those conditions—becomes an open book to the aware, and a blank canvas to the creative.

Thanks to that, our speed will not be easily matched—until more and more of us begin to approach the sport as an expression. (Which is a good thing, by the way).

Not unlike a painting, or writing an essay, a race or a run is a never-ending project of expression—a blank canvas which can be transformed into a piece of art, thanks to greater awareness and dexterity in all the areas of expression: physical, psychological, mental, and (if it’s your cup of tea) spiritual. I like to draw an important distinction between expression and propulsion, in that propulsion is subject to so many physical forces that it becomes asymptotic: forever growing nearer but not quite reaching some (unknown, possibly unknowable) limit placed on my body by physical laws, my personal developmental history, and my genetic background.

On that hill, everyone I passed was closing on the limit of their personal asymptotes. They could coax no greater propulsion from their legs; there was no more power to be had. I saw people gripped by the enormity of the hill—their minds bent on persevering through that obstacle. I could coax no greater propulsion from my legs either—but I wasn’t going to let my speed hinge on that.

Expression, as opposed to propulsion, offers limitless avenues for growth (at least in my opinion). The fractal (and “zoomable”), aspect of this universe is open to our awareness; we just have to develop the mental acuity and perceptual resolution necessary to sink our teeth into details that grow ever more minute as our experience increases. But we need not stop there; the systemic factors at play are also largely unexplored: context plays a role on biology in real-time. This can be then exploded into developmental time (ontogeny) and evolutionary time (phylogeny). There are an unknown, possibly unknowable amount of relationships between variables, and the more I can manipulate those relationships—and the more I express myself through those manipulations—the faster I’ll be.

Which is what I did on that hill: manipulate more variables. Was my right gluteus medius getting tired? I’d step over from the pavement onto the shoulder, which was sloped differently from the road. My heart was going too fast? I’d slow down, deepen my breathing, and let that take over the control of my blood pressure. And my speed would gradually rise again.

But what’s really important isn’t what I did, but what I didn’t do. I didn’t “steel” my mind. I wasn’t going into battle against anything—certainly not against a colossus like that hill. Propelling myself up it wasn’t going to give me any greater speed. I had to think my way up it. “Steeling” myself would’ve just led me all the way up the asymptote of propulsion—and no further. I saw so many people up that hill experiencing “perseverance” so much greater than my own, each of them beset not by the hill itself but by their own determination.

They call that “perseverance.” With respect to people’s athletic goals, I don’t think that word means what they think it means. On that hill, I saw so many instances of the same expression: brows furrowed, teeth gritted, lips peeled back in a rictus smile. They were persevering only at remaining stationary on that asymptote, as high as they could afford, betting against the imminent collapse of their muscular output.

When our minds and not our muscles sink their teeth into the problem, that very real experience of challenge, and the similarly real barriers, melt away into an ocean of opportunity. And the experience of it all changes away from the feeling of strife, to the appreciation of the intricacy of reality, to an awareness that unfolds out and out again, to an utter reverence for the moment. And all of this, keep in mind, can happen on the run. This doesn’t have to be a one-off deal—a beautiful, yet ever-elusive experience that becomes the unicorn of our personal mythologies. It is reliably reproducible. I share with you the beginnings of how to do that:

I wasn’t just running up that hill. I was inventing my way up it.

It works, but don’t take my word for it. Listen to Sun Tzu, if to no one else. In The Art of War, he writes:

“Those skilled at the unorthodox are infinite as heaven and earth, inexhaustible as great rivers. When the come to an end, they begin again, like the days and months; they die and are reborn, like the four seasons.”

But for that, I need my mind there. It has to be available, loose, and free to engage. Nothing is more fundamental, more basic, or more central to expression. Laurence Gonzalez, author of Deep Survival, a book that deals about the mentality and attributes necessary for surviving wilderness emergencies, entertains the concept of the elite performer. An elite performer is somebody who can continuously and effectively engage with the demands of what Gonzalez refers to as “a tenaciously unforgiving environment”—which, to be honest, that hill was a relatively modest example of. As a point of reference, Gonzalez’s benchmark example of a “tenaciously unforgiving situation” consisted of Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 moon landing.

Similarly, I turn to a brilliant quote in an otherwise mediocre movie (at best): Basic. During the course of a particularly exhausting training mission, A special forces staff sergeant, played by Samuel L. Jackson, asks the following question to a particularly exhausted soldier, answering it himself:

“What is your weapon? It’s your brain. Your noggin. Your noodle. Your gray matter. Your poise under fire. Your wits, when all about you are losing theirs.”

The one difference between me and many of those runners was not muscle power or lung power. Actually, I was dealing with a pretty severe mechanical imbalance between weak left rear muscles and tight right rear muscles. My left leg extensors were burning, hard-fucking-core, all the way up that hill. Whatever. I just factored that variable into my equation. The difference is that all the way up that hill, every single step of the way, I asked myself: how much output can my left extensors withstand—and what kind of output is that?

Because I asked that question explicitly (and received a sum total of, say, 15,000 answers along the way, each of which I factored into my mechanics), I passed a total of twenty-one runners going up that hill, and eight more on the way down. I was passed by one.

No doubt I had trained better and longer than some, or most. But all? Unlikely. As you may have gleaned already, if you follow this blog, most of my training happens in the mind. Training in the body happens primarily in function of training in the mind. Citing the amount of people I passed is merely a useful and colorful statistic that I can use to illustrate the obvious outcome in one concise little sound bite. It was really that my running was effortless. To underscore that, consider what occurred as I approached the top of that hill: there was a long train of team vehicles parked on the side of the road, with team members standing on the roadside, waiting to cheer their runner on. Perhaps what happened to me happens to everyone, and I’m just falling into the trap of sampling bias, but I doubt it (but then again, of course I would). Anyway, as I approached the top of the hill, the following happened on two occasions: a team member would remark, loudly, “Damn. Smiling all the way!”

That’s just it. I was fully engaged in the complexity of the moment. But that doesn’t make me special. It just makes me lucky in knowledge and preparation—two pieces of the puzzle which, by writing about this, I intend to pass on to you.

It was not better biomechanics which made me faster (in that particular case). It was my recognition (and my observation) of the fact that it was my mind and not my muscles that gave me speed. My mind allowed me to engage with a greater amount of variables, instead of just pushing the system. It’s not rocket science. It’s just systems thinking. As Peter Senge writes in The Fifth Discipline:

“The harder you push on the system, the harder it pushes back.”

Stop pushing on the damn system, especially up that hill. But in order to do that, you have to engage with its complexity. The “simple” solution is no longer a real solution when the system is confronted with a “tenaciously unforgiving environment”—such as one where you have a suspended, 160 pound body accelerating towards the ground at 32.2 ft/s2, repeated for tens of thousands of steps.

Actually, you can take that “ain’t rocket science” quip about as far as you want to. What I was doing up that hill was exactly everything but rocket science—a discipline of study which is also known as ballistics. A ballistic trajectory is the path that a projectile takes after its propulsion phase has ended; the only forces acting on it are external. (Hence the old saying: “he went ballistic.” That saying reflects a psychological situation in which there is no internal force, no will, to change  either strategy or trajectory). Therefore, ballistics serves as an excellent metaphor for what I wasn’t doing, as i ran up that hill: I wasn’t just going to let my mind set the goal at the beginning—“get up that hill”—and not alter my trajectory according to each of the tiny challenges along the way. Because objects on ballistic trajectories cannot continually account for external forces, they are notoriously inaccurate. I did not want to be such an object. Expression—which I loosely define as: “the continual, intentional, and adaptive engagement with our environment in the search of a specific outcome”—ends as soon as any ballistic trajectory begins.

It’s necessary to engage with complexity—and to do it unreservedly, fully, and with all the humility and respect that it deserves. And then we multiply that by time and training. Therein lies the potential for the achievement of our individual athletic expression, and its most obvious outward effects: the development of speed, power, and endurance.

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