The Connection Runners + running man

NYTimes article:"How to Push Past the Pain"

I saw this article about endurance athletes and something about it strikes me as simply wrong. I don't exactly know what it is, but there is something I find really distasteful. Maybe its the 'dissociation from the experience' or the "I'll do anything to win" attitude. Somehow it seems completely antithetical to what I find appealing in endurance sports.

But perhaps that's why I'd rather put in for the lottery at HR than go for a PR in Boston.

I will never be able to jettison my personal views on endurance, but I do think there is something that is more widely problematic with this article. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with this article, but it is an egregious offender of what I think of as the "professionalism of sports."

Let me start with what I like about this article. Here's the quote:

“It’s not a pretty sport,” Ms. Smith said. “You are not looking good at the end.”
That's right. You're not going to look good. But looking good is different from feeling good.
Here's what I dislike about the article:

“Mental tenacity — and the ability to manage and even thrive on and push through pain — is a key segregator between the mortals and immortals in running,” Ms. Wittenberg said.
And it continues:

“I was given a body that could train every single day.” Tom said, “and a mind, a mentality, that believed that if I trained every day — and I could train every day — I’ll beat you.”

“The mentality was I will do whatever it takes to win,” he added. “I was totally willing to have the worst pain. I was totally willing to do whatever it takes to win the race.”

In studies of college runners, he found that less accomplished athletes tended to dissociate, to think of something other than their running to distract themselves.

“Sometimes dissociation allows runners to speed up, because they are not attending to their pain and effort,” he said.

“Our hypothesis is that elite athletes are able to motivate themselves continuously and are able to run the gantlet between pushing too hard — and failing to finish — and underperforming,” Dr. Swart said.

To find this motivation, the athletes must resist the feeling that they are too tired and have to slow down, he added. Instead, they have to concentrate on increasing the intensity of their effort. That, Dr. Swart said, takes “mental strength,” but “allows them to perform close to their maximal ability.”

What? Worst pain? Resist the feeling of being too tired? Concentrate on increasing the intensity? In a day and age when the Boston Marathon fills up in one day, I think it is safe to say that there are more people than ever before who are running marathons. This is a good thing. 26.2 miles is one hell of a distance. It's not a distance I particularly like (let's face it, life starts at mile 30). But this over-the-top do-whatever-it-takes to win attitude is what ruins sports and people.

Lance Armstrong was mentioned in the article in a section I didn't post. So what happens if he goes to jail for doping (well, not for doping but for other things, like Clemens will)? I surmise that if he's accused, he'll be remembered for bringing attention and $$ to cancer research. But his record will be tarnished. But we don't have to engage in a hypothetical: Floyd Landis. I feel bad for Floyd - I think that the semi-legal twists and turns of his case are troubling. But there is no denying that not only doesn't he have credibility, he is disgraced. I bring him up because he, and all of cycling (cough *Contador*), exemplify this attitude gone wrong. I really enjoy watching the Tour de France. The athleticism is astounding; the accusations are incredible and it all makes for wonderful entertainment. And I don't believe any professional cyclist who says he's clean. What brought cycling to this state? Answer:


I think it's clear that this "do-anything-to-win" attitude, the rise of professionalism, makes these sports into what they've become. The mentality is bad, but this mentality is a slippery slope that leads to so much else. Here's the part that I hate, if your fame and fortune (and future net-worth) depends on doing anything it take to win, where do you stop? The guys who are doing this are doing it for money, and why shouldn't they? From a "do anything it takes" mentality, it is the rational thing to do. Why wouldn't you get injected with some substance that is guaranteed to make you perform better when you can get a multi-million dollar contract? At least some people are calling others out on it.

Here's my point: sports are irrational. Endurance sports are special in that they are even less rational than throwing a ball through a hoop, running around bases, or running a ball into an "end-zone" for points. No one should go out and say "the rational thing to do today is run 26.2 miles." Sports are supposed to be irrational acts and this is what is what makes them great. Why? Because sports are supposed to be fun. They're supposed to be the opposite of what you do at other times. If it's not fun, if it's about something else, then it's gone awry.

When this do-anything mentality takes over, the sport is dead. The fun is gone. The irrationality is replaced with stats, performance enhancing drugs, money, and a need to rationalize it so that it's understandable. Be rational at work, and leave it at work. When you're out for a run or a ride, think about whether you're having fun or not. Ask yourself why or why not? And if you're not having fun, think about what you might change - maybe don't wear your watch: just go out for a run. If you're not having fun, why are you out there?

To bring it back to the article: it's problematic because people are going to read it and then think they should 'run through the pain' and adopt these insane attitudes about the sports they enjoy. This is going to suck the fun out of it. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe people will say, elite athletes are crazy and this just proves it. But I think people are more likely to adopt the position that if they want to get good at it, they should 'get serious' about it. But that's nuts... well, it's not nuts. That's the rational thing to do, but that might not be the best thing to do. Instead, be nuts. Don't be rational about it and don't, for the love of it, try to rationalize it. Don't try to be a professional about your sport, especially if you don't hold any delusions about trying to make money from it.

Instead of resisting the feeling of being tired, embrace it. Yeah! That'll show ....something! Don't follow a training plan. If you train, you're probably going to get hurt (everyone I know that has followed a training plan has, at some point, been injured - I blame sticking to the plan when you shouldn't). Go ahead and study one so that you get an idea of what you should be doing, but don't stick to it. Forget your plans, forget 'training'. Go out and have fun. If you're having fun with it, you won't need to train because you'll probably do more than the training regime mandates. This will have the additional benefit of putting you in-tune with your body, since you won't want to go out if you're not feeling good. Voila, less chance you'll be hurt because you're tired or over-trained.

In fact, if you love what you're doing, you'll never have to work at it. Maybe just give up being rational when it comes to sports and enjoy it. Don't 'work through it' or 'push past it' or anything that will remove you from the experience. Instead, embrace your tiredness and your muscle fatigue. If you're hurt, then don't do it. You shouldn't be in pain (the bad pain - you know what I mean). You'll find, so I believe, a richer and more fulfilling experience and you'll achieve those goals you originally sought...oh, and you'll have fun.

(In case you're thinking it too: what does Lifetime Fitness's purchase of Leadville 100 hold for the sport? I'm curious to hear what others think. My opinion should be fairly clear, based upon this. But I want to hear other opinions.)

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NYTimes article:"How to Push Past the Pain" + running man