Dan Challener told us to run 20 minutes and meet him at the track. The Bruin stadium was a 10 minute jog from campus, so we looped through the affluent neighborhoods on the hill just north of downtown Providence. We knew the workout would be different. We were left wondering what we were in for.
Head coach Bob Rothenberg (Berg) was there, along with Dan. He told us we would run the measured two mile course on the road finishing at the stadium, without pausing we were to run a mile hard on the track. He told me, along with some teammates including our captain, Fergal Mullen, to run the two miles at 5:40 per mile and the mile at 4:40. We were to repeat this twice more, without pausing in between.
I told our coaches that I wasn’t sure we could do that. Berg looked at the ground and gave me a well-worn shake of the head. Dan stared at me, his agitation visible. I knew what they wanted, and Fergal was quick to give it to them. “Ah, we can do that! Come on, guys, let’s be positive!”
We hadn’t done a workout like that before. We’d certainly done mile repeats, though, and a 4:40 was a tough effort. We’d also done plenty of tempo runs, and 5:40 pace was right at threshold. We were getting pretty fit, but I was apprehensive. The guys were starting to bounce, stretch, or do strides. They may actually have thought that believing they could do it was enough. Or maybe they thought that whatever coach said they could do, they could do. Or maybe they just didn’t think deeply about it. Most likely, I suppose, they had learned that expressing a “can do” attitude worked in getting along with other people. I took the task at face value, and tried to get my head around it. It made my heart beat harder and my hands turn clammy.
I wanted to nail that tempo pace, and maximize my running economy. It would devastate our chances to finish if we got carried away from the beginning. When we started we stayed bunched together. When I stuck behind one of the guys I could lower my arm just a bit so that it would swing just under his. My gait was low and quiet. We hummed through the splits right on pace. When we transitioned to the track I kept in mind that the acceleration wouldn’t feel so abrupt coming off the 5:40 pace. Starting an interval from a standstill gives the body a jolt that takes a little while to accommodate. Shifting gears, as we were in this workout, actually made the first mile interval feel comparatively easy.
We were doing the work, though, and it started to show on the second two miles on the road. The guys were having some trouble keeping pace. I clocked off the splits like a metronome, barely deviating even for the slight inclines. By the time we were back on the track the guys were starting to string out behind me. I nailed the second one-mile interval on the track. I transitioned slowly to try and let the other guys catch up for the final two miles on the road. They were coming apart. I went on to complete the workout as prescribed.
Athletes are compelling because they “can do.” They can do things we find difficult to imagine. They respond to competition by striving to do even better. Great athletes, we feel, have the will to win. They emerge victorious, it seems, no matter what. It’s in their bearing. We want and expect our athletes to lower their heads and shake off any challenge. We mistakenly think that it is this self-confident spirit that propels the athlete forward. When in the course of competition he begins to tire, we think, his will to win kicks in and carries him over the threshold.
People may reward such optimism, but nature doesn’t care. I’m reminded of an encounter I had during a run from Damascus, VA. I started south on the Appalachian Trail. About 4 miles out I passed a hiker. He wore a full sized pack. He was also headed south from Damascus. He said he was thirsty, and asked if I had water to spare. I was carrying a hydration pack with enough water for my run. I told him so, but I said I would turn after another 6 miles and when I passed him again, I would give him what I had left.
When I passed the hiker on my way back, I asked him how he was doing. He said he was doing great. After our encounter he had begun to pray to God for water. And God answered his prayer. He sent a group of hikers along the side trail from Back Bone Rock. And they had water for him.
I recommended to him that he make provisions to collect his own water.
I suppose great athletes do carry themselves with a certain self-confidence. It isn’t the confidence which causes them to do well, though. There just isn’t the room inside us for a wild-eyed spiritual stoker. It is the well-advised application of effort over long periods of time, and the built-in wisdom that develops from that, fueling great athletes. That kind of self-knowledge runs deep. Virtuoso performance of any kind is too big to fit inside a person’s head. It extends through the body and out into space and back through time to encompass all the experience that contributed to one’s capacity to do this thing well.
Great athletic performances compel our admiration and respect because they embody the culmination of expansive, and real, effort. Athletes can do. We can talk about the will to win as long as this is what we mean. If we imagine strength of will to be a non-corporeal essence that some people just happen to have, we distance ourselves from what is possible.