Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Tyranny of Comfort

It's not hard to imagine that we are living in a cloud. I opened my eyes early this morning to the softest, grayest, most diffuse light that daybreak can offer. I turned on to my back and closed my eyes, picturing a vase-like shape that I use as a kind of visual mantra. I stride on its interminable surface until it curls back into itself. That was enough to allow me some extra minutes of precious rest. When I emerged again into full consciousness, the air on the other side of the window was completely saturated: light and fog everywhere. The clock said 6 am. I rolled out of bed, slipped on some clothes, and laced up my running shoes.

I don't try to take any special credit for the discipline required to train at high levels. We call it "will," and imbue it with a mysterious, supernatural quality. We admire people who have it. We think it helps athletic performance. Our conception of will goes well beyond a desire to win, though. It works to get us up early, while the rest of the household still sleeps. It works to keep us on the track doing extra laps after the rest of the team has worn down. Most of all, it works to push at -- and exceed -- our own limits. Therein lies the biggest clue that we have misconceived the will.

The limits on athletic performance derive from laws of nature. People do go faster than they used to, but not because they evaded those laws or exceeded those limits. When Paul Biedermann swam faster than Michael Phelps at the World Championship, we didn't say it was because of his "will to win." We said it was because of his swimsuit. The suit helped him to decrease the friction between his body and the water. So he swam faster. Why are other advances less nakedly obvious? Why has Phelp's success been parlayed into a book titled, "No limits: the Will to Win?"

I think we like to preserve some of the mystery of athletic performance so that we can credit the athlete -- the person -- with the "stuff" that it took to make it happen. And the athlete may perpetuate the myth by maintaining some of that mystery. In the run-up to this year's Western States 100 mile trail race, Geoff Roes, fellow Montrail athlete, reports that he trains as he feels -- taking a daily invitation to run in the mountains of his Alaska home. When they aren't so obtuse, athlete's blogs document seemingly inhuman efforts. Anton Krupicka, training for the same event, reports running 200+ miles per week, running having become "first nature" to him. These two inspire awe with their performances. How can mere mortals hope to achieve what seems to belong to a different realm?

Some people do seem couch bound. Who doesn't like to recline into a soft cushion, legs extended and feet propped, cold beverage at one hand and savory snack at the other? And given the opportunity, why shouldn't we avail ourselves of such creature comforts? Running in a world without imminent predation is totally discretionary. And generally uncomfortable. A recent blog post by another Montrail teammate, Gary Robbins, captured well the angst of finding oneself completely miserable while running a race. He was running Miwok when he found that all he wanted was to stop. What can you do? He stopped. Tellingly -- he felt badly afterward for what seemed to him a failure of will. I don't think willpower is like that -- something you can activate when needed -- like at mile 38 of a 62 mile race. I don't think it is something that some people just have. Tiger Woods may have the most disciplined of golf games -- but his power of will obviously didn't extend into his personal life. Will is a social device -- something we use to hold each other accountable. Willpower develops in non-mysterious ways among people who don't like excuses.

That brings me to the ultimate source of my will: a compulsion to be free. I value freedom more than comfort. I scoff at happiness. Every invitation to do what feels good has the potential to sway me, and in so doing, become me. To the extent we are swayed by inclination, we have no autonomy to decide for ourselves. We can neither be praised nor punished for how we proceed. We have a ready excuse -- it couldn't be helped. Strong groups depend on the banishment of excuses, and the emergence of individuals who decide for themselves. Training for and competing in ultras is a declaration of this kind of freedom.

Determination doesn't just happen. I'll have to elaborate on the mechanics of willfulness in later posts...when I can discuss them in context of what happens at Highland Sky on Saturday?


  1. To me willpower is something that we are born with. Do we have the will to get up and go for a run or go to work on time. Determination comes about by properly training ourselves, which will later help us to reach the goals we have set. Very interesting post. Makes me wonder and inspect myself!

  2. Good luck at the race. My feeling is that willpower is, like everything else in life, a shared experience with God. God makes our heart beat and stomach gurgle, without our volition. Likewise, he gives us free choice to engage our will, and when we make that choice, sometimes we experience freedom and power beyond what we thought was initially possible. So it is a partnership...God has given us some of the reins, and when we act upon that given freedom, God gives us a little extra push. Sorry for the religiosity in a running blog, I just think that many of these superstar runners writing in their blog don't always remember that it is the mountain pulling them up just as much as them "conquering" the mountain.