I don’t really follow basketball so you’ll have to help me understand how a tournament designed to pit the best teams against each other ends up with a final four with none of the top seeded teams. Don’t get me wrong, like a lot of people, I’m thrilled to see Kentucky back in it (I’m a native), and I couldn’t be happier that VCU displaced a top seed (I reside in Virginia). I can’t imagine anyone is actually happy about their bracket, but aren’t a lot of us merrily snickering about mid-major programs like Butler’s becoming a staple of the NCAA tournament? And beyond the mildly malevolent joy of watching a Goliath fall, don’t we also appreciate the humble shrug of athletes who respond to questions about their hopes going into the semi-finals with some version of “I’m just happy to be here.”
Just because a phrase is a cliché doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Athletes do well to cultivate states of mind conducive to top performance. The weight of high expectation can strain athletes’ abilities to stay positive and stay focused. Some dynasties may be so good that this fragility is never exposed. If talent is more evenly distributed, however, the mental side of the game may come into play. A couple of mistakes in a row can be shaken off by a player who wasn’t even expected to make it this far, for example, while the same two mistakes could cause another athlete to feel seriously frustrated. To the extent you can dwell in the present, savor any immediate successes, and avoid a frustrating comparison of what is happening to what you expected, don’t you have a mental advantage?
My races feel most free when I’ve recently come back from injury and sincerely feel that all I want is to run and to enjoy whatever the event may bring me. I cannot realistically expect to run fast, or to even feel good. I’m literally open to anything. The freedom of these races is a joy in itself, but as it happens, my performances suggest that this state of mind is also good for running fast.
Don’t take the fact that I was outpaced by young Jake Reed at last Saturday’s Terrapin 50K as contradicting my conclusion. I did run fast, he just ran faster! We both went under the course record. For the first many miles I kept Jake in sight. I would normally be more comfortable running in front, but I was quite content to hang back. I paid attention to things; tucked my Clif Bloks into my gloves so they would soften up; kept my strides as quick and quiet as possible. It made me smile that Jake seemed worried about me behind him – he kept turning his head to check my position. “Just run,” I said to him in my mind, “you are doing great!”
It didn’t bother me that Jake was able to pull away. I had no reason to expect otherwise. He is 23 years old, having recently graduated after successfully competing as a college varsity athlete. He won Promise Land 50K last year -- where we will meet again in a few short weeks. I will be tempted to presume that I am more fit than I thought before running at Terrapin. I will be tempted to expect another good performance. Paradoxically, I will only be able to run my best if I resist these temptations and keep as open a mind as possible. I should not presume anything except that I will show up and run as I am able. And if someone asks how I think I’ll do, I’ll reply: “I’m just happy to be here.”