by Matt Fitzgerald, Best-selling author & 2016 Hyland’s Boston Marathon team member.
One of my favorite running quotes comes from John L. Parker Jr.’s novel, Again to Carthage. It goes like this:
When you’re a competitive runner in training you are constantly in a process of ascending… It’s not something that most human beings would give a moment of consideration to, that it is actually possible to be living for years in a state of constant betterment. To consider that you are better today than you were yesterday or a year ago, and that you will be better still tomorrow or next week or at tournament time your senior year. That if you’re doing it right you are an organism constantly evolving toward some agreed-upon approximation of excellence. Wouldn’t that at least be one definition of a spiritual state?
I think it’s easy for non-runners to assume, from the outside looking in, that the process of training for marathons and other endurance events is purely physical. But it’s not. The physical aspect is important, naturally. Week by week, you tackle more and more demanding training loads in order to stimulate physiological changes that gradually render your body fully ready for the challenge of race day. But this preparatory process has another, nonphysical dimension, which is how you experience it, and it is this dimension that makes the journey so rewarding.
For lack of a better word, it’s really cool to feel your body changing for the better as the training process unfolds. It’s also deeply satisfying, because you are earning those changes. You plant seeds of hard work and you reap fitness.
Preparation is also intellectually engaging in ways that might surprise people who have never experienced the process of training for a marathon or other endurance event. Decisions need to be made along the way: Should I cross-train instead of running today to protect my sore knee? Should I try to make up last week’s missed speed workout this week or just let it go? Should I jump into that local 5K on Saturday to test my fitness or stay in the flow of my training? And so forth. Training effectively isn’t all that hard, but training optimally is. No matter how long you’ve been running, you can still find ways to refine your approach to race preparation, and it keeps the sport interesting.
Because the experiential aspect of preparation is so important, I doubt that scientists will ever come up with a “fitness pill” that fully substitutes for training. When you do the work, not only does your body get stronger but your mind does too. You gain confidence from surviving tough workouts and hard weeks. In order to achieve your goal in an event, you have to believe you can achieve it, and belief comes from proof. Through preparation you prove to yourself that you can do what you hope to do on race day. No pill can ever give you that.
All kinds of things happen that you wouldn’t expect as you go through the process of preparing. For example, your perception of time changes. At the beginning of the process, a one-hour run may seem to take an eternity. But by the end a two-hour run may pass by without even a hint of boredom or tedium. It’s possible that these subtle, nonphysical changes contribute more to improved performance than is currently recognized. After all, getting to the finish line is largely a matter of not giving in to discomfort, and discomfort is easier to ride out when it doesn’t seem to last as long.
If preparation is a kind of ascension, as John L. Parker Jr. suggestions, then the goal is the summit—or peak. It’s interesting that we use this second word to describe the state of full physical preparedness for racing. For even peaking is nonphysical to a certain degree. One study found that college runners showed no signs of improved fitness over the course of a cross country season, and yet their performance in competition did improve as the late-season championship races approached. This suggests that the runners were simply willing and able to push themselves harder in the events that meant the most.
I think it’s helpful for all runners to consciously regard the preparatory process as both a physical and nonphysical climb to toward “excellence,” whatever that means for you. Getting a little better every day, and knowing it, is a special kind of experience that is difficult to come by at work or as a parent or in any part of everyday life but is available to all runners. Relish it!
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