Benjamin Franklin

You want perfect weather conditions for your half-marathon PR attempt on Sunday.

But do you actually need perfect weather conditions?

You want to beat your average pace from your last tempo run in today’s tempo run.

But do you really need to beat it?

You want to avoid niggles and minor illnesses in the remaining five weeks before your big race?

But did you truly need to?

The answer to all of these questions is a definitive no. If the weather doesn’t cooperate on race day, you can still race to the best of your ability and take satisfaction in knowing you would have PR’ed in better conditions. If you fail to show improvement in a workout, you can let it go and move on, knowing improvement will come if you stay the course. And if you develop a niggle or a minor illness during the last six weeks before a big race, you can handle it to the best of your ability and still go after your goal, assuming nothing. Yet, despite the incontestable nature of these facts, athletes routinely mistake wants for needs, fixing their minds on the notion that certain things have to happen, or else—or else what exactly?

Closely related to this conflation of wants and needs is the tendency to assume that if certain undesirable events transpire, the athlete has no choice but to react in a particular (negative) way. For example, a runner who is coming back from a long injury might refuse invitations from a friend and former training partner to resume running together because the two runners used to be exact equals but now the friend is much fitter. In this scenario, the runner assumes she has no choice but to react to running with her fitter friend with jealousy and self-pity, just as many athletes assume they have no choice but to react negatively to bad race-day weather, a disappointing workout performance, or an untimely niggle or illness.

One could make the case that there are no true needs whatsoever in endurance sports. Even the need to be healthy enough to participate in them can be considered a want. I myself am not healthy enough to participate in endurance sports (for those of you who were cheering on my recovery from long covid, I’m sorry to report that I’ve relapsed big-time). But I don’t believe that I have no choice but to be depressed or bitter about my poor health. Instead I choose to remain as involved as I can possibly be in endurance sports short of actually doing them and to find satisfaction in helping others enjoy the doing.

Stoics, Buddhists, and other spiritualists argue that the key to happiness is reducing our wants, aiming to get as close as one can to perfect overlap between wants and needs. But this strategy doesn’t work very well in sports, which are all about chasing unneedful wants (i.e., goals). One of my favorite Ben Franklin quotes address this very issue from a uniquely American perspective. I believe Franklin has material wants in mind mostly, but his advice applies to sports.

“There are two ways of being happy: We may either diminish our wants or augment our means—either will do—the result is the same; and it is for each man to decide for himself, and do that which happens to be the easiest. If you are idle or sick or poor, however hard it may be to diminish your wants, it will be harder to augment your means. If you are active and prosperous or young and in good health, it may be easier for you to augment your means than to diminish your wants. But if you are wise, you will do both at the same time, young or old, rich or poor, sick or well; and if you are very wise you will do both in such a way as to augment the general happiness of society.”

An athlete who heeds this counsel will go ahead and set goals that represent unneedful wants—qualifying for Boston, breaking 11 hours in an Ironman triathlon, whatever. Having set their goal, they will then focus entirely on augmenting their means—i.e., making themselves capable of achieving this goal. They will not supplement the one big want with lots of little wants that are based on a desire to minimize the amount of means augmentation they must do to achieve their goal. These lesser unneedful wants are little more than infantile wishes that the road to goal fulfillment will be smooth and downhill with a tailwind at their back the whole way. They betray a weakness of character that no athlete should be content with. In essence, they want their goal to meet them halfway, High-character, mentally strong athletes want one thing only: to achieve their goal, and accept the responsibility to reach that despite a bumpy road that’s entirely uphill and a powerful headwind hitting them in the face at every step.

I realized only now that I’ve essentially just rewritten a prior post, “If It’s Not Hard, It’s Not Hard Enough.” What can I say? I’m becoming quite the stoic in my old age.

When I was fourteen years old I suffered a catastrophic knee injury during a soccer game. I didn’t even know what an ACL was until the orthopedic surgeon who patched me up (sounding more impressed than sympathetic) explained that I had torn mine clean off the bone. What I did know, well before I received this diagnosis—from the moment, in fact, that I dropped to the grass and clutched my knee as I’ve seen so many professional athletes do since then—was that, whatever I had done to myself, it was really, really bad. I had experienced plenty of pain in my rough-and-tumble backwoods childhood, including two bone fractures, but the pain of this new injury was so far greater in degree that it seemed almost different in kind, as though the word “pain” did not apply and another word was needed.

This happened so long ago—we’re talking 1985—that I no longer remember at what point in the process I set a conscious goal to get through the whole ordeal without crying (having somehow managed not to cry as I lay jackknifed on the turf knowing I had played my soccer game). Nor did I reflect on why it felt right to pursue this goal; it just did.

“Toxic masculinity!” cry the woke. “You were just another testosterone-addled adolescent male socialized to suppress outward displays of vulnerability!”

Wrong. In my fifty years on earth I have never met anyone who despised toxic masculinity (or machismo, as we called it in 1985) more than my father, who was (as you would expect) my primary male role model. He reacted with visceral disgust when other men exhibited the worst traits of our sex. A notable feminist thread ran through much of his own writing, including his novel Poor Richard’s Lament, which puts Benjamin Franklin on trial (literally) for misogyny, among other crimes.

So no, my commitment to dry eyes had nothing to do with restrictive gender norms. In hindsight, I think it had more to do with the fact that I had been a crybaby earlier in my youth. Indeed, the vow I made not to cry after my knee injury was not my first such vow. To this today I retain a clear memory of riding home one afternoon on the school bus as a first-grader, thinking, “When I get home, Josh [my older brother] is going to do something mean, and I’m going to cry. I know this because it happens every day. But not today!”

Sure enough, Josh was mean to me that afternoon, and I did not cry. Nor did I cry during the long, long year of my ACL ordeal, though I came very close on one occasion. The thing I hadn’t counted on when I made my vow was that the pain of physical therapy would eclipse even that of the first twenty-four hours after surgery, but oh, boy did it ever. My assigned torturer was a young PT with leading-man looks that belied an iron grip. When I came out of the cast six weeks post-surgery I had a 15-degree range of motion in my left knee, as compared to 135 degrees in my right knee. The only way to restore full mobility was to manually stretch out the repaired ACL, which had been stapled back in place as tightly as possible so the knee wouldn’t wobble later. My handsome persecutor achieved the desired outcome by placing me facedown on a padded table, seizing my shank in two strong hands, and throwing his full weight and strength into pressing my heel toward my butt.

He might as well have been trying to force a loaf of bread into a pickle jar. The joint did not budge. Paul grunted and wheezed with the effort. Gruesome popping and crackling sounds issued from the knee. The pain was indescribable, like being flayed alive. Yet I was determined not to cry. As Paul continued to press down on me, I squeezed my eyeballs so hard that, had they been coals, they would have become diamonds. Every muscle in my body contracted. My top and bottom teeth soldered themselves together. In the worst moment, a single soblike sound escaped me, but that was just reflex, I swear, and doesn’t count as crying.

Understand that I have nothing against crying in principle. I don’t judge other people for breaking down, and I make no effort to resist crying for others. When my beloved dog Queenie died a few months ago, I wept a few times. But I don’t like crying for myself. Again, I don’t judge others, but for me it seems symbolic of giving in to self-pity. Translated to English, all that boo-hooing would come out as, “Why me?”, which strikes me as a dumb question. I mean, why not me?

My latest ordeal has been a thousand times worse than the ACL episode, yet not once during my sixteen-month struggle with long covid have I been even tempted to cry for myself. I suppose my prior vows have been internalized to the point where not giving in to self-pity has become second nature. I have long-hauler friends who have cried plenty, and I wouldn’t say they’re coping any less successfully than I am. We each have our own coping style, and mine includes a certain stoicism, a stiff upper lip. Complain I will, but cry I won’t.

In addition to not crying, I ensure I don’t give in to self-pity by exposing myself to the examples of people who cope with extreme hardship better than I do. It was for this purpose that I sat down with my wife last week to watch the new film Salt in My Soul, which documents the life and death of Mallory Smith, a California girl who at age three was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a disease that no long-hauler in their right mind would ever trade for. I was duly humbled by the joy and generosity Mallory was able to manifest in her brief and tormented existence. How can you not admire a young woman who nicknames the oxygen tank she’s forced to wheel around everywhere she goes during her freshman year of college Sexy Pete?

As the movie ended, I made a new vow to myself, to try to be a bit more like Mallory going forward. And yes, I was in tears, but so was my wife, and neither of us was crying for me.

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