Recently my brother Josh sent me a link to an article on the John Templeton Foundation website that I found quite interesting. Titled “Sanctifying Everyday Difficulties: Motivational Consequences of Sanctifying Difficult Experiences,” it concerned the work of Daphna Oyserman, a professor of psychology at USC.
Oyserman has spent a number of years studying ways in which concepts of identity can be harnessed to supply the motivation needed to do hard things. Quite unexpectedly, these inquiries led her to observe that some of the most successful overcomes of difficult experiences regard them as ennobling—which is to say, as something that helps them become better versions of themselves or makes their lives more meaningful or brings them closer to God.
As unscientific as this idea may sound, we all know people who function in this way. Indeed, it has been my own observation that great endurance athletes tend to bring identity-based motivations to their sport. A quote from six-time Ironman world champion Mark Allen comes to mind: “The shorter races are a little more physical. Once you get into the longer races, it become more a test of you as a person on top of a test of you as an athlete.”
This is how many if not most (maybe all) great endurance athletes see their sport: as a means of testing and refining what they’re made of. They raise the personal stakes of competition far above the level of just trying to achieve goals and get better. For them, the ultimate failure is not falling short of particular outcome goals but falling short of their personal character standards in the pursuit of such goals.
Of course, everyone who takes up endurance sports is looking for a challenge. Relatively few athletes, however, consciously frame their chosen challenge the way the great ones do: namely, as the whole point of the undertaking. “To win is not important,” marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge said in a 2018 address to the Oxford Union Society. “To be successful is not even important. How to plan and prepare is crucial. When you plan very well and prepare very well, then success can come on the way. Then winning can come on your way.”
Kipchoge and his ilk see no separation between sport and life, between athlete and human. How they handle themselves in the heat of competition matters to them every bit as much as how they handle themselves in the difficult situations they face in everyday life because both types of challenge reveal who they really are. “Only the disciplined ones are free in life,” Kipchoge said in the same address. “If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods. You are a slave to your passions.” As an athlete, Kipchoge does nothing less than strive to perfect himself. Monks talk the same way about their own efforts at self-mastery, for they’re doing the same thing.
To some athletes, Oyserman’s difficulty-as-sanctification approach to sport may seem like taking a mere game too seriously. I get it. Some of us prefer a moderate challenge—something less than a quest for ennoblement. If you’re in it mainly to enjoy being outside or doing something positive with friends, Kipchoge’s talk of discipline and slavery may come off as rather intimidating.
Having said this, though, let me just add one caveat, which is this: It’s a mistake to think that athletes who put everything on the line when they race are bleeding all the fun out of endurance sports. To the contrary, it’s the athletes who pin all their hopes on achieving goals such as breaking 3:30 in the marathon who more often end up disappointed. Whereas athletes who instead use endurance sports as a vehicle to become a better version of themselves are all but destined to succeed because seriously trying to evolve as a human being is pretty much all it takes to succeed in doing so.
Make that two caveats. The second is this: It’s a mistake also to think you have to be a great athlete to pursue sanctification through endurance sports. I know this because I’ve done it myself. As a young runner I failed to measure up to my personal character standards in a way that has haunted me ever since. When I got back into running (and branched out to triathlon) in my late 20s, I came to regard endurance sports as a means to transform myself into the man I want to be. Not long afterward, a personal challenge far more difficult than any marathon entered my life. Only then did I begin to appreciate that the value of the self-work I did as an athlete extended beyond the racecourse.
If you’re interested in my full story, check out my forthcoming memoir, Life Is a Marathon. It makes the best case I know how to for approaching endurance sports with the difficulty-as-sanctification mindset.