Geoffrey Kamworor – 80/20 Endurance

Geoffrey Kamworor

Sports comebacks come in infinite varieties. They range in nature from falling down during a race, getting back up, and winning despite the mishap to going off the rails with alcohol or drug abuse, cleaning up, and subsequently attaining new heights of performance. Underneath all of this apparent variety, however, lies a consistent pattern, which is this: Every athlete who overcomes a major setback or challenge does so by means of the same, three-step process of accepting, embracing, and addressing reality.

Or so I argue in my soon-to-be-released book The Comeback Quotient: A Get-Real Guide to Building Mental Fitness in Sport and Life. I wrote this book to address what I perceived to be the failure of existing efforts to explain what makes great comebacks possible for those who achieve them, hence what it takes for any athlete, including those who don’t yet have what it takes, to overcomes setbacks and challenges. The fatal flaw in these failed explanations, in my view, is that they focus too much on psychological attributes and not enough on behavior. They credit qualities such as resilience for making comebacks possible, but to me these explanations aren’t explanations at all but tautologies. After all, how does resilience manifest except through resilient actions? To say that resilience explains an athletic comeback is akin to saying that “soporific qualities” are responsible for a sleep aid’s effectiveness.

Also, what is an athlete to do with the knowledge that resilience or some other psychological attribute is responsible for other athletes’ great comebacks? How does this information help you overcome the next setback or challenge you experience? I don’t think it does you any more good than it does for a basketball player to know he would probably be a better basketball player if her were taller.

Far more instructive is the behavior of athletes who achieve great comebacks. In The Comeback Quotient I analyze a number of historical examples to show that such athletes truly are doing the same thing every single time, which is to fully face reality in three crucial steps: 1) accept, 2) embrace, and 3) address. Among these case studies is Kenyan runner Geoffrey Kamworor’s comeback from a fall at the start of the 2016 World Half Marathon Championship to claim victory in dramatic fashion. To pull off this remarkable feet, Geoffrey first had to accept the reality of his situation, then embrace it by committing to making the best of it despite, and then address it by putting himself through a world of hurt to catch back up to the lead pack and by then smartly swapping his normal front-running racing style with a patient sit-and-surge strategy.

Sounds simple enough, but I can assure you that very few athletes would have done the same in Geoffrey’s situation. Instead they would have failed to accept its reality by either panicking (a form of denial)–curling into a self-protective ball while they lay on the ground being trampled underfoot by other runners–or else catastrophizing the situation, deciding wrongly that their race was over before it even started. Or, if they did accept the reality of their situation, they would have failed to embrace (i.e., failed to commit to making the best of it), completing the race in a rattled or demoralized state. Or, if they did both accept and embrace the situation, they would have failed to address it as Geoffrey did, either through unwillingness to put themselves through the necessary suffering or in failing to be flexible in their racing tactics.

My name for athletes like Geoffrey Kamworor, who are able to make the very best of the very worsts situations, is ultrarealists, and they are rare. As the great modernist poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot tolerate very much reality.” Or, as the great endurance masochist David Goggins put it, “Believe it or not, most people prefer delusion.” Facing hard realities is, well, hard, and it is our nature as humans to avoid what is hard. Also, it is possible to get by in life by facing reality only to the degree that is absolutely necessary. But in sports the goal is not merely to get by but to excel, and to excel an athlete must face reality fully.

The good news is that any athlete can get better at facing reality. The most effective way to do it, in my experience, is to consciously emulate the behavior of the ultrarealists in bad situations. You don’t need to have a ton of resilience or whatever already to intentionally make your best effort to accept, and embrace, and address the next bad situation that crops up in your athletic life. And by going through this process in every bad situation, you will not only get better and better at making the best of such situations but you will also cultivate the general psychological qualities that support ultrarealism.

I want to make it clear that facing reality is helpful in more than just dire circumstances such as, say, starting over as an athlete following a major illness. At any given moment, most athletes are dealing with some sort of challenge that demands skillful mental coping, be it pain, menstruation, a bad workout, flagging motivation, life stress, time pressure, unfavorable weather—the list goes on. I’ll give you one timely example of how facing reality can benefit an athlete 365 days a year.

Imagine you’ve been training hard for a marathon that is canceled two weeks before race day due to the pandemic. Having known this might happen, you kept in your back pocket a fallback plan of running a solo marathon time trial in place of the real race. Now that you’ve been forced to activate this contingency, however, you’re finding it difficult to muster the same level of excitement for it.

Here’s what an ultrarealist will do in this situation: First, they will accept the fact that, although they would rather run a real race, they don’t have to run a solo marathon and are doing so of their own free will, because they want to. Next, they will embrace the project of making the best of the situation, perhaps by consciously challenging themselves to see how hard they can push themselves in the absence of the usual excitement. And finally, they will pull every available lever to make the best of the situation, levers that may include such creative measures as letting all of their local friends know when and where they’ll be running and inviting them to come out and cheer for them (with masks and appropriate physical distancing, of course) at some point if they so choose.

Now here’s what everyone else will do in the same situation: Failing to fully accept the cancelation of their race, they will go ahead and run the solo time trial but with a bad attitude, as though someone else were forcing them to go through with it even though, like the ultrarealist, they are actually doing it because they want to. They will brood and complain about their lack of excitement as if there were nothing they could do about it instead of accepting the emotion as natural and thereby gaining some cognitive distance from it and opening up the possibility of finding some productive use for it. And finally, because they are essentially running under protest, they won’t make the effort to set themselves up for success in every way possible, and they won’t respond well to the inevitable difficult moments that come in the back half of any marathon, and consequently they will perform poorly and come away from the experience with a bad feeling.

I know it seems I’m being rather critical of the majority of athletes who aren’t ultrarealists, but everything I’ve just described is perfectly natural, and it’s a path that’s almost inevitable to go down for anyone who wasn’t born with an ultrarealist mindset or hasn’t consciously worked to cultivate it. The good news, again, is that the ultrarealist’s response to the situation I just laid out is open to anyone who simply recognizes its possibility and decides they want it for themselves. And again, the situation I just laid out is merely a topical example. Opportunities to fully face reality present themselves to athletes every single day, and those who learn to take advantage of them will get much further in their athletic journey and have a far different, and better, overall experience of the sport they love than will those who keep muddling along hoping everything will always go their way.


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At the 2016 World Half Marathon Championships, held in Cardiff, Wales, young Geoffrey Kamworor gave the running community an object lesson in keeping calm during a crisis. The Kenyan upstart came into the race having talked a lot of smack about one fellow competitor, Mo Farah, who was almost universally recognized as the best runner on the planet and whom Kamworor had never beaten, only to slip and fall on the start line and get trampled by a handful of the thousands of amateur runners stampeding from behind. After spending the longest seven seconds of his life sprawled face-first on the tarmac, Kamworor got up, barged through the scores of slower runners now in front of him, caught Farah and the other leaders around 1 kilometer, and went on to win the race.

It was a remarkable feat that caused a sensation among running fans that was stoked in part by the serendipitous existence of a video clip capturing the early moments of Kamworor’s recovery. It wasn’t merely a remarkable physical feat, however. There can be no doubt that Kamworor won the race despite his traumatic fall not only because he’s really fast and fit but also because he didn’t panic.

I believe that the ability to stay calm under stress is one of the most important psychological characteristics of successful endurance athletes, and that the lack of this ability—in other words, a susceptibility to panic—holds athletes back more than just about any other mental trait.

The panic mechanism, as scientists refer to it, is natural and universal. As psychologist Randolph Nesse wrote in a 1987 paper titled “An Evolutionary Perspective on Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia,” “Panic, when viewed ethologically, is not pathological in itself; it is rather an adaptation that evolved to facilitate escape in dangerous situations.” The problem is that panic is only useful in situations of mortal danger, yet most of us also panic in less serious situations that are not helped by this response, including a variety of stressful situations that we face as athletes, such as bad workouts, injury, and mid-race setbacks like flat tires.

High-performing endurance athletes are typically slow to panic, as Geoffrey Kamworor was at the 2016 World Half Marathon Championships. After the race, he said of his disastrous start, “It was really tough after that fall to catch up but I fought hard.” This terse description of how Kamworor experienced the race from the inside is almost laughably banal, but it perfectly conveys the take-it-in-stride mentality that he used to make the best of a bad situation. Contrast this demonstration of poise under pressure to my own behavior in the 1987 New England High School Cross Country Championships, in which I hit the deck early and, despite rising and continuing, remained rattled by the fiasco through the remainder of the race, unable to put it behind me and make the best of my own bad situation.

I’ve been using the term “panic” rather loosely. A true panic response lies at the very extreme of the spectrum of anxiety states. Far more often than we panic, endurance athletes experience anxiety. But even these episodes are frequently out of proportion to their cause and make the overall situation worse instead of better. Another personal example involves my swimming. I’m working hard to improve my swimming for an upcoming Ironman, and although I have made a fair amount of progress over the past few months, I have good days and bad days in the pool. Last Wednesday, in fact, I had another a bad day, and I failed to keep calm, instead becoming so frustrated by and obsessed with figuring out why I’ve gone backwards that I abandoned my planned workout and spent the rest of my time in the pool tinkering around with my technique, which never works. I’m quite certain that if I were less emotionally thrown off by such setbacks, the arc of my improvement would be smoother and I would enjoy the process more.

How does one get better at staying calm in the face of crisis moments in training and racing? I think it’s all about intentionality. The essential trigger of anxiety in these situations is surprise. We are caught off guard by an unexpected turn of events and don’t know what to do. While you can never know in advance that you’re going to fall down at the start line and be trampled by dozens of your fellow runners, you can develop a sort of general readiness for and way of responding to such scenarios.

Psychotherapists treat diagnosed cases of panic disorder by recreating the symptoms repetitively in a controlled manner. This teaches the patient that the symptoms are not dangerous and that the patient has a certain amount of control over them. You can do something similar in the athletic context by training yourself to recognize that you are experiencing an anxiety response to a stressful situation. This puts you outside the response to a degree and allows you to make choices that you would not be able to make if you responded reflexively, simply acting on your anxiety.

The next time I have a bad swim, for example, I can remind myself that I’ve had many prior bad days at the pool and none of them put a permanent end to my progress as a swimmer. At that point I can make a rational choice about how to deal with it. Based on the patterns I’ve observed, my most likely choice will be to return to the drills and technique cues that led to my biggest steps forward and that always seem to do a good job of resetting my stroke whenever it reverts in some way. In fact, this is precisely what I did when I went back to the pool last Friday, and I had one of my best swims yet.

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