I’ve finally gotten around to reading Graem Sims’s excellent biography of Percy Cerutty, Why Die? One of the things I like about it is how liberally it quotes from Cerutty’s writings, which are of mixed, yet surprisingly high, quality. I’ve highlighted a number of passages, including this gem: “To race superlatively I hold that one has to feel extreme ferocity. That this is directed against ourselves is the sublime part.”
Many athletes get angry at themselves when they perform poorly, deriving from this anger motivation to perform better in subsequent competition. I deal with this phenomenon in Chapter 6 of How Bad Do You Want It?, where I write:
Robert Wicks, a psychologist and author of the book Bounce: Living the Resilient Life, has referred to this type of angry resolve as “sweet disgust.” The phrase aptly conveys the idea that there is an element of healthy wrath in the fed-up mind state that fuels positive change. Sweet disgust is really the opposite of defeat. It is a determination to fight back, something that is hard to do effectively without anger. All else being equal, the angrier party in a fight wins. In psychobiological terms, sweet disgust enhances performance by increasing potential motivation, or the maximum intensity of perceived effort an athlete is willing to endure.
In 2000, Sabine Janssen and colleagues at the Dutch University of Leiden induced anger in volunteers and then subjected them to a test of pain tolerance. On a separate occasion, the volunteers took the same test in a neutral emotional state. Janssen’s team discovered that the subjects’ pain tolerance was significantly greater when they were angry. In 2010, English researchers found that inducing anger markedly improved performance in a hand-grip strength test. Pain is not quite the same thing as perceived effort and strength is different from endurance, but they are similar enough that we should expect anger to affect perceived effort and endurance performance in much the same way.
Recently I had direct experience of sweet disgust in my running. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may know that on February 15 I dropped out of the Black Canyon 100K (my first attempt at the distance) at mile 38. Although my choice to throw in the towel was probably wise, it was, in fact, a choice, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. More precisely, it left me angry with myself, and desirous of exorcising the weakness that possessed my normally strong mind at the very next opportunity by means of a punishingly hard race effort.
Lucky for me, such an opportunity was close at hand, for I was scheduled to run the Atlanta Marathon just two weeks later. The catch was that I came away from the Black Canyon debacle pretty beat up, hence unsure that my body would be capable of running an all-out marathon so soon, and on a course that featured terrible roads and more than 1,800 feet of elevation gain. The other catch was that I was traveling to Atlanta as a special guest of Kerri Dienhart, founder of Destination Miles, a travel service catering to endurance athletes, to whom I had offered to pace one of her paying guests through his or her (presumably slower) marathon. But I really needed to get that monkey off my back, so I emailed Kerri and told her that A) I might not be physically able to fulfill my pacing commitment, and B) even if I was, I might be mentally unable to resist going for broke.
A competitive runner and triathlete herself, Kerri was understanding on both counts. Even better, my body recovered surprisingly quickly, and by the time I boarded my flight to ATL, I was both physically and mentally ready to test the performance-enhancing power of sweet disgust.
Let me pause here to give Kerri and Destination Miles a heartfelt plug. Race aside, I am almost willing to say, based on the experience I had in Atlanta, that I never want to travel to a race event any other way. It wasn’t just the VIP treatment—the airport pickup, the hotel pre-check-in, the swag bag, the private gear-drop area at the race venue, etc. It was also, perhaps even mainly, the group that made the experience so wonderful. I don’t need to tell you that runners, by and large, are great people, and I had an absolute blast with those I met and hung out with on this unforgettable weekend.
As for the race, what can I say? Sweet disgust really works! Before the race, I went out of my way to talk big, telling the group I wanted to finish the race as the first master with a time between 2:44 and 2:49. The point of this swaggering was to leave myself with no out when things got hard during the race and my inner wimp started trying to talk me into giving less than 100 percent. And that’s just what happened. Things got hard soon after the half marathoners peeled off and I confronted yet another challenging climb. At that moment my inner wimp cleared his throat in preparation for one of his sermons on the virtues of staying in one’s comfort zone, but that’s as far as he got. Remembering my big talk—and remembering also the way I felt after quitting Black Canyon—I slapped my inner wimp across the face, and did so several times more in the ensuing miles, as my suffering intensified.
If this sounds masochistic or self-spiting to you, you’re not quite understanding. The thing you should know about the self-directed anger that fueled my performance in the Atlanta Marathon is that it’s different from other forms of anger because it’s actually enjoyable. That’s why Wicks calls it sweet disgust. It’s the better part of you taking revenge on the part of you that let you down two weeks (or however long) before. There’s no real fear or anxiety in this particular flavor of anger because how you actually perform is of secondary importance. What matters most is something that is entirely within your control, and that’s how hard you push yourself.
In mile 17 I was passed by a guy with flecks of gray in his goatee. If I’d had to guess, I would have pegged his age at 40. This meant I was no longer leading the masters division of the race (assuming I had been up to that point). I spent the remainder of the race chasing the dude, turning myself inside out to reel him back, not because the masters title really mattered to me but rather as an excuse for ensuring that I left absolutely everything I had to give out on the pothole-studded streets of Atlanta. In a race where I averaged 6:22 per mile (finish time 2:46:59), I covered the last full mile in 5:58 in this ultimately doomed effort, crossing the line seven seconds behind Mr. Gray-Flecked Goatee (who did indeed turn out to be 40 years old), my face looking as you see it in the photo above.
That is one ugly face, folks, and I am as proud of it as I am disgusted by the face that looked back at me from the bathroom mirror after I dropped out of the Black Canyon 100K. I hope you never let yourself down (again) in a race, but if you do, then by all means, get angry, and enjoy it!