How Bad Do You Want It? – 80/20 Endurance

How Bad Do You Want It?

There’s a phenomenon that armchair psychologists refer to as shiny object syndrome. You won’t find it mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (at least I hope you won’t), but its existence is widely acknowledged among lay observers of human nature. According to a Wikipedia writeup, “Shiny object syndrome is the situation where people focus undue attention on an idea that is new and trendy, yet drop this is as soon as something new takes its place.”

Underlying shiny object syndrome is another human psychological tendency known as salience bias. Wikipedia defines this one as “the cognitive bias that predisposes individuals to focus on items that are more prominent or emotionally striking and ignore those that are unremarkable, even though this difference is often irrelevant by objective standards.”

I see these two phenomena at play all the time in my role as a student of endurance sports. For example, when the runners of East Africa burst onto the international scene in the 1980s, exercise scientists and coaches in Europe and North America were quick to attribute their dominance to genetic advantages. There’s a name too for this insidious form of racism— superhumanization bias—but in essence it’s just another form of salience bias. From the perspective of white people, the salient difference between African runners and others is how they look, so we reflexively look to physiology to explain their success.

When sporting dominance occurs in a predominantly white group, other types of explanations are sought, but they are still influenced by salience bias. In the endurance world, it’s the recent success of Norway’s top athletes that has people searching for explanations. Except they’re not really searching, because everyone seems to agree that certain innovations in training methods (an emphasis on threshold training, blood lactate-guided workouts) are wholly responsible for the small nation’s disproportionate success on the world stage. One possible reason for this consensus is that methodological advances are indeed the primary catalyst of this resurgence. Another possibility is that endurance sports observers have once again fallen victim to shiny object syndrome and salience bias, zeroing in on the obsessive finger pricking that occurs in the workouts of some of Norway’s top athletes because it is the most obvious difference from what others are doing.

Personally, I’m skeptical of the first explanation, not because the Norwegian training innovations aren’t all that innovative, as other commentators have noted, but because it is well established that, in all cases, national and regional dominance in sports emerges out of cultures, and we have no reason to believe that the dominant nation du jour is an exception to this universal pattern. The example I like to cite when making this point is the Greater Boston Track Club, which ruled American distance running in the 1970s. Here’s how I describe the emergence of this particular culture in How Bad Do You Want It?, where the phenomenon in question is referred to as the group effect:

In 1979, four of the top five finishers at the U.S. cross-country championships were members of one team: the Greater Boston Track Club. That same year, four of the top 10 finishers at the Boston Marathon (including the winner, Bill Rodgers) were GBTC members.

As the home of the world’s oldest marathon, Boston was ground zero of the running boom that swept across America in the 1970s. In 1974, Bill Squires, a coach steeped in Arthur Lydiard’s revolutionary high-volume, low-intensity training method, became the first coach of the newly formed GBTC. Over the next several years, the Boston area produced a bumper crop of talented young runners. These were the conditions that brought initial success to the GBTC. But it was the group effect that eventually made it the most dominant team the sport had ever seen.

After Bill Rodgers won the Boston Marathon in 1975 (setting an American record in the process), the GBTC attracted young runners dreaming of greatness from all over the United States. Like Kenya’s runners today, these men and women were willing to risk everything in pursuit of their dream.

In the case of Norway, certain environmental conditions were in place long before the nation’s recent purple patch. These include a great passion for endurance sports rooted in cross country skiing, a sport Norwegians have kicked ass at for decades; a rich coaching tradition; and robust exercise science institutions that have more intimate linkages with elite sport than do the same institutions in most countries. The only sparks that were needed to set this ready tinder alight were a couple of exceptional coaches—which Norway got in Olav Bu and Gjert Ingebrigtsen—and a handful of extraordinary athletes, which it got in Kristian Blummenfelt, Gustav Iden, and Jakob Ingebrigtsen.

Jakob Ingebrigtsen gracious accepted a fan’s request that he sign a copy of my book “How Bad Do You Want It?” after winning the mile event at the 2021 Prefontaine Classic.

Yes, but what about the innovative training methods? I wouldn’t go so far as to dismiss this factor as a nonfactor. In almost every national or regional hot streak in sport there is a method involved that gets a lot of the credit, as the Lydiard method did in the case of the Greater Boston Track Club. But from a sociological perspective, I think that having a method is more important than the method itself. It gives the culture a sense of identity and inspires belief in athletes—factors that have at least as much impact on performance as small tweaks to standard training practices. Call it the special sauce effect.

Something else that is rarely noted in efforts to explain the so-called Norwegian wave is that the three athletes mentioned above are pretty much the extent of it. With the exception of Tobias Foss, no Norwegian athlete not named Blummenfelt, Iden, and Ingebrigtsen finished the 2022 season ranked among the top five in the world in a major non-winter endurance sport. I’m not taking anything away from the tremendous successes these few athletes have achieved, but if we’re being honest, the Norwegian wave is more of a ripple.

So why is it perceived as a Tsunami? Salience bias! Blummenfelt, Iden, and Ingebrigtsen haven’t just done well in their respective events, they’ve (to paraphrase Sebastian Coe) gripped these events by the throat and made them their own. Plus, Norway is a nation of just 5.4 million souls, a backdrop that casts the country’s achievements in bold relief, making shiny objects of them. What’s happening now in Norwegian endurance sports is exciting and worth celebrating, but that’s no reason to be lazy in our efforts to explain the phenomenon, allowing our cognitive biases to do the “thinking” we can’t be bothered with and drawing the wrong lessons.

By a happy coincidence, just as I was beginning to work on this post esteemed British exercise scientist Andrew Renfree published a post of his own that addresses related matters in a similar spirit. Titled “Are Herd Behavior and Survivorship Bias the Key Drivers of Contemporary Training Practices?”, it makes no explicit mention of Norway in the piece, but I strongly suspect that the hoopla surrounding Blummenfelt et al was its proximal inspiration. In any case, I urge you to read it, as it’s ten times smarter than anything else you’ve read on the topic.

Thank goodness for the Andrew Renfrees of the world. They put to good use their exasperation with the mindless groupthink that dominates public discourse in the endurance community, helping us see the core of truth hidden beneath the bright, shiny surface of memes like the Norwegian “Wave.”

How helpful are athletic coping skills really in helping us deal with life adversity?

One year ago today—on October 6, 2020—I had a bad run. It was the type of run I would have really enjoyed had I been on my game: 6 x 1,000 meters at one-mile race pace on a minute’s rest. I hit my target pace (1:52) in the first rep, but it felt harder than it should have, and things went downhill from there. I don’t quit a lot of workouts, but I’m disciplined enough to do so when I need to, and after the fourth rep I quit this one, little knowing it was likely the last speed workout I would ever do.

It took me close to a week to figure out that my poor outing wasn’t just one of those days—that something was seriously wrong with my body. Many more weeks passed before I figured out what that something was: long covid. Scientists aren’t exactly sure what this debilitating chronic illness is, but expert opinion seems to be coalescing around the notion that it is an incurable post-viral autoimmune disease. One thing is certain: After one year, many of my symptoms—including fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, paresthesia, insomnia, exercise intolerance, and cognitive impairment—are as severe as ever.

This isn’t the first bad break I’ve suffered in my life, nor the worst. Thankfully, being an endurance athlete has instilled in me some coping skills that come in handy whenever I get blindsided by hard luck. In 2017, during a brief interregnum between one life-changing calamity and the next, I summarized my mindset as follows: “One of the biggest mistakes you can make in a marathon is to expect to keep feeling great when you’re feeling great—to stop bracing for the worst. I won’t make this mistake in my life. There will be more bad days, I know. Days of loss and grief, if not of trauma and violence. I don’t want to face these days. But when they come, I want to face them like a marathoner.”

I confess that I did not see long covid coming when I put these thoughts down on paper, but it hardly matters. All personal tragedies are the same in the sense that each of us possesses but one set of coping tools to apply to them. For me, therefore, no special effort has been required to fulfill my vow to face my present ordeal like a marathoner. The question is, how useful have my athletic coping tools actually been in their application to this health crisis over the past year?

The answer to this question varies based on which specific tool we’re talking about, as some have been more useful than others. Starting on a positive note, I have done a good job of staying in the moment throughout my waking nightmare, and I believe that doing so has tempered my misery to a degree. More than a quarter century of endurance training and racing taught me to always run the mile I was in, not getting ahead of myself mentally or drawing too many conclusions from present circumstances. If I hit a bad patch during a race and things weren’t looking good, I would remind myself that I had experienced exactly the same thing before and come out just fine. Just put your head down, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and see what happens.

The same coping mechanism has served me well during the past, lost year. I don’t waste time and energy looking back or forward, focusing instead on making the most of what my body gives me each day. I know other long haulers who have only amplified their wretchedness by looking backward, wishing what’s happened to them hadn’t, and looking forward, hoping for a miracle cure that might never come.

Other skills that endurance sports have taught me, and that I’ve leaned on heavily in this living death, are tolerance for discomfort and self-reliance. The importance of these coping tools in endurance training and racing is obvious. As former American 5000-meter record holder Bob Kennedy said, “One thing about racing is that it hurts. You better accept that from the beginning or you’re not going anywhere.” As readers of How Bad Do You Want It? and Life Is a Marathon know, I had a hard time accepting the pain of racing when I was young, but through dogged persistence I executed a slow, 180-degree turnaround, arriving eventually at a point where I regarded toughness as my greatest competitive advantage.

As for self-reliance, one of the ways in which I’ve always been best suited to endurance sports personality-wise is that I keep my own counsel and I like to figure things out for myself. Decades of experience as an endurance athlete have only strengthened this tendency. But long covid is different enough from a marathon that being tough and self-reliant hasn’t always worked to my benefit in my current situation. During periods when my misery level is especially high and I probably ought to seek medical help, I more often than not just try to ride it out the same way I do a bad patch in a race. This grin-and-bear-it approach to surviving long covid has undoubtedly resulted in missed opportunities for symptom relief through therapeutic intervention.

The athletic coping skill that has perhaps proved most maladaptive in the context of my ongoing illness is what I call mission focus. One thing I’ve always found appealing about endurance racing is its sheer simplicity. In each event, I did absolutely everything in my power to reach the finish line in as little time as possible. All other objectives were subservient to this overarching mission. If a certain nutritional product tasted awful and turned my stomach but got me to the finish line quicker, I’d use it. I didn’t give a fuck how I felt; only the clock mattered.

As you might imagine, applying the same mission focus against long covid and hasn’t served me particularly well. I should have thought it through, but instead I acted on reflex, responding to feeling terrible all the time not by taking measures to feel less terrible but by doing absolutely everything in my power to maintain the same high level of productivity I enjoyed in full health despite feeling terrible. On paper (so to speak), I’ve largely succeeded in this mission, having written three new books in the past year. The problem is I’ve had zero fun doing it. Driving myself to produce like a healthy man when in fact I am far from healthy has made my work joyless, and because work dominates my life more than ever (given my inability to exercise or do much else), my entire existence has become joyless in equal measure. The only times I ever feel any peace during the day are when I’m just chilling with Nataki and Queenie, and yet I keep failing to take the hint because, frankly, I don’t know how to take it.

So, what’s my point? My point is that, although life truly is a marathon, it’s also not a marathon. The coping skills that athletes like me cultivate through training and racing help us in many ways when we encounter adversity elsewhere in life, but they aren’t always the perfect tools for every job. While I don’t regret facing my latest challenge like a marathoner, with one year’s hindsight I do wish I’d been more strategic in selecting which specific tools to use and which ones to leave in the toolbox. I encourage you to do the same the next time something big goes wrong in your life. To the extent you can, avoid reflexively coping with whatever it is the same way you cope with a bad break in sports. Use only the tools that apply, saving the rest for the competitive arena.

Fortunately, adaptability is also a coping skill that endurance sports cultivate. Plan A never works out in endurance training and racing, so to succeed you’ve got to get good at falling back to Plan B or Plan C. My goal for year two of long covid is to do just that, specifically by working a little less and chilling a little more. Hold me to it!

Is perfectionism a good thing or a bad thing? If you Google the word and browse through the results, you’ll come away with two different impressions of perfectionism:

  1. It’s bad
  2. It’s complicated

When I conducted this search myself just now, the top results included a 2018 BBC article titled “The Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism” (“It’s bad”) and a 2003 article on the American Psychological Association website titled “The Many Faces of Perfectionism” (“It’s complicated”). And if you take this process further, actually reading these articles, and then reading the research they cite, and then reading the more recent studies and reviews in which this research is cited, these mixed impressions will not be resolved but instead will only deepen.

In short, the question I posed at the outset is not easy to answer. Endurance athletes, however, can ask a simpler question: Does perfectionism aid or hinder performance? And the answer to this question is a clear and resounding yes—perfectionism can either aid or hinder performance. Whether it does the one or the other depends on the type of perfectionism that predominates in a given athlete. In a 2006 paper, Joachim Stoeber of the University Kent identified two major strains of perfectionism: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. The first orientation is about aiming toward perfection, whereas the second is about escaping imperfection.

Five years later, in a review of existing research on perfectionism in athletes, Stoeber argued that perfectionistic strivings tend to aid athletic performance and perfectionistic concerns to hinder it, writing that “perfectionistic concerns show unique positive relationships with competitive anxiety, fear of failure, and avoidance goal orientations. In contrast, perfectionistic strivings show unique positive relationships with self-confidence, hope of success, approach goal orientations, and performance in training and competitions. The findings suggest that only perfectionistic concerns are clearly maladaptive, whereas perfectionistic strivings may form part of a healthy striving for excellence.”

Subsequent research has bolstered Stoeber’s contentions. In 2019, for example, British and Canadian researchers studied the effects of perfectionistic striving and perfectionistic concerns on putting performance following “failure” in a group of 99 college golfers. In the first part of the two-part design, each golfer was pitted against another (who was actually a confederate of the researchers) in a putting contest. No matter how well the subjects performed, they were told they were behind by 17 percent after 10 putts. They then completed 10 more putts and their performance in this second trial (measured as cumulative distance of the ball from the hole) was compared to their performance in the first trial.

A statistical analysis of the results revealed that golfers who measured high for perfectionistic strivings in a questionnaire completed before the putting trials performed better in response to “failure”—but only if they did not also score high for perfectionistic concerns. Those who exhibited high levels of both perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns performed worse in the second trial. In an interview for Medical Xpress, lead author Mick Lizmore commented, “Athletes are likely to continue to perform poorly after substandard performance if they have a rigid perspective on the meaning of failure, and are unrelentingly unforgiving of themselves when they fall short of heightened standards. There’s a difference between seeking and rigidly expecting perfection.”

So, what are the practical implications of this research? The thing about perfectionism is that it’s a trait. Like confidence, neuroticism, and other psychological traits, perfectionism is woven into the fabric of one’s personality—or else it’s not. The take-home lesson of the above-described study is not that you should have perfectionistic strivings and abandon perfectionistic concerns, therefore. You can’t just flip a switch and make these things happen.

Also, it’s important to recognize that you don’t have to be a perfectionist of any kind to perform to the best of your ability as an athlete. For every Tom Brady who achieves greatness via perfectionism there’s a Usain bolt who achieves it as a free spirit. Acquiring perfectionistic strivings wouldn’t necessarily make you a better athlete even if it were possible. But the obverse is not also true of perfectionistic concerns. If you “rigidly expect perfection,” you are almost certainly holding yourself back and you almost certainly would perform better if you were able to tamp down your fear of failure. The question is, is this even possible?

I think so. There are notable examples of athletes saddled with perfectionistic concerns who have bootstrapped their way beyond them and benefitted thereby. Your homework assignment is to read Chapter 4 of How Bad Do You Want It?, titled “The Art of Letting Go.”

(If you want to read other books check out here.)

Let me start with an apology. This post is not about sex. It’s actually about hermeneutics, or the discipline of textual interpretation, as it applies to endurance training. I knew that if I promoted a post about hermeneutics on social media, no one would read it, so I deliberately mislead you. Dastardly, I know, and I won’t hold it against you if you stop reading right here and move on with your day. If, however, you are open to learning more about hermeneutics as it applies to endurance training (or if you are embarrassed at having fallen for such shallow clickbait and now feel obliged to redeem yourself by suffering through this boring, sexless post), I welcome you to stay with me.

Interpretation is an integral component of all communication. Every spoken message is interpreted by its hearers and every written message is interpreted by its readers. If human language (including nonverbal communication) were not inherently ambiguous, there would be no need for interpretation—each message would have only one possible meaning that every hearer or reader understood. But language is messy, and therefore everything is open to interpretation. For example, I might say to a pair of twins, “You two look like you could be twins,” and whereas one of them might interpret the remark as a silly sarcastic joke, the other might interpret it as evidence of my stupidity.

Hermeneutics comes into play when the need arises to determine whether one interpretation is better than another. It is self-evident that, like anything else, interpretation can be done either poorly or well. What does it mean to be good at interpreting? Philosophers, religious scholars, and others have been discussing this question at least since Aristotle penned On Interpretation in 360 BC.

You might be wondering what the heck any of this has to do with endurance training. A lot! Human beings are meaning-making machines. We find meaning in absolutely everything we experience, and this includes our experiences as athletes. We find meaning in every workout and in every race. But we don’t all do it in the same way. Like those hypothetical twins I mentioned earlier, any two athletes may interpret the same experience in highly disparate ways. The most successful athletes are adept at finding helpful ways to interpret what they perceive and feel, less successful athletes not so much.

Take choking, for example. Athletes who tend to choke in competition do so because they give the race a meaning that place them under undo pressure not to fail. In How Bad Do You Want It? I share the example of Siri Lindley, a professional triathlete who choked in a pair of qualifiers for the 2000 Olympics because she suffered from low self-worth and chose to believe that she had to succeed as a triathlete in order to see herself as a person of valuable. Only after she realized this and relaxed, choosing to strive for success in triathlon purely because she enjoyed it, did she rebound to become world champion.

The importance of athletic hermeneutics is not limited to big moments. It extends to every moment of every training session, and indeed to every moment in which you are operating in an athletic mode. Here’s a recent personal example: A couple of weeks back I performed a bread-and-butter moderate-intensity run that I revisit a few times each year: 2 miles easy, 6 miles at lactate threshold effort, 2 miles easy. Having suffered a foot injury eight weeks before this particular revisitation, and having returned to full and unfettered run training only two weeks earlier, I knew that I would not feel as good or perform as well in the session as I had when I last did it. This tamping of expectations was a way of contextualizing the workout to ensure I interpreted my subsequent experience of it in the most helpful possible way.

Sure enough, I felt meh throughout the threshold portion of the run and my average pace was a good 10 seconds per mile slower than it had been the last time. As a coach, I can tell you that most runners in my place would have let the situation get to them. They would have pouted internally about how meh they felt and repined over how much fitness they had lost in the past two months. I did not. The temptation was certainly there, but I made a conscious effort to resist it by reminding myself of the context; by drawing encouragement from the fact that, thanks to aggressive crossing-training during my injury recovery, I hadn’t lost even more fitness than I had; and by telling myself that the next time I did this workout I would surely reap the rewards of having muddled through it this time. “This is a steppingstone,” I said to myself, over and over.

It worked. I didn’t enjoy the run as much as I enjoy most runs, but I enjoyed it more than I would have done otherwise, and I finished it feeling good about how I had hadn’t it mentally. This is hermeneutics at work in the endurance training context. Now it’s your turn. As you move forward with your training, don’t allow yourself to lose sight of the fact that you always have the power and freedom to interpret what you’re experiencing in manner of your choosing, and your choices have consequences. Your goal is to become a better athlete. Becoming a better interpreter will help you become a better athlete.

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!

Looking for a good endurance-related book to give to yourself or another endorphin junkie this holiday season? I’ve got you covered. Here are five such books I’ve read and enjoyed recently. I’m confident there’s at least one in here that you’ll enjoy also.

Swim, Bike, Bonk: Confessions of a Reluctant Triathlete

Will McGough

Every triathlete wants to write a book about his or her first Ironman, and many do. The results are rarely interesting to anyone other than the author. But here’s an exception. Will McGough is a travel writer, and what makes Swim, Bike, Bonk work is that he writes about triathlon as though it’s a weird foreign country he’s visiting. His humorous, skeptical outsider’s perspective allows insiders like me to see the sport with fresh eyes and appreciate it in a new way.

Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries

Carrie Jackson Cheadle and Cindy Kuzma

I reviewed this book earlier this year, and I haven’t changed my mind about it in the intervening months. Getting injured as an athlete affects the mind as much as it does the body, and it’s important to attend to both whenever you suffer a breakdown. Rebound is the definitive guide to addressing the psychological aspect of sports injuries. Check out my full review here.

Kaizen-Durance: Your Aerobic Path to Mastery

Shane Eversfield

This book is actually a couple of years old, but this is my holiday reading list and I can do whatever I want with it! Author Shane Eversfield takes a quasi-spiritual approach to endurance training that I find quite appealing. His core concept is something called kinetic intelligence, which is essentially the body’s innate wisdom concerning movement. It may sound far out, but the book is actually science-based and practical, offering readers concrete techniques they can use to unlock this wisdom and learn to move with “effortless power.”

Endurance Performance in Sport: Psychological Theory and Interventions

Carla Meijen, Editor 

Now is an exciting time to be alive if you’re interested in the role of the mind and the brain in relation to endurance performance. There’s a ton of cool science being done in this area. If your interest in this stuff is of the what’s-in-it-for-me variety, you can learn all you need to know from books like Alex Hutchinson’s Endure and my own How Bad Do You Want It? But if you’re interested in the science for its own sake, get a copy of Endurance Performance in Sport, which is a collection of monographs from today’s top researchers in the field of endurance sports psychology, including my personal favorite, Samuele Marcora.

The Athlete Inside: The Transforming Power of Hope, Tenacity, and Faith

Sue Reynolds

In February 2015, Sue Reynolds emailed me with a unique question. She was then 61 years old and had recently lost 175 pounds through triathlon training and sensible eating, but the transformation had left her with a lot of loose skin, and she wanted my opinion on how it might affect calculations of her optimal body composition. Sue and I have maintained an ongoing correspondence ever since, during which time she’s lost another 25 pounds and finished as high as sixth in the ITU Age-Group World Championships. The full story of her journey from lifelong overweight couch potato to elite athlete is truly remarkable, and she does a terrific job telling it in this book, which, unfortunately for you, will not be publicly available until April. But you can pre-order it now.

Ever since my book How Bad Do You Want It? was published in 2015 I’ve received a steady drip of emails from struggling high school runners, and occasionally also from their coaches and parents. Last week I got one from a runner who was frustrated by a seemingly inexplicable cessation of improvement. He couldn’t understand it. He had trained hard all summer, pushed himself daily in-season, set massive goals, taken every race very seriously, and so on.

From my perspective, this young man was answering his own question. Pushing hard all the time on every level is not a formula for sustainable improvement. Athletes are human beings, and no matter how passionate we might be about our sport, we need some kind of balance to avoid stagnation and burnout.

“Macro pacing” is my term for the practice of husbanding one’s emotional energy in ways that best serve the interests of the athlete as a human being. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years, having developed a reliable intuitive sense of when to go all-in on training and racing and when to step back and prioritize other things. Recognizing the need for this ebb and flow and not trying to resist it are big reasons, I believe, that I am still in love with endurance athletics more than 25 years into the journey.

Currently I’m at an interesting, transitional time in my macro pacing. Last year was my very best as an athlete. Never before have I invested more of myself in sport. The timing was good. Injuries kept me from doing a single race in 2013. In the latter half of 2014, my body started to come around. Through patient persistence, I was able to continue the upward trend throughout 2015 and 2016. That’s when I decided to basically give my life over to sport the following year, which I did by traveling across America in the spring, completing eight marathons in eight weeks, and spending the summer and early fall in Flagstaff, training with a team of professional runners.

Both were incredible experiences, and hard to let go of, but I was wise enough to know that it would be foolish of me to try to keep the momentum going. Another injury ensured that 2018 was a fallow year, but I haven’t really minded being injured because I needed to chill anyway.

Not forever, though. For many years I have wanted to get back into triathlon, and specifically to race another Ironman. In late June, endeavoring to turn my inability to run into an opportunity, I started swimming and biking. Not long afterward, I signed up for Ironman Santa Rosa 2019, which takes place in May, and went public with my intention of trying to qualify for the Ironman World Championship.

Since then, folks following my training log on Final Surge have probably been scratching their heads, thinking, ‘If this guy wants to make it to Kona, he’d better start getting serious.’

I get it. My swim training has been minimal. I’ve been doing all of my cycling on a road bike with no power meter. And, until fairly recently, all of my run training wasn’t running at all but steep uphill treadmill walking. But despite appearances, I know what I’m doing, and that’s pacing myself. Macro pacing.

There’s a reason I signed up for a qualifier that was 10 months away at the time. I had a few major hurdles to clear before it made sense to go all-in with this new quest. My plan was to take a patient, measured approach to the initial phase of my preparation, until I was past those barriers, and then hit the gas. My swim training has been minimalist because I wanted to rediscover the technique I found and lost back in 2003 before I started logging a lot of yardage, as with swimming I believe in the old adage, “Practice makes permanent.” I didn’t buy a triathlon bike or a power meter because I had to identify and address the cause of a chronic cycling-related right knee issue before it made sense to spend the required money. And I walked uphill on the treadmill instead of running because I needed to give my tendonitis-afflicted left hip abductor an opportunity to fully purge itself of inflammation and damage before I could confidently begin to rebuild my running fitness.

I’ll be honest: my Kona quest hasn’t been much fun so far. I hate swimming when I’m not swimming well, I’d much rather have a slick tri bike to ride, and walking on a treadmill is really boring compared to running outdoors. But this early phase of my quest would have been even less fun if I had forced myself to do more despite the various hurdles I’ve faced.

And now things are looking up. Recently I experienced a surprise breakthrough in my swimming, which was the ironic result of a minor shoulder injury that forced me to limit my pool workouts to kick sets for a couple of weeks. Somehow this practice brought about the improved freestyle body position that I’d been previously unable to achieve by other means, and just like that I’m taking two fewer strokes per 25 yards. A combination of taping and wearing a stabilizing brace has enabled me to complete a couple of 100-mile bike rides with manageable levels of knee pain. While I don’t consider this a permanent solution, it’s buying me the time I need to find that solution, which I expect to find in the bike fitting I get at Revolutions in Fitness in Palo Alto less than two weeks from now. And at last I’m running again—16 pain-free miles last weekend!

Very soon now, a mental shift will occur in me. I’ll be all-in for Ironman, enthusiastic, a little obsessed, and enjoying the process, and I’ll have macro pacing to thank for it.

Interest in learning more about pacing? Check out my book, On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit, which guides runners step by step toward pacing mastery. Click here for a free sample chapter of On Pace, and here to purchase a copy.

The apprehension runners feel before a race and the suffering they experience during a race constitute a sort of crisis state—a special kind of crisis state that is actively chosen by the runner. Like other crisis states, this one tends to bring one’s personal weaknesses to the fore. If a runner’s mind lets him down in some way before or during a race, it is likely because of a specific mental soft spot he carries inside him at all times and affects his life both within and outside of running.

The epigraph of my book How Bad Do You Want It?, taken from Bryce Courtenay’s novel The Power of One, captures this idea of non-separation between human and runner: “The mind is the athlete.”

Because the mind truly is the athlete, the goal of becoming a better runner is highly compatible with the goal of becoming a better person. Addressing the weaknesses that limit your success in running will make you happier and more effectual in other parts of life. Likewise, becoming a stronger person through crises outside of running will pay dividends on the racecourse.

I speak from experience. The key weakness that ruined running for me as a teenager was good old-fashioned cowardice. I was cripplingly afraid of the suffering that is an unavoidable part of racing. When I got back into running as an adult, I made it a high priority to become a braver athlete. As fate would have it, though, life threw a series of personal crises at me that made the suffering of racing seem laughably minor in comparison, and it was the mettle I developed in facing these crises that turned me into a fearless racer. (I know I’m being somewhat cagey here—that’s because the full story is in my latest book, Life Is a Marathon.)

Life is a marathon by Matt Fitzgerald

So, that was my big issue. But other runners find all kinds of other issues coming to the surface when they expose themselves to the crisis of racing. One of the athletes I coach struggles with performance anxiety. She kicks butt in training only to crash on race day because she tightens up under the pressure she feels to fulfill expectations. It’s a frustratingly ironic problem, her fear of failure being the very thing that causes her to fail.

My brother Josh, also a runner, struggles with consistency and follow-through. He has a long history of brief habits in all facets of his life, an issue that he has committed himself to working on through running. Having aborted many “comebacks” as a runner over the years, Josh is now on a patient yet persistent mission to qualify for the Boston Marathon. He’s facing as many setbacks as ever before in pursuit of this goal and has as many excuses as ever to abort yet again, but his attitude is fundamentally different this time.

As a coach, I love seeing my athletes embrace growth in this fashion and am disappointed when they shrink from opportunities to move forward as human beings who happen to be athletes as well. I once coached a runner whose biggest hang-up was low self-esteem. By no means did I judge her for being insecure, but what did make me want to grab her by the shoulders and shake her a bit was her unwillingness to use running to work on this issue. I recall putting a palm to my forehead in dismay when I called her to get a report on the 5K race she’d run the day before and she confessed that she had skipped her pre-race warm-up drills because she was too self-conscious to be seen doing them.

Sometimes personal growth may seem to have to come at the expense of running, but even then it doesn’t. When I lived with professional runner Matt Llano in Flagstaff last summer, he told me during one of our deeper conversations that he was so powerfully driven to achieve his dreams as an athlete that he had a tendency to prioritize training and competition at the expense of his personal life. For a long time, he said, he felt that putting more time and energy into other people could only hurt his running, but his mind changed when he ran a breakthrough 1:01:47 half marathon shortly after he entered into a new romantic relationship and was in love and happy. At the conclusion of our conversation Matt and I agreed that even if all you care about is running, you will run better if you care about more than just running.

Some folks reading this post may object to my use of the words “weakness” and “better person,” but I use them with intent. I believe in the value of being brutally honest with oneself, calling a spade a spade, and holding oneself to high standards. When running is approached as a sport, where—like it or not—there are clear-cut winners and losers, successes and failures, it becomes one of life’s best training grounds for life, which can also be rather unforgiving, if you hadn’t noticed. I encourage every runner to take full advantage of this potential. So, the next time you find yourself buckling under pre-race apprehension or mid-race suffering, ask yourself why and then use the answer to work on a solution. You will be a better runner and, yes, a better person for it.


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