Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Apples and Roots


There's been an interesting thread bumping up and down at letsrun, and here's a quote from one of my favorite posters, malmo.

"The entire point of this or any other training thread isn't that you're going to make a donkey into a racehorse. The point is that you need to train that donkey to mimic what a racehorse does to maximize his talent. The point of all athletic training is to exploit YOUR talent to the max, oftentimes well beyond what you ever previously thought was possible. To do that frequently involves convincing the brain to think like an elite, even if you'll never become one. That means crushing pre-conceived boundaries and clearing the brain of the junk that has been fed to them for many years."

The brain is the most important running organ. This is a point that is commonly acknowledged. However, most people misunderstand this point because they think that what is meant by it is that running is about mental strength or toughness or getting your game face on, or what have you. That's because the brain and the mind are associated with "mental states." We think of its action as having a somewhat magical effect. The supernatural substance of "will" somehow overrides the physicality of the body, breaking with its ethereal power the materiality of the body and pushing it to places where it hasn't been.

No. This is not it at all.

When we talk about the brain, we tend to imagine a hunk of soft yellow material in the middle of our skulls. Yes, this is the brain. But what is essential about the brain is not just what is in the skull, but the array of connections that wind through the body. To say that the brain is in the head is like saying that all there is to a tree is its branches. The brain is woven into every micrometer of the body, as a tree's roots are meshed deep in the soil. This body-brain is what we run with, and the brain is not taught through the image of toughness that we sometimes hold in the mind's eye. No, it is taught through the movements of the body, just as the root structure of the tree draws nutrients up from the deep and rich soil. We train the brain as we run. The mind is embodied, absolutely. To imagine a brain without a body--the brain in a vat of science fiction--is to imagine a tree without roots: such a brain is no brain at all.

What this means is that when we talk of overcoming the prejudices and preconceived limits that hold us back in racing, we are not talking about a purely mental process. Yes, we often represent our limits to ourselves in the mind's eye. And we often imagine breaking those limits. But such imaginations are impotent, in themselves. Asking the mind to break down its own barriers is like asking a wall to break itself. It's absurd.

The barriers that hold us back are broken by means of the body, by plunging the roots of the brain down into richer, deeper soil. It is only out of that soil that we can construct a new self because it touches what is outside of the self, what is real, what is external. The soil of running is mileage. The key to mental strength, the way to burst out of yourself, is to feed the brain's roots with mileage so that its branches begin to grow and extend. The trunk of the self, like a tree, will begin to expand, and the old images will crack under pressure. We break ourselves as a hickory tree heaves up the concrete sidewalk.

What malmo says is right. There's a lot of junk that holds us back. We all know this. But what's difficult is to know how to clean out the junk. Thinking more adds more junk. That's all it does. It's the running, the doing, the flowing rush of movement that cleans out the pipes and washes away the barriers. Run more. The mind has deep roots: the sweet tang of the apple is drawn up out of the blackest and richest soil.

6 comments:

  1. Great post. The Malmo quote is fantastic. Thanks for mining that gem out of the slag on LetsRun.

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  2. great quote and write up. I'm one of those hard headed runners ya'll are speaking to. the fast guys I run with finally convinced me I could run faster. preconceptions were tough to work through.......

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  3. Good post. Doesn't the mind also requires some small victories of speed buried in the miles. A hint of the possibility by besting previous PRs. The is an old Ford quote that seems to fit "Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right." Once the mind tastes victory can it not propel you to believe and achieve in the next level?

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  4. Hey Norm,
    Definitely. The small victories help. And the mileage can't just be plodding around. We need to work on making fast easy.

    The positive thinking, for it to be grounded in reality, has to come out of an experience. We can't just will ourselves to win. We have to forge slowly and over time the belief in our abilities. This belief is one and the same with actually knowing our abilities. When it works, the mind's limits and the body's limits are the same. That's what it means to "feel kung fu."

    Maybe the best way to express the point is that the problem is not just what we believe we can't do, but what we believe we CAN do. What counts as a victory and what counts as a defeat.

    There's a whole class of discourse out there in the internet that defines these things. Our job as intelligent runners is to cut through the junk. In the 70's they just ran. They trusted their bodies to tell them when it was too much, when they could go harder. Their bodies led the development of the sport. These Kenyans and high school kids that run fast didn't learn how to train from reading about running. They ran. They competed. Their minds and their bodies grew together as part of an integrated system.

    The conditions today are such that the mind has access to all of these things that the body hasn't undergone. And it begins paying attention to those things instead of to the actual embodied process of becoming a runner. This undermines the athletic task of the runner.

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  5. Jeff, I love the point that thinking adds more junk. I have a hard time turning the analytical part of my brain off when sometimes all I need to do is just get out the door and run!

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  6. Another nice post from malmo:

    "Someone asked here what was the most important workout? I said "The most important workout is this: morning, cold, dark and rainy or warm and sunny, 4-10 miles easy. I've done thousands of them."

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