Passion and Discipline

"Temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung." --R. W. Emerson

There exist two types of runner, broadly speaking.

The first type of runner is essentially passionate. This sort of runner's primary desire to run stems from the immediacy of running. For him or for her, running is a means to maximizing the intensity of lived experience. Impulsive and somewhat wild-eyed, the passionate runner tends to express the meaning of running aesthetically and to theorize his running as the cultivation of perception of bodily states. It is the experience of running, first and foremost that animates the passionate runner. When this runner competes, he thinks very little about the watch but instead measures his feelings, eyes his competitors, looks to strike at the precise moment. He cares more about winning than about times, more about running than training, more about joy than sacrifice.

The second sort of runner is essentially disciplined. Methodical and relentless, this sort of runner sees running as a process of self-improvement over a span of time. Instead of focusing on physical feelings and intensities, this runner pays more attention to paces and mileages. Patient, analytical, and diligent, the disciplined runner finds strength and motivation from relentlessly following a plan, having a routine, and being able to measure improvement over time. The disciplined runner sees his craft as a means not of producing intense experience, but of creating meaning and direction. When racing, this runner is patient and calculating, focused on carrying out a well-organized plan, on doing the best he can to run a perfect race, letting the final results play out as they may. The disciplined runner aims for PRs.

Those who follow this blog will recognize that I fall more towards the passionate side of the coin. To be passionate is neither a positive nor a negative; I am not applying valuations, but analyzing differences. Most of us are a blend of these two types of runner, and this summer I am attempting to cultivate my disciplined side. I'm even following a training plan (horrors). This post is, in part, an attempt to defend that decision.

Knowing myself means knowing that discipline is my weakness--that if I err, it will be most likely because I have placed too much emphasis on the immediacy of the experience of running, too little on the analytical and mediated aspects.

On the other hand, I have to be careful not to overcompensate. One of the most difficult aspects of training (and life is like this, too) is knowing just when to work on our weaknesses and when to rely on our strengths. If we spend too much time with our weaknesses, we can end up stripping our vital energy, cutting off the well at its source. But without the balance that our weaknesses provide, our strengths can become vicious, overwhelming our capacity for intelligence. It is a strange but true thought: we can be dominated by our strengths, just as we can be made weak by our weaknesses.

For those of us more passionate by temperament, our challenge will always be in following a plan, in being cautious, in maintaining energy and direction. We are bored easily, needing regular bouts of intensity to remind us of the value of endeavor. The grind of training, when done right, is just that. It's a grind. The runner is like a plant. It does best when watered lightly and regularly. Proper training is slow and patient. So, the tendency of us passionates will always be to push when we should be waiting, to burn out before the plan has reached its full fruition.

Our relentlessness is largely manufactured. The long term view only satisfies when it comes with the adrenaline rush of new possibilities. The secret to success for us passionate runners, then, must come through subterfuge and imagination. We have to constantly remind ourselves of the intensities to come. We have to bring before the mind's eye the endless strength that we will feel, once we get through the grind, if we can only be patient. For us, the key is sublimation, imagination--our discipline does not come directly.

Finally, and somewhat paradoxically, the passionate runner can become too accustomed to marshaling his energies. Just as much as good training requires submitting to the grind, it also means running hard at the right times. Because the passionate runner is always using his intelligence and effort to hold his nature back, he can become hesitant to let it go at the very moment when it is time to strike. This is the problem of straying too far from your strengths: that all you can remember is how to deny them. It's for this reason that the passionate runner's brilliance comes in rare flashes. Self-denial in training can translate to doubt in racing.

But when the passionate runner finds his energies, when he can make it through the grind without losing his vitality, when he steps to the line shimmering with intensity: flight...


  1. I really like this blog. You must spend a while editing these blogs. Or are you just a great writer?
    Another way to describe the two types of runner is either a racer or a pacer. The racers is the passionate one. The pacer is the patient one.

  2. Its all about finding the balance... Right now I race sparcely because I don't want it to impact my training... but, if I don't race for a long enough time I start to forget what the point is. Nothing rekindles my hunger like a good race!

  3. @ mike: some runners have it all.

    @ Daniel: thanks for the nice words. I like the racer/pacer distinction, though sometimes "pacer" gets a bad rap. Really, I guess I'd look at it as two different methods of racing and probably the best runners know how to do both.

    @ EZEthan: yah, balance. But my guess is that an "even" balance won't work for everyone. Part of what's neat about running is that self-knowledge is a part of the equation.

    @ ace: takes one to know one.

    Thanks for the comments!

  4. I hope you are planning to compile all of your writings in a book. You are the 21st century Dr. Sheehan. kennyb

  5. @ kennyb: that's a serious compliment. The thought of putting these things together in a book has crossed my mind. I appreciate the encouragement!

    @ Andrew: I thought of you when writing the "disciplined" type. Yin and yang, brotha!

  6. Jeff,
    This is a seriously passionate blog. I love the book idea! I like thinking about being patient and quick all at the same time.

  7. Nice Jeff. I see myself as a disciplined runner and am watching my son who is a passionate runner. The best part is we share the enjoyment of the run. What training plan are you following?


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