Why Using Your Brain Matters
The ancient Egyptians thought that the heart was the human centre of emotion, thought, and intention. At the end of the day, they would pick the brain out of the skull and unceremoniously throw it away, but would take great care in preserving the heart, putting it into a special canopic jar to be entombed with the mummified body. Without the knowledge of the physical body and neuroscience that we have now it is not hard to understand how they might feel that a person is ruled by their heart. Even today, modern champions are said to run with guts, with pure passion, from the heart. We rarely hear a commentator say, “She really ran with her brain today!”
All endurance coaches know that to be successful an athlete has to combine three essential things: pure passion, physical training and great attitude. Some would say that passion falls into the attitude category, but I argue that passion sort of comes with who you are and what you like, whereas you can adapt, change and improve your attitude: you decide to be a smart and savvy athlete, you decide to take care of all the details that lead to success and you decide to choose success in any given situation. You even decide to train. Passion without direct action is random energy. Fun maybe, but random. If you have great specific genetics for your particular passion then you are the making of an Olympian, but you certainly don’t need to be an Olympic Champion to have passion. I talk to a lot of age group athletes, most of whom share my same passion for racing, some of whom are way more organized than I am about their sport, more focussed and more high tech by a long shot. Many of these people aren’t going to break records or become world champions, but I always know they are going to be OK when I talk to them and see the passion behind what they are doing.
I have always had a passion for running and racing, particularly after I found out that I was actually good at running footraces. I guess you could say that my passion followed a curve from loving excitement and big races to a pure love of sport and that’s why I continue to run. Whereas once I was only passionate about training and racing, now I find that to be a backdrop to my interest in being fit and healthy and connected to my body in an athletic and educated way. That has barely waned. My obsession for only my own career path has simply morphed into a more all encompassing model that includes my whole family and the people in my community. I think we all know the role that passion plays: it gives us meaning, makes us happy and when we are passionately involved with something we love, we get those beautiful clear moments of life, which we call being in the zone.
What also matters is attitude. Attitude is malleable; you can change your attitude as the situations arise and constantly adapt your attitude as you go. It’s amazing really; you control how you control your attitude. I once read that in the game of life, attitude is really your only card to play. We have all heard the speech: you can’t change the way other people act, you can’t change the weather and you certainly can’t change your parents. But you can control your attitude and your own responses to the world around you.
At a recent race I was on a yellow school bus heading out to the start line of a Half Marathon. I sat next to a young woman on the bus and as we headed up the highway for the thirty minute drive to the start line we got to talking. I learned that it was her first half marathon ever, that she had just started running last year on the encouragement of her boss (that’s a good type of boss), that she had set this as a goal for herself, had trained toward it, and she even had a bit of a plan for the morning. She asked me about what to wear. I was so impressed. Here was someone who had embraced a new goal, been as smart as possible about training and was looking forward to the challenge. As we talked I found myself walking with her through her race, a race that was going to be not dissimilar to my own, only slower. I asked her if she was ready for that moment in the race when her brain started to tell her that it’s difficult, uncomfortable and hard to run this fast for so long.
We have to use our brain in racing in order to fully participate in the event. What are you going to do at 12k, when your body starts to fatigue? Are you going to be ready for this moment if it comes, if not at 12k, then at 15k or even 20k? What is going to be the difference between fuelling your passion and achieving success, or ambivalence, self sabotage and choosing failure? What is going to make the difference between satisfaction and disappointment as your cross the finish line, no matter what the actual outcome?
You can bet your racing flats it’s not going to be the beep on your multi-function running watch, the pace on the GPS monitor or the colour of your racing singlet. While these gadgets are useful tools in teaching you about what you can do, only you can control your attitude or your relationship with your race. That’s what I love about running and racing. There is no switch you dial in at the start of a race that puts you on cruise control for the day. While we all want to have effortless, incident free days, we are more often faced with multiple opportunities for making choices during one run. Your brain has to be switched on. Showing up is not just a saying about getting to the start line; it’s about being fully engaged in your passion.
You have to use your brain, you have to be prepared to think on your feet and you have to be both completely aware of your internal feelings and the race that is unfolding around you: the people, the course, the environment. There are new cars these day that have all kinds of built in automatic systems that are meant to either assist or replace human effort: they can parallel park for you, navigate for you, and even slow down when you start to get too close to the car ahead. This is fine, but for people who actually like to drive, or who are genuinely interested in driving well or who derive enjoyment from reading maps and figuring out where to go—people who actually like to use their brains– these gizmos are merely helpful aids.
For now, nothing like that will ever replace the human brain in racing, because enjoying racing is all about being required to use your head.
The awesome thing about racing is that you have to use your natural instincts and intuition. You have an internal sensor called ‘depth perception’ that alerts you to the closing or widening gap between you and the person up the street. But intuiting the gap isn’t all there is. It’s way more subtle than that and therein lays the fun! Being smart in racing is when you are tuned into your body and the people around you in more than a physical space awareness: you just know when you are reeling in the person ahead, because you can also sense their fatigue from the various body cues you have learned to read over experience. You can read the energy of the person running on your shoulder and intuitively know when you need to make your move, and you know when you have to concentrate for several moments to bridge the gap to the next pack.
I think the ‘moment of truth’ that arrives in so many races, that is the point where your passion and your attitude intersect. Are you ready to dig deeper at that moment? Are you prepared to put your fears and doubts aside? Have you already rehearsed how you are going to rise to the challenge?
Are you going to feed your passion?
Race like you mean it.