Down Goes Alysia
Down Goes Alysia

How many times have each of us come together in a working group to brainstorm an idea or try to come up with an idea to more fully develop?  It is a standard practice in most businesses.  Yet studies have shown that the creative process is best assisted not by some peristaltic group session, but rather in the idles between any such serious attempts.  And since much of running is managed by our reptilian lower brain — we don’t have to think, “right foot, left foot, breathe in, breathe out” — through the act itself our higher intellect is offered unfettered freedom to roam the labyrinth of undifferentiated thoughts and feelings marking the territory of our conscious and unconscious selves.

This understanding is well-travelled ground for any avid runner.  The very act itself is like a meditation, an auto-pilot physicality that releases the right-side brain to wander and jog at its whim through the millions of latent potentialities that exist among the billions of neurons firing in the furnace of the brain.  As such, fitness can become our emancipator, often reordering heretofore unconnected patterns and henids into crystalline ideas or decisions. So, too, does this exist in the realm of racing.

Henids are those yet to bloom flowers of thought that come sprouting into our consciousness during those times when we have been released from the banal realm of specific thoughts and willful utterances.

Henid: an unclarified, sub-conscious “feeling”; a vague, unformed, foggy or confused idea; a disorganized, undifferentiated thought; a proto-thought.  The idea of the “henid” was first postulated by Otto Weininger, in his work Sex and Character.

“I made a note, half mechanically,” he wrote, “of a page in a botanical work from which later on I was going to make an extract. Something was in my mind in henid form. What I thought, how I thought it, what was then knocking at the door of my consciousness, I could not remember a minute afterwards, in spite of the hardest effort. I take this case as a typical example of a henid.”

In fact, the very attempt to try and remember hindered Weininger’s chances of doing so.  Instead, it had to happen in the same way that golfers are told to “get out of their own way” during their swing; let it happen rather than try to make it happen. Or, as Chevy Chase so famously reminded us in Caddyshack, “Be the ball.”

In that sense I wonder if Alysia Johnson Montaño maximized or  betrayed her fitness yesterday with her rigid, go-charging-out tactic in the women’s 800-meter final at the World Championships in Moscow.  Rather than trusting her instincts as a racer, she went in with her mind and tactic pre-ordained and tore through the first 400 to a sizeable advantage. It’s a strategy that has brought her five national titles and the 2010 World Indoor Championships bronze medal. But it has come to dust at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships and the 2012 London Olympics.  At some point there has to be a self-reckoning, because the pain of failure seems far too high a price to pay.

Silver for Symmonds
Silver for Symmonds

By comparison, consider how Nick Symmonds changed up his own long standing come-from-behind 800-meter tactic in Moscow by inserting himself into the mix at 400-meters.  Though he was rundown in the final 50m by gold medalist Mohammed Aman of Ethiopia, the insight that he needed a new tactic came because by waiting Nick never could get all the way to the front at the international level — though that sit-and-kick tactic had brought him numerous national titles just as Montaño‘s front-running tactic had for her.

I remember asking Olympic Marathon champion Frank Shorter one time when he knew it was time to make a move in a race.  He said, “the moment revealed itself” as if it were a separate entity.  I also asked him if he ever did anything that might be considered mental or psychological training.  He told me that his physical training was his mental preparation.  “It’s amazing how much smarter I am when I’m fit,” he said.

I recall interviewing a boxing trainer in North Philadelphia many years ago who told me that 95% of boxing comes down to who is the fittest man in the ring, because that man has a better platform from which to consider and respond to the flow of the fight instinctively.  It’s called thinking on your feet.

Research suggests that insights are far more likely to arrive when we’re relaxed, and better able to eavesdrop on the murmurs of the unconscious (or pack dynamic).  This is the essence of racing, as well, the ability to read the unspoken communications that roil within the urgency of the pack, to decide when to strike based on all the information that surrounds us, even as fatigue robs us of that insight in the same moment.

It’s why racing is so compelling, so frustrating, and so rewarding.  And It’s why championships are so revealing.



5 thoughts on “THINKING ON YOUR FEET

  1. Any comments re: why Ms Montanyo came out of the last turn on the line between lanes 1 & 2 and then finished on the lane line between 2 & 3. This left the entire lane 1 open for someone (Martinez in this case) to run straight to the finish … and edge out Montanyo for the bronze. I know from running and coaching that if you only know one strategy and that strategy fails, everything starts to fall apart. Apparently that happened on Sunday as Montanyo is not accustomed to being under so much duress so late in a race.

  2. Brendan,

    It’s why they toe the line together rather than run time trials 30-seconds apart. Whole different game. Some are masters, while some never learn. It’s why we watch. It’s why we wonder. Thanks for the reply.

  3. Toni –

    I was in the stadium for Jenny Simpson’s 1500m silver last week, another prime example of an athlete thinking on her feet. From her post-race comments, I gather that leading the race for the first 1100m had not been the pre-race strategy designed by Jenny and Coach Wetmore. Jenny did a great job of re-gathering herself at 1200m when Abeba Aregawi surged into the lead and looked like she might run away with it. As quoted by David Monti in Race Results Weekly, Jenny said, “As soon as I ended up in the lead… my mantra the whole way was, ‘be hard to beat, be hard to beat. You be the one everyone has to beat…Even when Aregawi went past me I kept thinking, ‘you can win this, you can win this.” Great job of responding to a race that unfolded somewhat differently than expected.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.