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.
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.