Foot racing is both a simple and complex proposition. Simple in the sense of one foot in front of another from a set starting point to a fixed finish line, first in wins. Yet it is also a complex set of physical, emotional, and psychological interactions, both within the individual athlete and externally among opponents, that produces the outcome.
When asked about a racing effort, Kenyan athletes will often say, “my body did not (or did) respond” in explaining their experience. To some, this comes across as oddly detached. What do you mean, “ my body didn’t respond? Why not just say “I didn’t perform?”
Maybe it’s a simple as language, say, the way American English and British English differ in terms like bonnet (in the U.S. it’s a woman’s hat, for the Brits, the hood of a car). But it’s more than that.
I have found that for Kenyan athletes, me, my body, and my performance are all quite distinctive, in the same sense that an opera singer sees his/her voice as a distinctive instrument rather than an extension of self. Though contained within, it is not one and the same as that which constitutes ME.
This distinction mirrors Rene Descartes’ philosophy of “mind-body dualism” that argues that the nature of the mind is completely different from that of the body, and therefore it is possible for one to exist outside the context of the other. In racing terms, it is one thing to come up with a race strategy and quite another to successfully carry it out. Therefore, “my body did/did not respond” perfectly explains this duality.
This argument also gives rise to the famous problem of mind-body causal interaction which remains a hot topic of debate. Since the mind is the cause agent for the body’s functions – right let, left leg, breathe in, breathe out – how can the body cause sensations in the mind when their natures are completely different? To which runners might answer, ever hear of endorphins?
Yes, there are times when your legs actually tell you what to do, almost like they had a mind of their own. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does the feeling is that of riding on auto pilot, what athletes call being “in the zone”, or “flow state“.
We bring all that we are – mind and body – to the race course, and what we produce on the day sometimes works in unanimity, and other times does not. Meaning all we can manage is the effort and the response to competition. For the most part, the mind is the willful agency as we push our sorry ass forward despite the discomfort being experienced by the body. It is a learned response, this willful act that makes the body to perform beyond its base intentions. This is how champions are decided and individual moments of grace are achieved on race day.
Here’s hoping everyone gets to experience being “in the zone” sometime this summer.