When you’re facing 26.2 miles of hard open road with nothing but a pair of Nikes and your own determination to see you through, you get a little attached to the outcome. In fact, the outcome – the finish line, the win, the PR – sustains you. It drives you. Without the promise of relief it holds, you wouldn’t be here, doing this, running this ridiculous number of consecutive miles. You certainly aren’t going to be savoring each and every step. You won’t be basking in the glory of the toil and immense physical effort as they transpire. You will be anything but present, in the moment; you will be attempting, with all of your mental faculties, to transport yourself to the finish line so that you can finally end the misery of the moment.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Really makes you wanna become an elite world-class marathoner, right? That’s what I lived for twenty some-odd years of my life as a runner and, later, triathlete: an obsessive fixation on the outcome of whatever grueling bout of endurance I was currently performing complemented by a feverish attempt to ignore what was happening as it happened. If I could have popped a handful of Xanax and conked out for the journey like an air traveler with flight anxiety only to wake up just as my foot crossed the finish line, believe me, I would have.
Naturally, then, getting away from that mindset, especially as it pertained to fitness, was a huge inspiration for me as I developed the Primal Blueprint. Intuitively, it didn’t seem right that humans would willingly submit their bodies to this kind of physical and mental torture. It didn’t make sense. When I asked myself just what the hell was I doing, why I was putting myself through it, I honestly didn’t have a valid answer. I tried to justify it. Believe me, I tried.
“Winning is worth it.”
“Beating the other guys.”
“Setting a PR.”
“Making the Olympics.”
And the best of all: “There’s nothing quite like the feeling of relief right after a race.”
Notice anything? Each and every one of my justifications for continuing to race revolved around the finish line, a hard goal, a destination, a single moment off in the distance. The journey was never even considered. In fact, it was actively ignored and forgotten by design.
It wasn’t always that way. I started out as a kid in rural Maine running for fun with my buddies. I’d run to school. I’d run through the woods. I’d play army games in the forest for days at a time that ranged over miles in every direction. We would run hard, and when we got tired, we would stop until we weren’t. No expectations, no starting blocks, no rules, no winners – this was pure play. Then I got to high school, joined the track team, found that my way of playing translated pretty well to endurance events. I discovered that winning races felt pretty good, and I was pretty good at winning them. What had once been the greatest source of play for me – running – was now a means to an end – winning the race, scoring the points, beating the other guy, making the cut. That I actually enjoy my physical pursuits was immaterial, because I was basically addicted to the winning and the numbers and the records.
Our lives are defined by moments in time, small bits of experience and emotion and sensory input that are fleeting and insubstantial when taken and perceived alone. What I was doing was focusing on just one of those tiny bits of time-space to the exclusion of everything else that led up to it. Winning feels good, for a second. You might even get a trophy or a write up in the paper, but eventually you stop looking at it, and even if you do it’s just a memory of a moment and a feeling – not the moment or the feeling itself. All you can do, then, is create more moments and be present for them. By detaching yourself from the outcome – whether by ignoring it completely, or by not letting it define your self-worth or the worth of the activity – you are free to acknowledge, experience, and enjoy the full spectrum of spacial/temporal/sensory moments that life can offer. In sheer economic terms, you’re getting more (enjoyment, satisfaction, experience) for your money when you detach yourself from the outcome.
If you’ve ever wondered about my focus on play, playing is the best way to teach yourself to enjoy the moment and detach yourself from the outcome, for by its clinical, scientific, objective definition:
Play is purposeless. There is no goal in mind, no destination. There is only the experience of the moment. Otters don’t play to improve their chance at surviving predators or procuring food (in fact, their playing might actually have survival costs in the short-term); children don’t climb jungle gyms and hang upside down from monkey bars to improve their grip and get sweet abs. They do these things because they’re fun. Any tangible benefits are extra.
Play is all-consuming. Real, honest (not half-hearted) play demands your full attention. You’re not thinking about work or bills or what you’re gonna make for dinner that night. You’re fully immersed in the moment. Your only concern lies in getting that ball in that hoop, or getting around your defender, or reading the defense, or figuring out how to get the other guy’s rook without leaving your bishop open to attack. And quickly – just like that! – the situation changes, and your focus along with it. But it always remains honed in on the present moment.
Beyond it being, well, fun, there are practical reasons for incorporating play into your fitness.
You’ll be more active. Humans are ultimately hedonists, and a hedonist is more likely to do a thing that feels good. If exercise is fun and “feels good,” if the “journey” itself compels you, you’re going to end up fitter and more active.
Your training will be more effective. By focusing on the moment – on what your body is actually doing – you will enjoy more powerful and precise neuromuscular engagement. Quite literally, thinking specifically about the movements you’re performing will make those movements more focused, powerful, and effective.
You will reduce injury. I attribute some of my running injuries not just to the sheer volume of my training (overuse), but also to the loss of technique and form that occurs when you try to ignore the act of running. I would focus only on the finish line while trying to block out what my body was undergoing, and in doing so, the quality of my running would suffer.
Now, I don’t want to discount the place of goal-setting. Goals can be helpful for some, and necessary in many situations. I’m not against planning, or thinking ahead, or competing to win. But I caution against allowing your goals to define and control you. And this should go without saying, but don’t do something that makes you avoid the moment. Ultimately, wedding yourself to the goal sets you up for what feels like an EPIC FAIL and crushing disappointment when it isn’t reached while precluding you from enjoying life – enjoying those little seemingly inconsequential moments that lead up to the finish line. And this says nothing of the fact that strict goal setting can keep you from enjoying the end result, however good, if it isn’t exactly what you expected it to be. That is, it can keep you from seeing all the other possibilities that result from the the process you commited to, or the principles you let guide your day-to-day decisions.
Listen, you’re not going to control the outcome by honing in on it to the exclusion of everything else. On the other hand, when you focus on the present (when you think about what your body is doing and what you’re lifting and where you’re landing and how this muscle feels when it’s engaged and the power of the current and the temperature of the water and the blazing sun overhead – all of it!), you’ll likely end up smashing the competition and reaching your destination anyway – without having missed the awesome journey.
Are you able to detach yourself from the outcome? If so, how has it affected your life and your training? If not, do you think you should? I hope you all got something from this post. I don’t expect (or even want) you to quit your jobs and take up full-time hacky sack while dealing patchouli oil on the side, but I do hope that you’ll be able to divorce the outcome (no prenup required) from time to time and learn to be here now.
At least some of the time.