“You can’t do a lot of the fun things you’d like to: snowboarding, parkour, cliff jumping, F1 racing. You’re pretty much married to the couch.” – Ashton Eaton, World/Olympic Champion and World-Record holder, Decathlon and Heptathlon.
I read two quotes today that jumped out at me. The first is the above quote from Ashton Eaton.
The second was from Kenenisa Bekele, arguably the greatest track and field distance runner of all time and current World Record holder at 5000m and 10,000m. Bekele is – amidst great anticipation – making a debut at the Marathon distance in Paris this weekend. In an interview with supersport.com, Bekele said he found the high-volume training (running up to 150 miles per week, in his case) necessary for the move up to the marathon to be “boring.”
Something about that really resonated with me. I saw a few running websites post the quote and imply that it was funny or silly or poor KB didn’t quite have a grasp of English, but I see it differently. Interviews like this – a journalist asking questions about an athlete’s training leading up to some big performance – always focus on the exciting and colorful. The hard long runs, the 150 mile weeks, the grueling interval sessions, the months spent in solidarity in the high-altitude retreats of Kenya or Colorado. Simply put, the things they can write about.
But even during those 150 mile weeks, the majority of an athlete’s time is actually spent not running. The one thing that these interviews seemingly never touch on is – what do you do the other 20 hours a day?
A lot of athletes have spoken of Kenya – the tiny runner-crazed village of Iten in particular –and how it allows one to focus on nothing but running. Up in the mountains, with no real temptation for the normal proclivities of a twenty-something, there’s not much to distract your average over-stimulated American. People like British double-Olympic Champion Mo Farah speak of it like a meditative retreat.
But another word for distraction could be entertainment. What Farah considers meditative Bekele could consider boring – a lack of stimulation.
I’m reminded of a quote from John L. Parker, Jr.’s Again to Carthage – the lackluster sequel to Once a Runner in which a thirty-something Quenton Cassidy tries to make the Olympic Marathon team. Quenton – in one of the many scenes in which he reminisces on the glory days – brings up the importance of being bored. To paraphrase – he reminds us that to really make the most of your training, to really get every ounce of it out of yourself, those two or three daily training sessions need to be the most interesting part of your day. And that leaves a lot of blank space on the day’s schedule.
One of the reasons that Once a Runner became so popular is because it glorified the idea of chasing your dreams. Quenton drops out of college to go live in a cabin in the woods by himself – running 20-miles-per-day and (in general) not tackling too much else. The book does a decent job of painting his solidary existence as boring – Cassidy begins talking to house-hold appliances and spends a fair amount of his time sleeping – but there’s still a sense of over-glorification from the excitement of being out there and chasing your dreams. It’s easier to write about training than doing nothing, so you still get the impression that most of what he’s done is running.
It’s hard to grasp exactly what it’s like until you try it. For me, even with a fair amount of work for STRIVE, writing this blog, and keeping in touch with friends and family back home, it would be fair to call my life extremely boring. Like Ashton Eaton, I find myself often married to the couch.
I often joke about being the world’s worst tourist – needing visitors to spur me to tackle anything more ambitious than a trip to the grocery store – and there’s a lot of truth in that. For me, my two or three runs per day ARE my focus right now. They ARE the most interesting part of my day. And while that may help me focus on putting my all into each session, it can make the rest of the day (as KB would say) boring or (as I might correct) routine.
I’d like to see a journalist follow KB or Mo Farah around for a day and see what they’re doing when they’re not crushing intervals or gliding along picturesque mountain trails. It’s harder to glorify hours of reading, napping, writing, cooking, eating, and sleeping – and that’s what it’s really like. Maybe the people still attracted to that life – that understand that it’s 99% routine, 1% extreme exertion – should be the ones that drop everything to chase the dream.