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In Pursuit of Excellence – Part 2

A few weeks back I wrote a blog post about the concept of excellence. I didn't quite have the space to really say everything that I wanted to, so we're doubling back around for part 2. It's a bit longer than I was expecting, and I have a feeling that it's something we'll be coming back to in the future as well.

So what does the pursuit of excellence mean? Well, quite frankly I think it probably depends on the person. The technical definition of excellence is “the state or fact of excelling”. Not exactly helpful. I think we can probably all agree though that it is somewhere in the neighborhood of intentionally executing what we seek out to do. Yes, that is vague. But a concept that can be applied to just about anything kind of has to be, doesn’t it?

If we look to some of our favorite fictional characters, we can sometimes get a little bit closer to understanding these types of things. That is what fiction is for after all, taking concepts like “excellence” and running with them in a safe environment without any real world consequences. Littlefinger of Game of Thrones fame, whether you liked him or not, was a perfect example of someone who went all-in to achieve what he wanted. While he may have been a “bad” guy, he was an excellent example of someone who makes pursuit of their goals their highest priority. Every single thing he does is intentionally chosen so as to maximize the likelihood of his desired outcome. “I like to picture what I want in my head. Does this help that picture become a reality?” While his end goal may not have been good, or even what (I hope) any of us would want, the idea of intentionally placing any decision in the context of determining if it helps us reach our desired goal can be really useful. If we put this in context of running, it may look something like this: It’s absolutely beautiful out and we run into a friend that we can comfortably run with who happens to be doing a long run or some other quality workout. But we need today to be a recovery day. We could hop in with them and run more than we had planned, but does that help us reach our goal?

Rorschach from The Watchmen is another all-in kind of guy. Yes, he’s broken. Yes, he’s insane. But he’s with it enough to know that he has to be removed if they (as a group) are to succeed with the goal of everyone in the world thinking Dr. Manhattan is watching and will be a grumpy dad if any of the world’s super powers get out of line. He recognizes that it’s what has to happen, and also recognizes that he can’t change himself to allow him to go along with it. So he has Dr. Manhattan end him. “No Compromise!” There is more to life than training. But being able to recognize what your priorities really are and intentionally making the choices, and paying the prices that entails, is a part of what excellence sometimes demands. I don’t suggest that anyone follow the route of “no compromise” when it comes to fitting their training/racing in with the rest of their life and family. Don’t be one dimensional like Rorschach. But be intentional about the decisions about your training and life, and recognize the costs they will entail.

Bruce Denton and Quinton Cassidy are two of the most famous fictional runners ever. Quinton is the main character of the runner cult classic Once a Runner, and Bruce is his coach/mentor/buddy. The story is basically a fictionalized retelling of the “good old days” of collegiate running at the highest level, and the pursuit of personal and almost spiritual development as a runner. The central tenet of their training can be simply summed up as this: The calendar gods must be appeased. Two runs a day. Every day. It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling, sick, injured, getting married, or your wife is having a baby. You get your miles in every single day. Once you’ve made the decision to pursue that running related goal, you don’t go back and rehash it when you’re in the middle of the pursuit. You’ve committed to the pursuit. Follow it through to the end no matter what gets in the way. Again, while this isn’t necessarily the best advice from a training perspective, it is a useful concept. Once we’ve committed to training for a particular race, especially if it’s a big pie-in-the-sky kind of thing like that first trip to Boston, it doesn’t do us any good to wallow in self-doubt when we’re in the middle of the training block. Yes, we’re tired. The weather is crummy. We don’t want to do it. But we’ve already committed, so we’re going to do it.

Post-run selfie after my first run in Louisiana. It was hot. It was humid. I was squeezing it in between house shopping and checking out preschools (we were moving here a month later). But even with the big life event stuff going on, I still managed to squeeze in a training run, which paid off with my first Boston Qualifier the next month.

The common thread among all of these fictionalized explorations of excellence is the intention included in the way these characters live their lives. They know what they want, and they structure their life in such a way that it allows them to continue reaching for those goals. Because these are all fictional characters, it allowed the authors to play out how it might look if you were to really dive down the rabbit hole. I wouldn’t recommend this path (the rabbit hole dive) to anyone. But if you are an all in kind of person, be sure to sit down and acknowledge the costs you will have to pay to follow this path. It’s one thing to accidentally go down the rabbit hole (a good coach or support network will hopefully keep you from accidentally doing that). It’s another to know what the price is, be willing to pay it, and intentionally do it. If you know the price, and are willing to pay it, good luck. I won’t coach you, but I will wish you luck as you go down that road. Some of the most amazing feats in human history are accomplished by doing it.

I think maybe the more useful take home for most of us mere mortals is to intentionally structure our day, training plan, and maybe some other aspects of our life to allow us to do those things that are actually a priority to us. And be honest with yourself about what your priorities are. It’s okay for training and racing to NOT be your highest priority. I’d actually recommend it. But intentionally choosing to go to bed early so we can get our hard track workout done earlier in the day if it’s going to be really hot out is a great example of this.

From a functional perspective, one of the best ways to apply excellence in our training and lives is to build the habits that enable us to reach for our goals, whatever they may be. So what are the habits that we should probably take a look at? Sleep, daily routine, our nutrition and hydration, and training with a team or a group of friends are all good places to start. Obviously some of these feed on each other. Training partners help us show up to those early morning sessions. Hydration and nutrition go together. Taking an intentional look at all of these factors is an important part of excellence when it comes to endurance athletics. Fundamentally, we’re going to get more out of our training if we can get more of these factors aligned with our training goals. The amount we’re able to get in alignment with our training is something we’ll each have to balance with competing priorities in our lives. Some are easier to do, some not so much. And it will vary from person to person. But I would encourage you to sit down with a piece of paper and work out how these things all contribute to your training. If you want to improve as an endurance athlete, identify which of these need to change, and how much.

We may not be able to attain “excellence”, but it is the pursuit of excellence that is noble. As Bruce Lee said, “If you shoot for the stars and miss, you will still reach the moon.” Choosing to pursue excellence is the first step. Once that decision is made, then we can go about actually forming the habits and chasing it down. It is the intentional desire to improve that makes the training in endurance athletics so great.

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