By Christopher Cudworth
There are two types of problems that need to be solved in this world.
1) Immediate problems, such as things going wrong right now.
2) Long term problems, as in challenges that need to be solved through forethought and strategy.
You never knew life was that simple, did you?
Once you recognize the black and white of problems to be solved, life is essentially a mix of getting through immediate problems with the least amount of delay so you can begin working on long term or complex problems that help you succeed in life. If that makes it sound like life is one big problem, well, the truth hurts sometimes.
That’s the tarsnake of problem solving. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. (Thanks, John Lennon.)
The truth actually, really, physically can hurt you
I once ran an event called the steeplechase that involves running 3000 meters over 42 barriers and seven water jumps. The event is a perfect paradigm for problem solving in both the short and long term sense.
Steeplechasing requires you to deal with every hurdle (all 42 of them) with complete focus, because the hurdles are constructed of 4″ X 4″ wood. When you hit your knee on one of those, you definitely know it. Meanwhile, you’re trying to run at an even pace in order to achieve your best time.
7+ laps of steeplechasing on the track is further complicated by the addition of 7 water jumps that are built with a 2.5 foot depth underneath the barrier and a slope that inclines to a depth of 0″ about 8 inches from the flat surface of the track.
If you’re a really good steepler with a degree of spring in your legs, you can actually jump far enough to keep your foot dry the whole race. I’ve done it. Finished with barely a drop on my shoe. But that was when I was leading the whole way.
Problem solving in a crowd
It gets a lot more complicated and requires an entire new set of problem-solving skills when you approach a hurdle with 8 other runners all of whom need to hurdle the barrier without dragging one leg outside the width of the barrier or risk being disqualified.
Pushing and shoving ensues, with panicked stutter steps before you jump, compressing all your body parts as close to yourself as possible so you don’t get tripped up going over the solid wood hurdle.
And so it goes for over 9 minutes. The steeplechase is one repetition after another of spatial problem solving compounded by a growing fatigue as the race proceeds.
Sink or swim
I’ve seen guys go all the way under water once. Watched them emerge sopping and cold and stiff from getting splashed. Heard them shriek when cold water hits them in the nuts or coats their bare legs.
Spectators like to gather near the water jump for these reasons, and we all know the world loves a calamity. The steeplechase often provides both dark and comic entertainment at a track meet.
You have to be tough and smart to be a steeplechaser, and there is no guarantee that a certain physical build will make you successful. There are stocky steeplers and long lanky ones, svelte Africans and charging Eastern Europeans who will run through you if you block their way going to a barrier.
Problem solving basics
But for all these variegations in technique and build and constitution, the steeplechase is still a basic track race. That means you need to have a plan to get from start to finish as fast as possible. Your long term planning requires that you run practice laps over barriers to get better at hurdling while running race pace. So while your teammates claim they suffer doing 12 X 400 at 63 seconds, you labor through 12 laps at 68 seconds while jumping 4 hurdles along the way. If you’re really masochistic, you run through the water jump as well. All while running 5:00 mile pace or better.
You have to trust your long term strategy as each barrier comes along. Even if you stumble or run sideways a few steps the trick is to get back into the pace groove and grind along. Don’t get caught napping when you come up to a barrier or you could lose 8 to 10 steps. And make sure you step on the barrier cleanly, with your spikes and not the smooth part of your shoe.
Steeplechasing is an art of problem-solving. It’s like a chess match at sub 5:00 pace. The world record for the event has progressed from 8:49.6 in 1954 to today’s best time by Saif Saaeed Shaheen (QAT)† of 7:53 set in 2004.
Women’s steeple has been progressing quickly as well. The world’s record of 8:58 was set in Beijing by Gulnara Samitova-Galkina (RUS). Yet the record was only 9:21 set by Alesya Turova (BLR) just 6 years before, in 2002. That’s a six second progression, showing that women can someday be expected to run much faster for the event.
Problem solving on the run
So next time you go out for a run, be glad you have no hurdles to jump. Instead, you can focus your mind on those mental hurdles you’d like to solve. Some of them might have to do with how you feel at that exact moment. Others may be problems at work or in your family life. Those are the hurdles you have to jump in the course of life.
The water jumps are the bigger, longer term problems you want to solve. These may be creative issues, financial dilemmas or vision for your company or job. Keeping your mind on those as you jump the easier hurdles can be tricky.
Another Tricky Day
I’ve quoted the lyrics to the Who’s song Another Tricky Day in prior posts, but never the second verse, which goes like this:
You can’t always get higher
Just because you aspire
You could expire even knowing.
Don’t push the hands
Just hang on to the band
You can dance while your knowledge is growing
Fortunately those of us who run and ride have a unique problem solving tool in our favor. When you run and ride, your brain goes into a new kind of arena that could accurately be characterized as the Problem Solving Zone. You know what I’m talking about don’t you? One of the greatest attributes of working out is the brain release we get from doing something physical. Great thoughts can come to mind, and “you can dance while your knowledge is growing.”
And that’s worth the time you spend running and riding, for sure.