By Christopher Cudworth
On Tuesday we went to yoga class at Shine in Batavia. A stand-in instructor led us through an incredibly smooth practice in which the mind fused with the moment. During her pre-practice talk she had emphasized the importance of being fully present. It’s not just the poses, she offered, it’s the mind as well that matters.
Which reminded me of another practice years ago. The week before nationals in college cross country our coach had overhead some of us speaking negatively about training and how much we’d done. “We have an opportunity,” he explained, “And we must not let it pass.”
To prove his point about the verity of our training plan and the nature of our opportunity, he had called leading coaches across the country to get their opinions about our program and preparation. One of the calls he made was to coach Ted Haydon, leader of the University of Chicago Track Club, home of world-record holders such as Rick Wolhuter, who happened to be from my hometown in St. Charles, Illinois. Our coach talked to other coaches from Wisconsin and smaller schools to gather input and prove to us that we should not view ourselves as burnt out from a tough competitive season. Instead we were ready to go when the national meet came along.
He sent us out that afternoon into waning October light with simple instructions. “No talking. Just run.” For six miles we clipped along at the prescribed pace, saying not a word.
It was magical. It was intense. It was what we needed to feel the moment and sense what was about to come.
Later that week we placed second in the national meet despite the fact that we’d been fifth place in the regional. We beat all those teams and brought home the highest piece of hardware the cross country program had collected to that point. A few years later Luther College would rise again to take first place on a hot day at nationals. When other teams faded, Luther moved forward. That’s an art unto itself. It requires presence.
Being present. And ready.
It’s all about being ready for that moment when opportunity comes along. It’s also about not undercutting your preparation by saying things that bring doubt to the forefront of your mind.
That makes you present and accounted for.
There is a paradox of sorts in being present. The shorter the race, the more intense the mental preparation and positivity must be. For sprinters that moment of opportunity is short and sharp.
For distance runners and cyclists in longer events, the idea of presence must be sustainable. That is, you often have to recharge your brain as you go along. That takes discipline. You learn that in training. Then racing. All things point toward a certain day. It is the accounting of presence in what you do along the way that matters so much to your long term success.
Of course bad things can happen that take your mind off the goal. The morning following the amazing yoga session the ball of my foot started to sting like I’d been stung by a bee. It swelled after that, then turned purple as the day wore on.
Apparently a blood vessel popped, possibly as a result of putting pressure on my left foot while doing side planks in yoga. It hurt when I was doing them, so perhaps I was a little too “present” and ignored a warning sign that trouble might be brewing.
We endurance athletes all do that at times; muscle pulls, stress fractures and sundry other aches and pains crop up thanks to our ability to tune out pain. We’re so present we ignore the presence of those warning signs.
That big gear you pushed in cycling 50 miles can come back to haunt you with knee pain the next day. That means you should be present enough to maintain a higher cadence rather than mashing along.
Or you get done running and figure out that you’ve run 30 seconds faster per mile on a rest day. You feel so good, but the next morning there’s a dull ache in your foot or knee. Your body is telling you “Back Off.”
A few weeks back while doing the first speed workout I’d done in several weeks due to achilles problems, my hamstring twinged and that was that. I pulled out of the workout and walked it down. It was better three days later when I started running again.
So being present has all sorts of iterations when you think about it. Being present means accounting for all kinds of responses from your mind and body.
There’s no easy path sometimes. We learn our lessons the hard way.
But one of the best ways to figure out what you should do is to shut down distractions and focus on the moment. What do you really feel? What is your body really telling you?
If you’ve done your preparations well, your body and mind will tell you, “We’re ready to go.”
That’s how I felt in the days leading up the first duathlon I’d ever done. I was excited even though training had been cut a bit short by tweaks in injuries that were now healed.
So here’s the moral of the story: Being positive, realistic and present really is the greatest present you can give yourself.