Toughness in the Age of Comfort
By Marlene Farrell
What is toughness? Does any sport have a monopoly of it? Is it the aura I could feel but did not understand at my son’s football camp? Unspoken rules of working hard together, following orders, leaving smiles at home, choreographed running, a grim dance. Team sports invoke a toughness that is distinct from that of individual sports, and I’m more familiar with the latter.
I stand at the doorway of a new sport, mountain biking. I know toughness will help me pass the threshold. Mountain biking reminds me of when I started cross-country skiing at Snoqualmie Pass. My technique was exaggerated and depleting. The hills burned and there was no relief as I swooped downhill, uncoordinated and tense. Mountain biking requires so much concentration. My mind must ever calculate what I need to do, given the trail under my wheels, what is 10 feet ahead and what I anticipate around the next bend. Movement is a steady grind, punctuated by faster pedaling, spiking my discomfort. Falls are inevitable. Sometimes from not unclipping in time. But also when I brave minor obstacles, I often crash sideways onto an unforgiving pillow of rocks and branches.
As I think about toughness and my capacity or lack of it, I stumble on an older article from Running Times, comparing the pain thresholds of the 1500m race and the marathon. The former claims the pain of muscles gasping for oxygen, whereas the latter is notorious for acid accumulation in muscles and the associated collapse of coordinated movement. You could argue the “superiority” of one versus the other ad nauseam because the truth lies in one’s perception of challenge combined with one’s level of preparedness (and perception could be considered a part of preparedness).
There’s a continuum of progress when one learns a new skill, from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence to unconscious competence. I believe it’s in that third step (conscious competence) where mental will plays a huge role. That’s where I’m capable of completing that ride or that marathon, but it’s my mind willing a body still full of doubts and suspicions, formed by chemical products that signal a need to quit. Once I’ve moved on to step four and become a master, the exertion still happens but with less energy expenditure thanks to extreme efficiency. And even more important is that my perception of effort can almost vanish in the flow of dynamic action and instantaneous reaction. I don’t need to be tough because it feels familiar and therefore simple.
So the marathon is tough for the former high school track star, but the 1500m race can be equally daunting to the veteran marathoner. The difference is clear when I compare my biking, where I’m solidly between steps 2 and 3, and trail running, where no trail, no matter how many thousands of feet of elevation gain, always feels within my grasp.
Light is always shed on these wandering thoughts by my children. They embody the various faces of toughness. On a recent bike ride Alice, age 6, had to keep up with Quentin, age 8, and his friend. After we survived a bumpy descent and the steep downhill gravel road, we’re pedaling and pedaling, along the ditch path. Alice’s toughness cracks. I can see glimmers of exhaustion, cloaked in anger. We soothe with words, treats, rest and a chance to be the leader, and she pushes through. Until we get to the sandy bottom, and the uphill looms, and Alice remembers the flat tire last time, and even the ice cream cone at the finish doesn’t entice her to go on, at least for awhile.
I think toughness is harder to maintain when you’re at the back of the pack but feel entitled to be at the front. When you recognize the group (you’re not on a solo effort) and you compare yourself to others. At least for me, when I do a tough run alone, I am easier on myself if it doesn’t go well than when I am letting others down (or at least so in my mind). When I’m pushing hard solo, I’m aided by imagined competitors or glimpses of successful races past.
I recall Quentin at our first swim meet. Serving as a timer, I was close enough to see the development of swimmer from skinny 7-year-old frames through all the phases to 17-year-olds with streamlined, powerful muscles, bending over the blocks, taut in a position, ready to propel. Quentin is there, bending, pulling back, ready to do all that his coaches have been saying. In his first-ever 50m freestyle, he takes off in a whir of arms and legs, moving faster than he’s used to. But it’s working, at a price. He has to remind himself about reaching forward, keeping his ear in the water, tummy up and tight, feet kicking at the surface. He can’t quite juggle all those balls at once. He starts plowing through the water, his body wagging sideways. He breathes hard at the finish. When he steps out of the pool, expecting smiles and cheers, which he gets, he is the picture of toughness to me.
Whenever one doesn’t give up but swims with tired heavy limbs, or gets back on the bike to finish a ride, or shakes off the charley horse of a crash or attempts an unfamiliar race distance or format, that’s toughness to me. I value toughness in an age where comfort and convenience seem to rule. The more we are willing to challenge ourselves, the greater the reward of toughness that we can apply to new sports and in other arenas of our lives.
Marlene Farrell is a Leavenworth writer and long-distance runner who has qualified twice for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. She also helps coach the Peshastin-Dryden Striders kids running club.