Two weeks ago, I got sick. Debilitatingly and uncomfortably sick. I don’t know what it was, but I couldn’t eat or get out of bed for four days. On the fourth day, I did get out of bed though. I had a race scheduled. Never mind having not run all week, this race had sentimental importance. It was in honour of my late coach, Tom Kelly. I was curled up in the fetal position just a couple of hours earlier, but I was determined. And when I say determined, what I really mean was that my conscience was embroiled in a hearty and stubborn battle. Do I run and set myself back further, and honour my coach with a sub-par performance? Or do I go back to bed, and let my body recuperate? Put any third-party in the same position I was in, and my advice would have been simple: don’t run. You risk making yourself sicker, and besides, there are many other ways and opportunities that you can honour your coach. So, why is it – as runners – when faced with difficult but logical choices, it is so much harder to follow the advice we would give others?

Our conscience makes decisions on a minute-by-minute basis in every conceivable scenario of our lives. While every choice and every scenario is different, in essence, we make just two decisions: yes or no. As runners, we make these decisions in two types of scenario: when we are at the limits of physical exertion, and when we are not. In reality, most of the time, we are not approaching our physical limits. Nevertheless, when faced with any choice as a runner, our conscience negotiates three challenges:

Should I, or should I not?”

“Can I, or can I not?”

Will I, or will I not?”

My conundrum two weeks ago was of the variety, “Should I, or should I not.” Inevitably, it’s our limbic system (part of our brain that deals in emotion) that differentiates the advice we would give someone else in the same situation, and the advice we take on board ourselves. As runners, injury and illness are natural products of our craft. But as a craft fuelled by passion, when faced with such a question, it is the emotional part of our conscience – the part of our conscience fuelled by our love of running that tells us, “why would I abandon doing something that I love? Why would I give up the fitness I’ve crafted in favour of a day off?” It takes recognising and accepting that our emotions play into our conscious assessment of, “should I, or should I not.” Any practise aimed at managing our conscious assessment of such scenarios involves distinguishing between logical and emotional motives.

On a daily basis, our conscience negotiates another important decision – “will I, or will I not.” Such a conundrum takes many forms, but usually, it dictates whether we take action or not. Whether we get up at 6am for that easy run before work; whether we do the exercises our physio prescribed us to correct our weak gluts; whether we stretch and take that ice bath at the end of our hard workout. In his book titled The War of Art, Steven Pressfield describes resistance – the invisible force that stands between “The life we live, and the unlived life within us.” Resistance is the hard part of any conscious process. Resistance is the couch we are sitting on in front of the TV, when we should be on the floor with our therabands doing strength exercises. To act, or not to act…will I, or will I not. When we set a goal, we know all the steps we must take to maximise our chances of reaching our goal. But when it comes time to take that step, often, the goal is the furthest thing from our mind. It’s the difference between knowing what we should do, and doing what we should be doing. When faced with such scenarios, perhaps the hardest challenge is coming back to the original goal, and letting that goal fuel the step we take: to act, and not sit around thinking, “I’ll do it later.”

And in the short amount of time that we spend approaching our physical limits – when we race, and when we embark on a hard workout – the choice we are often faced with is, “can I, or can I not?” In a recent interview, writer Malcolm Gladwell describes the experience of running “when your conscious self is overwhelmed by your physical activity.” As we approach our physical limits, our consciousness tends to start negotiating our physical experience, instead of accepting the decision (I can!) we made before the pain set in. When faced with the choice, “can I, or can I not?”, our conscious assessment of what is pain and what is limit becomes obscured by that immediate physical experience. But as renowned running physiologist, Tim Noakes once said, “The winner is the athlete for whom defeat is the least acceptable rationalisation.” In the absence of the physical experience, our conscience determines whether we can, or cannot, based on previous races, previous training sessions, and previous experiences of physical fatigue. When we engage in a hard physical effort, rationality becomes obscured by pain, and in an attempt to find a rational solution, our conscience tends to say, “back off”, despite our initial decision (I can!). Recognising this pattern and accepting that our conscience is vulnerable when we start to push ourselves is an important realisation. Cannot is not always the rational decision.

In all these scenarios, when we step out of our immediate experience – whether that’s an emotional cross roads, an inconvenient task, or a physically painful experience – the decision we know we should make, and the decision we are swindled into making by emotion, or resistance, or the clouding effects of pain are often different. The little voice that enters into every conceivable negotiation we make through the choices we face as runners must be tamed. In the end, the advice we would give others is the advice we should probably take ourselves. Recognising our conscience’s role in clouding that judgement is as important a part of training as the long run, or the hill repeats, or the threshold run that characterise us as runners. Listen up, and tame that little voice, folks!

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