A mind/body identity crisis

by David Alm on April 20, 2011

This is me in a race in 2009, at a pace of 5:30 per mile -- a speed that would have seemed impossible to me as a teenager.

Growing up, I developed a prejudice against athletes. I saw them as arrogant, cliquey, boneheaded jerks. Not my kind of people. I preferred the kids who knew how to draw, who made bold, original points in class (even as 8th graders) and who had large vocabularies. I never felt as smart as my closest friends, but that just motivated me to be smarter myself. We were as active as any other pre-teen kids — biking, skateboarding, playing random games outside — but our time together was mostly a battle of wits.

This prejudice carried over into high school, where it fermented into a kind of acrid, bitter resentment. I rebelled and went the opposite direction. I began smoking. I finagled a way to get excused from gym class my entire sophomore year, and considered that a real coup. I came to associate athletics with idiocy, or at least mainstream complacency.

College reinforced this prejudice. The philosophy, English, and art majors I spent my time with for those four halcyon years wouldn’t have been caught dead in the field house or going for a run. We were too busy sleeping off our Carlo Rossi hangovers, hand rolling cigarettes, and whiling our days away at the coffee shop downtown, where Chess was the closest thing to a sport anyone ever played. All the jocks studied econ.

Somewhere along the way, I changed my tune. I got sick of feeling 45 when I was only 22. Sick of not being able to breathe deeply enough to yawn. Sick of thinking that being active meant being a dumb jock.

In the Republic, Plato describes the importance of training both the body and the mind. He writes that the two feed one another, and that a young man must be at once physically and mentally sharp in order to be whole. This begs the question: how did athletics become vilified by those who fancy themselves intellectuals?

I realize there are exceptions, and that not all 19-year-olds who read Karl Marx for fun also abuse their bodies and avoid gyms as if they were leper colonies. But in my experience, they were so rare as to be almost non-existent.

Now, almost 14 years since I left college, I have become a competitive distance runner. I average between 50 and 80 miles per week, I run more than a dozen races per year, and I have a shelf full of trophies for winning some of them. And I’m not alone. Many of my college friends have taken up running, or swimming, or yoga, or simply walking. They recognize, finally, that being physically active feels good.

Obviously, they’re not all competitive, but the competitive streak no longer strikes me as contrary to intellect. Instead, it has brought me closer to my humanity. I feel entirely present in myself when I run, and when I race I feel pushed to my limits — not just physically, but mentally. Driving myself to complete a distance without losing pace, even when my entire body feels like it could fall apart at any moment, is an ecstatic experience.

I write this two days after running the Boston Marathon, my 17th effort at the 26.2-mile distance. It was not my best race, but it was just as satisfying, deep down, as any other. And it reinforced my love of sport, of the pain and sense of accomplishment it brings, of knowing that I didn’t give up.

There’s a lesson there you won’t find in a book.

Jeff McMahon April 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Cool runnings, David. Congratulations on finding your pace. At some universities that shall remain nameless there is an ethic of sacrificing the life of the body for the life of the mind—not all therein are adherents, but some, certainly—and I too was lured that way for a sickening spell. That ethic creates monsters.

David Alm April 23, 2011 at 7:35 am

Very true. And I was on my way to becoming such a monster (and I often wonder if my aversion to that sickly “life of the mind” lifestyle is a big reason I never brought myself to apply to PhD programs…)

In fact, a friend of mine once told me, just before beginning a PhD program herself, that she thought I “liked running too much” to be in one. I found that both sad and telling.

Brian Alm April 23, 2011 at 8:42 am

Very well said, and very reminiscent: I had the same thoughts about both athletics, early on, and about competitive distance running, later on; so it’s not surprising that my son David would think likewise, and enjoy the same epiphany.

We were in Delphi a few months ago. The site is strung out over a very steep mountainside. At the bottom is the gymnasium — not the gymnasium as we know it, with a basketball court, but more like the Germans know it, a place of learning; but even more like Plato knew it — a place to hone both mind and body. At the top of the mountainside, at the far extreme from the gymnasium, is the stadion (stadium). So apparently the meeting of mind and body was intended to be a struggle, and the greatest struggle produces the greatest reward. Hence both the marathon and the mature mind that has outgrown the dilemma of youth. But now, how do we get that wisdom into the young, so they recognize that body and mind are complementary?

Jeff McMahon April 23, 2011 at 8:50 am

I think the young arrive with wisdom—and in old age we recover it—and in the middle we lose it.

For this example, we can see children comfortably at play in both mind and body—so I would humbly suggest amending your question like so: how do we not steal that wisdom from the young?

Mark L Schrad April 23, 2011 at 8:53 am

Hi, Dave:
I’m certainly glad to hear that my experiences on this front are not unique… especially as we did run in the crowd back in high school! While you took to running after high school, I took to hockey–long a passion of mine, but since there were no rinks in the QC back in the ’90s, I couldn’t exactly compete at the same level as many of my peers. All the same, I did end-up playing 4 years of division II college hockey. I spent a lot of time riding the bench and only scored a handful of goals, but it was a wonderful complement to my academic endevors, and I made some lifelong friends along the way. Later, in grad school, I only really got through with the drudgery by playing pick-up games of ice hockey from time to time, plus our department fielded a decent co-ed floor hockey team, and a softball team comprised of both grad students and faculty members–some who were quite well-known in our discipline. Now, I find myself on the other side of the lectern, and you’d be happy to see how students are pleasantly disarmed when finding out that their prof’s not just some crusty academic, but a former “jock” as well. I should also add that I have had the pleasure of teaching all sorts of student-athletes: some conforming to the “dumb jock” stereotype, with others blowing it completely out of the water. It becomes a constant task to divorce a student’s intellectual merits and performance from their level of jock-itude.

Sonja Rusnak April 23, 2011 at 10:39 am

My college advisor was one of the first people to inspire me to take up running. When I was suffering from writers block on my senior thesis he advised me to “do something that clears your mind. Like, for me, I go for a run and about 5 miles in my mind starts to clear.” I remember staring at him thinking “start!? you’re not DONE at 5 miles?! Let’s talk 1 mile – that seems crazy!” But it stuck with me, and fiver years later I was writing to him asking for course advice for my first marathon. his advice there was dead on as well “Don’t worry about your time, for your first, just finish.”
That said, I’ve often associated running as an “intellectual” sport- maybe Chariots of Fire influences me on that one. If my advisor had said “by about 2nd quarter of the football game, my mind is clear” I may have looked at him even more strangely.

David Batcher April 23, 2011 at 11:29 am

What a terrific post, David. This is actually a wonderfully complex subject. It’s difficult for me to come up with a comprehensive theory on this, but here are some (messy) thoughts I had:
a) The divide was reinforced from the other direction as well, at least when and where we were in high school. I wouldn’t describe the BHS athletics department as, like, ardently pro-intellectual.
b) The divide was further reinforced because, early on, those of us who weren’t physically graceful were often made to feel embarrassed about it, and learned that our heads were the only places we felt safe and competent.
c) When I was younger, feeling bad felt good. The languor associated with self-pity had a physically luxurious element to it- it’s a sense memory as vivid as the smell of my mother’s spaghetti sauce. Maybe it was because the problems we enjoyed brooding on- Mortality and Authenticity and Whether Girls Like Me- remained fairly harmless and abstract. Once you get older, and life maybe hasn’t gone according to plan, suddenly Mortality and Authenticity loom like, well, very big and dark and scary ships on the horizon. And feeling bad doesn’t feel good anymore. It feels bad.
d) So it’s no wonder that, especially given (c), some of us find ourselves driven out of our heads and into physical activity. And within a couple of months, learn the stuff that the ‘jocks’ knew all along: That your head isn’t always a happy place to be, but it’s a happier place- almost magically- when you take care of your body. I found a crazy snowball effect in several areas of my life: I’m a warmer guy, I get along with people better, I gain confidence, things go well, etc, all of which feeds back into the loop. It’s a little humbling to realize that the people we disliked had such a nice secret all along, but this is one of the few times when being humbled ends up feeling pretty good.

artemis May 17, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Well put, David. I don’t think I’ve found my athletic side yet (ha ha) tho I do like biking as transportation. It feels good to know you’re doing something good for your body and also “sticks it to” the gas stations for not using their gas. Even though traffic isn’t too bad in our size city the major roads are a little scary to ride on. Bike paths are getting better but still not as ubiquitous as they might be.

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