“Areté implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency… or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.”
-Robert M. Prisig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Have you ever heard of Michael T. Joyce? Neither had I. Until author, David Foster Wallace introduced him to me. He is an incredible talent, who has worked for years to tirelessly develop his craft. At 22 years old, he had aspirations to improve, and to beat the best and to push back the walls that bound him. During the summer of 1996, Michael T. Joyce was ranked the 97th best tennis player in the world. If he played on a public court, he’d be a spectacle and amass a crowd of onlookers who’d watch in awe. He’s fast, he’s strong, and he can hit a tennis ball with pinpoint accuracy with a backspin that could bring the ball right back. But he’s not Pete Sampras, and he hasn’t earned his way to play against Andre Agassi. That’s when I realized; I am Michael T. Joyce.
I skipped my cool down. It never even crossed my mind to do it. I was done, and my collegiate career was over. I entered the showers more numb than upset. I stood there for a moment, with my eyes closed as the cool water rushed against my face, and then I sat. My back was against the wall as I was sitting in a puddle of my own filth. The thought popped into my head to where I was about a year ago. Finishing the season prior with a similar sense of disappointment, but with an optimistic outlook of what this year would bring. If I could go back to then and see where it is that I am now, would I do it all over again? Undoubtedly, yes.
When I committed to run for Texas following my junior year, I had missed the three previous seasons and had not produced a single result in over thirteen months. But in an act of faith, Coach Hayes and Coach Thornton decided to take a risk on me, for which I am forever grateful. Unfortunately, this year did not unfold as I had planned. There was so much more that I wanted to give to this team, but I did not PR and I did not hit my goals. I was perpetually injured and unable to compete at the level my teammates deserved. My performances were lacking, and I was a constant headache for our training staff. Following my final race, when Coach Hayes entered the locker room and saw me hanging up my burnt orange jersey for the final time, we shook hands and I thanked him for everything. But there was one thing I wanted to make sure he knew, as well as everyone who I had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with while spending the last year in Austin—I loved it.
I woke up this morning, and I still have a smile on my face, and isn’t that the ultimate purpose of running, to find happiness? It just so happens that in my hedonistic pursuit I stumbled upon the sport of running and acquired the desire for arbitrary feats of endurance. Athletics is one possible mean to the same end we are all chasing. And while it is easy to become absorbed by the tunnel vision required to be successful, now at the conclusion of my season, I can look back with the proper perspective that is no longer blinded by frustration. Although the list of things I hope to accomplish continues to grow, I try to remind myself that they are all part of the single greatest achievement worth pursuing, and that is satisfaction.
As articulated by Aristotle, the ultimate virtue is namely eudaimonia, translated literally as “good spirit,” but often intended to mean “well-being.” As people we are ceaselessly striving towards this ideal, but perhaps aiming towards it is what provides it most fully. And through the various stages of my career, I expect to have many bad days to accompany the good. But much like an aspiring tennis star, I will continue to look towards winning against the best. Yet whether I get there or not, I hope to conclude in much the same way Michael T. Joyce was personified: “He will say he is happy and mean it.”
I was recently told that the biggest advantage a post-collegiate athlete could have is a strong support system. To be surrounded by people who believe in you and accept your decision to put aside some of the temptations of the real world (re: money), to pursue a dream you have been chasing since you first started competing at five years old. Throughout my years in college, I was given endless opportunities by so many people to play a sport I love, and I could never thank everyone along the way enough for what they’ve given me. To my parents, family, coaches, teammates, friends and fans, thanks for being a part of the journey, and I am excited to enter into the next stage of my career, and I trust you will join me. Right now, I need some time off to recover, get rested and healthy, but I am excited to make up for some lost time.
David Foster Wallace-The String Theory
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
(In addition to running, I sometimes find other things to do. I do some photography, which I post some pictures of, and I read a lot. Normally the quotes I post are from books or authors that I have just read and enjoyed. Additionally, I write a bit. Here is a fictional story I recently wrote that has nothing to do with running, but hopefully, you will still find enjoyable.)
Charles wakes up at 6am, he does this everyday. His life is a routine. The alarm isn’t set for any particular reason, except to have a reason to get out of bed. It’s depressing to sleep in and to wake up only to realize there is nothing on the day’s agenda. Charles may be old, but he still has his mind, and he knows this little trick gives the allusion of purpose, rather than actually providing one. Being tired is good. People who do things, important things, feel tired. So Charles wakes up sleepy, gets out of the house, and starts the day. This is how things were before his regretful retirement, and they’ll most likely stay this way until he no longer can.
The railing that runs parallel to the stairs is Charles best friend. It’s there for him when he needs it, but it doesn’t need to be carried around to remind him of his weakness. That means no cane. His steps are slow, but he’s racing the sun. As it crests over the horizon in front of him, he steps into the same restaurant once again, with the cathedral casting a shadow over Broadway. He doesn’t order food; it’s already being prepared. Adolfo is wearing the same Yankee cap that he’s been wearing since 2001, and just like his wardrobe, his morning customers stay the same. The whole-wheat toast pops out, and he pours the coffee, and passes the cream cheese and strawberry jam. The stomach prefers monotony.
Charles gives Adolfo a nod, and opens up his newspaper to read what happened while he was asleep. There is no chatting to the same man that serves him everyday, or the widow who sits at the booth behind him. He goes about his business, and has his second cup of coffee, just as black as the first. Charles watches as the tourists come in, and he blames them for the higher menu prices. It wasn’t like this in the 1980’s, before this restaurant turned into a destination.
Charles pays $5 even, with the tip included, a small admission fee for the comfort of keeping things the same. He heads past the stream of students winding in and out of the sidewalk’s traffic to make it to class. He remembers the days he could move side to side with swift direction changes. Now he breaks up his commute into 25 steps at a time, resting for a moment to catch his breath at each checkpoint. Charles sits down on a bench in the middle of a split in the road, and he’s surrounded by a garden that is still holding onto the previous spring’s blossoms. In his back pocket is a book, just sleek enough to fit, like an oversized wallet. Before he opens it to read he takes an instant to relax. This day is satisfying for Charles. Most are. He’s walked the distance of a few blocks before 9am, and he’s exhausted, but happy.
He opens up his book midway through, to where a crisp dollar bill is holding the place of where he left off. It’s a thin book, but his eyes can’t scan like they once did. On the other side of the street corner’s garden, he sees a young man carrying a big fancy camera. He looks young and intently bohemian. The young man walks up to a man playing a guitar and drops a couple dollars into his hat. But he stands around and waits for the song to finish. He sits down on the bench beside the guitar player, and a conversation begins, but Charles loses interest and gets back to his book. His head turns slowly as they follow the words on the page. He’s consumed.
Charles hears an excusatory cough, and takes eyes off the paper to see a pair of beat up, navy blue converse shoes standing in front of him. It’s the young man.
-Excuse me sir, would you mind if I sat with you for a moment?
Charles just stares at him blankly. He’s ruffled by the forwardness of this gentleman to interrupt an old man sitting on a bench in peace. He looks at him, and tries to read his intent. There are countless benches surrounding his own, and he sees no need to sit on top of each other, except this man is obviously looking for a conversation. Charles does not say yes, but slides over half an inch to the left, which is invitation enough.
-My name is Wellington. I am a local student studying photography, and was wondering if you’d be willing to chat with me and assist me in a project I am working on. You may call me Well–it’s a nickname.
Charles has been awake for hours, but he hasn’t made a single sound with his mouth yet. There just hasn’t been anyone to talk to, and there’s been no reason. It’s not a choice, but lack of opportunity. Now sitting close enough to his right hip to feel the warmth of this student is Well, a stupid name. He seems interested, and Charles is uncomfortable with this. No one is supposed to be interested in anyone else in New York.
-Sure you may. I don’t see how I could be of help, however.
-As I said, I am a photography student and I am working on a project. The project is about the people of New York. I’d like to take your picture.
-If that’s all you want, I suppose so.
-But I’d also like to hear about you, and just get an idea of who it is you are. It’ll help me portray you better, and how to represent you. A picture can tell an incredible story, but with just a few details, an audience can connect and get to know the subject.
-My name is Charles. I am 83. I live in New York. Is that it?
-Ha, that’s a start. What do you do?
-Nothing, I am retired. That’s why I am sitting on this bench on a Tuesday morning and not in an office.
-What did you previously do?
-I was a butcher. I owned a shop up in Yonkers with my brother. That was twenty years ago.
-What happened to the shop?
-It’s gone. What does this have to do with me in one of your pictures? Was the guitar player not good enough for you, son?
Charles wiggled his body away from his inquisitive interviewer. This was the worst question he could have asked. Seemingly innocent, but it’s not the type of story Charles shares. It still stings. If his brother were still alive, he’d punish him for some of the stunts he pulled. He was supposed to handle the numbers, and leave the butchering to Charles. Their hands told the different stories. Charles had thick sausage-like fingers. They carried things and they cut things. Not his brother. He was not the physical type, unless you count talking as physical. He was overtly unctuous, and could excuse his way out of a ticket. But he tried to be too sly, and his false accounting was eventually found out. He died the week before the IRS came knocking. Charles went from crying while expressing his love for his brother during an emotional eulogy before a small crowd of distant friends, to hating him for all the same reasons that he was so loved. He found shortcuts, and he took the easy way out, but he was so likably open about his flaws. It was attractive in a sense. He could fill a room with laughter instead, and a day was better with his quips. But keeping the tax forms honest was apparently too much work. Twenty years later, and Charles is still struggling to forgive that mistake, but he can accept it.
-I’m sorry, how about that book? What are you reading?
-‘The Stranger,’ it’s by Albert Camus. I have read it a lot.
-Why do you read the same book so many times?
-I like this one. I will read others, but I always come back to this. Meursault, that’s the name of the main character, no matter how many times I read it, I can’t figure him out.
-Isn’t that the same guy who wrote about the guy who carries that rock up the mountain every day?
-Yes, Sisyphus. When he gets the rock to the top, it rolls back down. His life is filled with this, everyday the same, but he is happy. I am sure this will help you make a great photograph.
-Forget the project, that’s not important. I am curious to hear more about you.
-I’m glad an old man on a bench with a book can be so entertaining to you, but I have to go. I am going to be late to meet a friend.
As Charles was gathering himself, and motioning to stand up, Wellington jumped up. At this surprise, Charles sat back down. The picture. Wellington asked him to show his book, and to look away. He would take five pictures, fiddle with his camera, and change his angle. It seemed rushed. He did not want to take up anymore of this man’s time, so he worked quickly. Charles didn’t know what to do. It was awkward. Before walking away, Wellington offered to send Charles the picture when it was finished.
-I have plenty of pictures from when I had more hair.
Charles put his book on his pocket, and began the next part of his day. He’d be late, by only a minute, but a minute wasn’t too long for Fred to worry. Fred is a veteran. His wife passed away a few years ago, and now the difference between a good and bad day is if he can win this chess match. Their record is mostly even. They never keep score, but it seems that way. Charles never had a wife. He was close. It’d be nice to have someone to sit with in the evening, but he’s content in his independence. Charles has friends who can spend hours on the couch in complete silence with their wives. He does not know what that is like, but it sounds dull.
-Why didn’t you ever get married?
-It didn’t work out. You only have so many chances with these things, and mine didn’t work out.
Charles has this tendency of ending conversation abruptly. An answer that is vague enough to avoid the question. Fred and Charles met late in life. They are not the childhood friends who know each other’s history. They only met a couple of years ago. Charles had never known Fred’s wife. But now they’re so intertwined in the monotony of it all, they couldn’t remember what it was like previously. Before they sat down to start their game, they purchased a hot dog from the cart on the north side of the street. Always with sauerkraut. Fred introduced Charles to a world beyond ketchup and mustard. The match is never timed, it’s quietly competitive, but slamming a clock at the end of each turn would stir too many emotions.
Fred wins today. They sit looking out on the Hudson for some time. When bikers or runners pass by, they’ll maybe turn to each other and comment. Nothing exciting happens, which is normal. A handshake and a farewell; and Charles heads in the direction of the grocery store. The rest of the day is fairly typical. He heads to the frozen section in the pack, and finds a half price meat. It is about to go bad, if it has not already. He has money. But he is still frugal. That is after all, why he has money. He heads to the canned aisle, and gets a vegetable. This makes it simple when he is home. He puts meat and the canned vegetable on the stove at a low simmer. He has the time.
After dinner, he sits in the chair next to the TV. There is a fat cushion on the wooden rocker, making the uncomfortable chair slightly tolerable. He opens his book to read, as Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune creates background noise. He’ll look up to watch for a few minutes if there is a category he favors. But he doesn’t really care for “Islands of the Caribbean” or “The Art of Shaving.” Just as the sun is barely ducking beneath the sky, he changes into a pair of loose flannel pants and takes his socks and collared shirt off. He collapses into bed, and when his head rests on the pillow, he is asleep. Tomorrow will be much like today, and it will be draining.
At 6:29 AM, Adolfo drops the bread into the toaster. He turns towards the door when the bell rings over head and there is a woman. She approaches him, and asks to sit at the counter. She is middle aged, with hair that is fighting to remain dark. Her name is Megan. She orders a cup of tea, with milk. At 6:30, she is sitting alone, with her body faced towards the door. She is waiting for Charles, who she was told would be here at this time. Charles doesn’t normally have many visitors, but when he does, they know where to find him. He has lived his whole life like a clock, and you can predict what’s next.
But not today. Today will not be like yesterday for Charles. His body peacefully rests in the bed of his third floor apartment. Today was not a tragedy for Charles, he accepted this day long ago. As he passed, he was not aware, and how and when did not matter. At least not to Charles.
At 6:32, Adolfo keeps checking the door. This is the latest Charles had ever been. Megan orders a couple of eggs cooked sunny side up, and an order of toast to soak up the yolk. Adolfo doesn’t know Charles, at least not as a friend. But he is a part of his life; he is a constant. When his world is chaos, Charles remains simply, there.
-Excuse me, I am looking for an old bald man, his name is Charles. I was told I would be able to meet him here at this time. Am I mistaken?
-Miss, Charles comes in every day. He always sits at the spot next to where you wait. But he is not here today. I am sorry.
The toaster popped a long time ago, and the warmed bread is now cooling. Adolfo removes the toast and places it upon a plate. He hesitantly puts it in front of Megan, as she waits for her eggs. She pays her bill and before she goes she checks with Adolfo one more time.
-So you are absolutely certain a man name Charles comes in here every morning?
-Yes, he was in yesterday, and the day before and the day before. I don’t know where he is. If I see him, I can tell him you were looking for him. What is your name?
-My name is Megan. Could you have him call me on this number please?
-Of course. Should I tell him anything else? What’s your relation?
-I’m his daughter.
-I didn’t know he had a daughter.
-Neither did he.
Megan walks past the register with her heels dragging behind her. It took her a long time to collect the courage to come and try and meet her father, and the day she finally does, he is not the one place she was told he would certainly be. Her heart is still beating, and she feels deflated. She had pictured today going differently. And now she imagines her father getting a note with a number saying that his daughter had come in looking for him. He’ll be so confused, this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Before the door shuts behind her, she pokes her head back in and yells to Adolfo.
-Actually, forget it. I just moved nearby. I’ll come in again–tomorrow.
There is nothing constant in this world but inconsistency.
A quick look over the shoulder, and I see the one thing you never want to see in a race—no one’s behind me. I put my head down, partly to grind out the final couple laps, but mostly in shame. I’m humiliating myself. The four hundred meter track seems to be measured long. I haven’t hit splits this slow all year. In an eight-lap race, it’s an ominous sign when you’re hardly holding on after just two. I hit that point in the race when I see the lap-count and question if I can make it to the finish.
There are periods during any race when you have time to think, time to doubt, and time to talk yourself out of the competition. But running is a thinking man’s sport. For every interval, for all the long runs, and for each mile, there is something equally important that contributes to your performance—your mentality. Confidence is key. Stepping on the line, when that gun goes off, the miles of training run to get you to a specific point become negligible. If there is a lack of self-assurance to compliment and carry your physical fitness, then success becomes an impossibility. Sometimes, that belief is the solution to the dodo’s conundrum. Without the innate and genuine faith in one’s own training, the possibility of flight is dwindled and lost in the process. But confidence cannot be faked; it’s not something of which you can convince yourself on race day. You have it, or you don’t.
Before that race at states my junior year, I was in the midst of a breakout season. A month prior, I had two big breakthroughs; a 1600 in 4:16 and an 8:37 3k. Workouts were going great, races were falling into place. But as the season began to wind down, uncertainty slowly crept into the back of my head. The two years before I had fallen victim to a mid-season peak. And now I was anxious about the possibility of reliving those collapses in dramatic fashion. Even though I was showing no signs of slowing down, my skepticism grew and grew until it manifested itself at the worst time possible—in the middle of a race, once things began to hurt.
Beforehand my coach preached about the dangers of pessimism, and admonished me for what he thought could become a psychosomatic failure. Despite his warnings, the necessary confidence was absent, and doubt was getting the best of me. With just two hundred meters remaining, I muster up a kick, for pride. I finish in second to last. I walk off the track with my head hanging in embarrassment. I beat myself.
The next day I sit alone on the bus ride home, and I am forced to confront my own failure. I’m given hours to myself; to reevaluate and contemplate my next step. Unfortunately, in addition to that abysmal 3200, I botched my chance at redemption in the 1600 the day after. My head is resting against the window, my legs still filled with lead and my mind spinning. I’m exhausted. I wrestle with the various rationalizations and reasons for my poor showing. I examine my training log. I assess the details of each day with scrutiny. How did I manage to collapse into the same trap yet again? I continue to over think.
There was one week until outdoor nationals. I sat my parents down and explained to them that I was unsure of whether or not I should go. I did my best to explain to them [as non-runners] what it means to burn out in a season. The situation was hopeless; at least I made it appear so. It would inevitably be a waste of time and money to fly to North Carolina only to dwindle further. They called my coach to gauge his impressions. In the same sagacious manner as always, he knew that if I could not be convinced of my own ability to run fast, that it would never happen.
My parents ultimately decided for me—we were going to the meet. And so, it was my own duty to figure out that next step. Since my doubts lay in my training, my coach offered to let me write my own schedule for the week. I could fix the problem myself. A few weeks prior I had met professional distance runner Anthony Famiglietti at a local running store where he gave a brief talk. I admired his approach to the sport. With a freedom of mind, running was without pressure. He merely enjoyed running as an entity in itself and racing was an opportunity to display his hard work. I built up the bravery to email him one night, just seeking some simple advice. Certainly there must be some sort of secret that Olympians have to reverse a peak. The next day I received a response. He most likely could tell I was in panic mode from the frantic state and rambling of my message, and he encouraged me to just relax and get back to the basics. To run free [and obviously to “run like hell”]. Sometimes all it takes is hearing what you already know from the right person.
That week, I kept things simple. Just easy runs, and some 200’s at race pace. I needed to get my legs under me, or at least needed to believe they were. We flew down to North Carolina, and I started to look at the trip as a vacation rather than as a race. Looking back today, this was the trip that has molded my outlook on racing. It is difficult to control how a race unfolds, what the weather is like, who the other runners are and how fit they are, but my individual preparation [from a mental standpoint] is entirely my own. I understand the importance of a race. When the pistol fires, nothing in the world matters more–I am all in. Before a race, the only reminder I need is to relax. This is the fun part.
Race day. I break off the line, and get to the railing. I sit just off the pace; content to let the others do the grunt of the work as I’m hanging on the back end. A sixty-five first lap. It’s conservative, not an issue. I look down at the track–it’s blue. I wonder to myself, “How much faster is a blue track than a red track?” All of a sudden I am sitting behind the two leaders. I can’t remember passing anyone, but I won’t complain. 2:10 at the half. Something starts to happen, am I slowing down, or are they speeding up? I start to go backwards. The dreaded third lap has always been my weakness. We hit the backstretch, and a gap begins to form. Oh, no. Not again. I remember what happened a week before, twice. I fight a battle with myself. I make confessions; just keep pushing and make it hurt, after the race I’ll be able to say, “I told you so.” No one will be mad if it was an honest effort. The distance between the front and myself grows. 3:16 with one to go. I hear my coach yell, he hasn’t given up yet. To this point, it has been anything but an honest effort. Only 300 to go, I stop compromising. I breathe in deep; I’m fine. Maybe it was mental. I see someone struggling; “I’ll just pick him up.” With that surge, I feel the fire; there’s something left. I turn it on, and with 200 to go I come racing by and into 4th. I look ahead, I’m moving faster than anyone on the track. I swing off the turn, and all of a sudden I am in second. My mom is screeching from the stands. A lap ago, she had the shovel ready to scrape my corpse off the track; now I’m rolling. The distance seems too far for first, but the clock looks promising, I can PR. But then I get that shiver like I’ve been drugged—runner’s high kicks in. My legs are flying now. It’s possible and I commit. I dig down, and I lean. It’s close.
It was only the emerging elite mile at the national meet. I wasn’t ready to race the big guns, but I was able to compete and pull out a miracle victory against a great field nonetheless. I stood proud, I beat the only person that had held me back the week before. We all have this idea of how a season should unwind, and how a race should play out. Checkpoints are created, and we aim for specific splits. But how do we react in those moments after a bad race, or in the middle of one? We must adapt, and adjust to the situation, the reality. The only thing to focus on is the present, because it’s the only thing we can control. Tabula rasa.
“He says, you have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can’t make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.”
-Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes
“Humans are divided between those who can still look through the eyes of youth and those who cannot.”
― Dave Eggers, What Is the What