Joy in the Storm

I could hear the rain falling as I readied myself for an afternoon run, so I pulled on my white raincoat. My husband met me at the door in his black raincoat, and we headed into the storm. It was early November, and we both needed a study break—David from grading, and me from writing. I call my training at this time of year “prepositional running” because I fit it in before things, between things, and after things. My essays have priority. If my life were a living room, school work would be the furniture. Running would be the crevasses between couches.

I was the Noble Horse

In any case, we headed into the storm. About a mile in, the rain became torrential. David and I ran shoulder to shoulder—I in my white rain coat, and David in his black one—trying to keep pace with one another in the blinding rain. “We’re like the horses of the Phaedrus,” I told him. “I am the noble horse.”

There is an image in Plato’s Phaedrus of a chariot led by two horses—a black horse representing the appetitive or concupiscible aspect of the soul, and a white horse, which is spirited and honor-loving. The charioteer (reason) is tasked with bridling these horses and their competing affections to direct where the chariot should go. These three roles (two horses and a charioteer) depict Plato’s tripartite soul.

I propose this image not because I’m a Platonist. (I’m not.) I think it’s mostly unhelpful to think about emotions in this way—as wholly distinct from reason—since emotions themselves have cognitive content. But I latch onto this picture because I can’t think of anything that better illustrates my struggle in the middle of an ultramarathon than two powerful steeds pulling in opposite directions: I want to stop, and I want to continue. I am divided by competing emotions.

Your Joy Needs to Be Loud

Racing well demands emotional control. Life in general demands this, but there is something about the increased adrenaline of the athletic context that makes emotions seem louder and more capable of sabotaging our best intentions. For lack of a more sophisticated explanation, running hard feels like you’ve given your frailties a microphone. Do you lack confidence? You will hear about it during a race. Are you proud? Your pride will be on trial, and you’ll realize how flimsy your ego is. “When your emotions shout at you,” I often tell my team, “you have to shout back.” Your joy needs to be loud.

Oftentimes a substantial constraint on our flourishing as athletes is a failure to self-govern at the level of our emotional lives. Rather than reasoning through difficulty, we get nervous about things that don’t matter, or we acquiesce to the first inclination to stop running because we feel uncomfortable. To be clear, sometimes having a well-ordered emotional life means being terrified when the situation warrants it, then responding in kind. But in most cases—particularly in the athletic context—emotions like despair or devastating fear are probably inappropriate responses because (no matter how seriously we like to take ourselves) racing is just a game.

When I tell my runners to be joyful, what I want them to do is to lean into constructive emotions, and to reconstrue a race as an occasion for delight. What I don’t mean to communicate is that their race is not an occasion of difficulty. It definitely is. But difficulty is not a constraint on joy. I want them to realize they have some control over their emotional lives and that the first flash of discomfort they feel doesn’t have to be the final word on their day. They can be joyful “though they have considered all the facts” (Wendell Berry).

So why is this important? We often lament external constraints on our training—like the responsibilities and obligations that prevent us from getting out the door. But we forget about internal constraints on our wills, which take the form of the compulsion to cede to every passing appetite, to act on every impulse, and to sabotage our own goals by prioritizing immediate comfort when we feel tired. Sure, it might be the case that there are limitations placed on us by our context, but lacking well-ordered affections is going to negatively impact our training, too, and it’s something we can work to correct.

The rain falls torrentially, and David (black horse) and I (white horse) are running shoulder to shoulder. I pull slightly ahead of him and dictate the pace and direction of the rest of our run. If I want to flourish as an athlete, I need to lean into the right emotions and choose joy through the storms.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Is your joy loud? As in, loud enough to drown out the difficulties of our chosen sport?
  • Do you see joy as an important aspect of your emotional life? Can you put words to what it means for you?
Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

There are 17 comments

  1. Gary Aronhalt

    Such tremendous thoughts here, Sabrina! I love this: “For lack of a more sophisticated explanation, running hard feels like you’ve given your frailties a microphone.”

    I have experienced this to be true in the pursuit of anything big…once we start chasing dreams the critics (both internal and external) begin their grumblings.

    Appreciate your work here!

  2. Bart Smith

    Probably one of the best articles I have ever seen regarding positive head-talk, whether running or dealing with life under pressure. Thanks Sabrina.

    1. Sabrina Little

      Thanks, Bart. “Life under pressure” describes so much of what we do, and I’m still learning how to navigate it well.

  3. Travis Cone

    Very good. “But difficulty is not a constraint on joy.” Well said, I believe that difficulty is a key component in the areas of life that bring us the most joy. Landing that dream job, graduating (at any level), climbing a mountain, racing well, raising children, these are all difficult pursuits but they certainly bring immense amounts of joy to ones life.
    Thanks for the great work.

  4. Steve Troxel

    Thanks again Sabrina! I hope irunfar makes it worth your while to keep writing for a long, long time. I believe your style and background are going to make for many great reads!!

  5. Patrick

    the “compulsion to cede to every appetite…” so many could benefit by being a bit more purposeful!…enjoyed your thoughtful prose…joy – and gratitude – are such simple & powerful mechanisms…

  6. Helen Scotch

    I believe joy is the single greatest emotion we as humans can feel. To be happy is a great feeling, to love something or someone and to be loved feels wonderful. But to feel pure joy, whether in the simplest or most complicated moments, is truly magical. I try to focus on finding joy in the difficult moments during training or racing. It’s not always easy but time and again we overcome the struggles. Running in natural beauty sure helps like during a recent tough race when seeing a mountain goat mama and her baby instantly improved my mindset. But it’s equally doable in the most mundane urban environment when perhaps you’re struggling and glimpse another runner and share a moment (or you think you do!). Trying to take ourselves less seriously sure helps. But that’s easier said that done during a race, especially for younger, team athletes. Great writing Sabrina. I enjoy coming across your blog every so often.

  7. Julie

    Absolutely fantastic read! You sure know how to turn a phrase. This is my favorite “and to sabotage our own goals by choosing immediate comfort”. I have the most trouble making myself do the extras like core/rolling for this very reason. Run 100 miles? Ok! Do 100 lunges? I caaaant I’m tired! My legs hurt! SMH I am my own worst problem.

Post Your Thoughts