In the summer of 2019, I competed in a 50-mile race in the cow fields and trails of western New York state. Before sunrise, a group of us gathered by the start line, and we had the kind of conversations in which you say hello while looking at your feet lest your headlamp blind your interlocutor as you introduce yourself. There is no eye contact with headlamps. You meet one another by voice only and then re-meet each other as the sun comes up. The whistle blew, and we were on our way.
The race was hard. In the weeks preceding, I had been feeling somewhat overextended in training after a long season, and, while this feeling often abates for me once the gun goes off, that day it didn’t. I felt slow and stale in the humidity. After the first of four loops, at 12.5 miles each, I knew it was going to be a long day. I was also probably taking myself too seriously. I ran through the fields, ankle-deep in cow manure (this is not a metaphor), thinking, Look at your life! Look at your choices. Then it started to rain.
This was not a summer sprinkle. It was a deluge so great that the course flooded, and sheets of rain restricted my vision such that I felt like I was running through plexiglass. Rain was the best thing that could have happened to me. I started laughing and had a wonderful time. I ran hard.
What saved my race in the cow fields that day was humor, or the blithe recognition of the comically incongruous in my situation. It was a performance-enhancing dispositional trait, without which, I might have despaired. I think there are lots of normative traits like this, which make a heifer of a difference in how we perform. I call them “Performance-Enhancing Virtues (PEVs).”
A perennial topic in the field of athletics is the maximization of performance. How can we get the most out of ourselves to compete well when it really counts? There are many legitimate ways to go about this—tapering down mileage, fine-tuning speedwork, making refinements to nutrition and hydration, and maybe even wearing special carbon-plated shoes and aerodynamic kits, within the legal parameters of our governing body’s technology guidelines. There are obviously unethical means by which people choose to enhance performances as well. They take performance-enhancing drugs, cut courses, or find alternative means to gain a comparative advantage at the cost of their own, and the competition’s, integrity.
Yet, oddly, I have never heard anyone describe character in performance-enhancing terms. For example, Athlete X has a competitive advantage because of her unsquelchable joy in the face of difficulty. Surely there are certain virtues, or acquired excellences of our persons, that aid a runner to a considerable extent. These are the carbon-plated shoes of the soul. They are Performance-Enhancing Virtues. Here are some possibilities:
Depending on who you ask, joy is defined in different ways, and Thomas Aquinas describes joy as an “act or consequence of love,” rather than a separate virtue on its own (1). One thing that seems consistent among contemporary treatments of joy is that it is something steadier or deeper than passing happy sensations. Joy is popularly regarded as a kind of buoyancy or equanimity in the face of discomforts. It is a disposition that is largely secure from ups and downs. I include joy as a PEV because there are lots of peaks and valleys in mountain running (pun). The ability to sustain resilient cheer in spite of it all is definitely performance-enhancing. Joy helps me summit mountains. Joy has carried me many more miles than fitness has.
This one seems an obvious asset. Perseverance is committing to an arduous good. It is often the case that we want to give up before our legs do. If we can practice staying with a difficult task, or remaining under a burden (like Atlas, from Greek mythology, who is tricked into holding up the celestial spheres on his shoulders for all of eternity), then we will see improvements in our endurance. This enhances our performance.
Resilience is the virtue of bouncing back. It involves “[enduring] adversities while transforming them into insightful opportunities for renewal (2).” Running is difficult. Often times you do your best, and fail anyway. Still, you have to show up the next day and train. If you can do that well, a bad race or two won’t tank your whole season.
Robert Roberts writes about the moral virtue of humor as a kind of “blithe humility,” or the ability to laugh at oneself (3). It is perception of one’s incongruities—the gap between “people’s behavior and character, and their telos” (or goal) (4). The ability to laugh at oneself in ultrarunning is valuable because ultrarunning can be somewhat absurd. This trait in particular was helpful for me in the cow fields. I was able to laugh at myself and at the rainiest race situation I have ever en-cow-ntered, and I was spared of mid-race despair.
There are many other Performance-Enhancing Virtues. Some examples are courage, patience, gratitude, and hopefulness. The good news is, these traits are available for every athlete to acquire. We can practice them until they are habits, in the same way that we practice physical skills in the sport. The great news is, these traits are part of a flourishing life outside of sport as well. And, in a race setting—holy cow—they make a heifer of a difference.
Call for Comments
- What virtues to you think have enhanced your running performance?
- Have you ever wished you had more of the virtues of joy, perseverance, resilience, or humor at some point in running or life?
- Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. Secunda secundae partis. Question 28, article 4.
- H. Kim, C.E. Hawley, & R. Gonzales (2017). Resilience from a virtue perspective. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin 61(4): 195-204, p. 195.
- Robert Roberts. “Humor and the Virtues.” Inquiry 31, no. 2 (1988): 127-149. Reprinted in Søren Kierkegaard: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers, Volume 4 (293-315), Edited by Daniel W. Conway, K.E. Gover (New York: Routledge, 2002), 308.