Temperament and Disposition

AJWs TaproomGrowing up in a progressive household my parents taught me to always understand the difference between temperament and disposition. As I’ve developed as a person and as a runner this distinction has allowed me to grow and accept who I am and what I want to be. It’s an interesting comparison and one that deserves a deeper dive.

Temperament is, simply, the way we are when we come out. And often, it is said, that if you come out looking around and seeing the gloomy side of life you’ll end up, 84 years or so later, going into the ground with a gloomy view of life. It’s simple, I know, but true nonetheless, just ask my Uncle Kenny.

The Anthroposophists, who founded Waldorf Education and have created a thriving educational industry based on temperament, identify four essential temperaments that are part of human experience and are, for better or worse, the way we’re wired. To make understanding these a bit more simple for people such as myself, there is, of course, a story refined over the years and designed to exemplify the ideal:

The Choleric, the Melancholic, the Sanguine, and the Phlegmatic are walking along one day when they encounter a large brick wall, about 12 feet high, in their path. The Choleric, quickly and without hesitation, proceeds to bash the wall mercilessly and without restraint in an attempt to forge through to the other side. The Melancholic, sighs, shakes his head, sits on the ground, and proceeds to sob, forlorn over the fact that his journey has been thwarted and resigned to a life on this side of the wall. The Sanguine, upon seeing the wall, says, simply, “Well, things are pretty good here on this side of the wall, it’s green, the flowers are growing and there’s food. Let’s have a picnic.” And the Phlegmatic, he pauses, a bit longer than most, reflects, and methodically, through a measured process of trial an error, works to find a way through, over, around, and under the wall.

In this context, you can probably identify with one (or more) of these temperaments and, with a little soul-searching and perhaps an over-a-beer chat with a spouse/significant other, can nod your head knowingly in your understanding of who you are and who you are not. Regardless, don’t worry, there’s still hope.

As ultrarunners, what do you think? Which temperament is best suited for the journey around the San Juans on the second weekend in July or a trip along the Wasatch Front in September? I suppose a case could be made, in one way or another, for all four, but, in the end, that doesn’t matter much because that’s just our wiring.

What about the nurture side of the equation?

What about our disposition?

That is the lesson I didn’t learn until I started running. And, it’s made all the difference.

Intense and exhaustive neuro-scientific research over the past ten years has been devoted to precisely this; what is it, in the human brain and nervous system, that makes us different, unique, identifiable, and purposeful? If there are certain aspects of who we are that we can’t control (temperament) what are those aspects of who we are that we can control (disposition)? And, more to the point, how we can develop the disposition to be successful ultrarunners in spite of and because of our temperament.

I venture to say that there are four acquired attributes, available to any of the four temperaments, that lead to success in ultrarunning and are the inevitable by-product of experience, hard-work and a little luck — they are, patience, acceptance, resilience, and confidence. Think of the ultrarunners you know, the successful ones, how patient are they? Are they willing to accept what is, and what isn’t? Can they bounce back from adversity without whining? Do they know they’re good? Taken individually, these four attributes are simply pieces of the puzzle. However, assembled correctly on the right day in the right place at the right time, these four attributes can lead us to great things we could never have imagined we were capable of. And that, is yet another reminder of the beauty of this sport.

Face it, you are stuck with the temperament you came out of the womb with and, whichever one it is, you can grow and evolve because of it and in spite of it. But, your disposition can be nurtured, even at the age of 88. I dare say, if you are patient, accepting, resilient, and confident you can and will achieve greatness. You simply need to do it.

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Boneyard RPM IPAAJW’s beer of the week is Boneyard RPM IPA from a great craft brewery in Bend, OR.

A great brew for HopHeads like me and better when you have a rest day scheduled, Boneyard is a new-school brewery with an old-school attitude. As of this writing they only have a tasting room and growler fills but this stuff is the real deal and I’ll bet they’ll expand in the next year or so. Next time you’re in Bend, stop by (look for the BatMobile). It just might alter your disposition. :)

Call for Comments (from Bryon)
AJW poses some interesting questions. What are your temperament and disposition? How do you think these benefit and detract from your ultrarunning? How do you think you could improve your own disposition to find more success and/or happiness ultrarunning?

[Editorial Note: A few of you may have seen this post go live on Wednesday morning before it taken down. Sorry for the teaser, I simply misscheduled the article’s publication.]

There are 17 comments

  1. solarweasel

    great post, ajw.

    i think anyone who's run 100 miles has run the gauntlet of emotions that instrisically comes with it… the excitement and anxiety during the months and days beforehand, the triumph and satisfaction afterward, and the crazy roller-coaster ride in between.

    and, unless i'm alone in saying so, this seems to prompt the soul-searching and introspection you speak of. "why am i putting myself through this? what kind of person am i to do this to my body?" then, looking around at others… "well, i'm certainly not the only one out here. what is it about our temperament that drives us to these lengths?"

    i think there's a certain temperament that makes ultrarunners out of us to begin with, but as a community we represent a wide range of disposition… hence different goals, different strategies, and different motivations.

    beerwise i see you're working your way east — what's your favorite rocky mountain beer?



  2. Pierre

    Great subject aj.

    Going forward, how can we improve those attributes ?

    The confidence part is easy. You do your training, your long runs and surprise yourself somedays with a super long training. Then, you start feeling confidence about finishing your upcoming race. The acceptance part could also be viewed as the adapting part. Adapt to the change of course, the rain, the cold, the heat. For all those, you have to be prepared (material) and accept what's thrown at you. The resilience part is going through pain (phys. and/or mental). To improve this one, you have to experience it. Lastly, the patience part is probably the easiest to understand but the most difficult to master, at least for me. I guess that's where the introspection comes too much into play and you lose sight of the present task at hand. As Kilian would say, that's where you need to trick your mind.



  3. Run Junkie

    More sanguine by nature than anything (with a dash of melancholic), it's a testament to training (mental and physical) that I've been able to move forward and get over the walls inherent in ultra. Great post, Andy, as usual.

  4. mtnprincess

    Very interesting article!It presents a nice discussion of"nature versus nurture" spectrum of what makes us human! It's nice to take time to look at what attributes and strengths come into play in ultrarunning and what we can work on to better ourselves as well. It reminds me of the "external versus internal" locus of control theory where successful ( and happier) individuals have a greater internal locus of control like the Sanguine and Phlegmatic types who take responsibility for solving problems that they encounter. One has to do the work i.e. run….in order to achieve one's goal……finish the race! Yep, no one else can run it for you and that's what makes it such an awesome sport!

    And when you make your way further to the East Coast, I'd love to hear your feedback on the Long Tail and the Magic Hat brews!

    Happy trails, Fab :)

  5. Timothy Olson

    Great read AJW!

    i look forward to Friday mornings…I read your article and then go for a Tap Room worthy run to the top of a peak. Great to see you apart of the irunfar team :0)



    1. AJW


      Thanks for checking in. And, I must tell you, I've watched your WS100 video about 20 times. Of course, it's mostly because I love Franti but also seeing that footage brings me back to that amazing day again and again. And, as I told you after the race, you were clearly "Rookie of the Year" that day.


  6. Danni

    Great piece. If I had some of those IPAs I'd sit and enjoy some brew without worrying about getting to the other side of the wall. If the IPAs were on the other side I would definitely figure out how to get over/under/around that wall.

    For someone like me who isn't competitive (both out of physical inability and lack of competitive drive) and is a hobby ultrarunner I *have* to be enjoying the journey, regardless of whether it ends in DNF, bad weather, suffering, joy, sun, comfortable finish — whatever. Otherwise there's no point in being there and I might as well pick a different hobby. It's all attitude. I chose to try to think of all of it as fun and exactly where I want to be and what I want to be doing. Sometimes that's hard but it's my goal.

  7. Alex

    If I'm any kind of representative, there are more than a few neurotic obsessives in the ultra community. More is better, better is better. There is always something to do, a challenge to seek, variables to tweak. No matter how well you run, your focus immediately shifts to what could be improved. PR? Win? Just think how much faster I could still get! It's like an old school arcade game: You never win; you just keep shooting for the new high score.

  8. Jason

    Profound insights here! Thanks, AJW. For me, running long-distances, particularly alone and in the woods, helps me experience the range of dispositions (and often temperaments) you describe. These things make us human, but we have so many ways to mask them in daily life. Getting out on the trails, and pushing your body to the edge, makes us experience this totality of existence. In short, it affirms our humanness. That's main reason I run.

  9. Matt Smith

    Interesting stuff AJW, but I wonder if 'temperament' is as fixed as you suggest. I'm sure that proponents of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy might disagree – sometimes acting differently can change the way we think and effective 'rewire' our brains to work differently. Or maybe that's disposition – the lines get pretty hazy sometimes.

    It seems that disposition is very much based on context. Low blood sugar or a nagging injury can lead to a set of emotions and responses that are atypical for an individual. Conversely, a sunny day in the mountains on new trails can lead to performances beyond what we ever expected of ourselves. Everyone has a unique set of triggers that can have profound impacts on the way we react to a given set of circumstances.

    Great conversation – I wish I was home in front of the fire with a nice IPA instead of taking a break from work. I'm sure my disposition and response might be very different in that case…

  10. Ben Nephew

    For better or for worse, there is no hard wiring from birth. In a stable environment, temperment may very well be somewhat constant across development, but often it is affected by our environment. With the recent advances in epigenetics, nature vs. nurture has been replaced with genes x environment interactions. Positive examples of the effect of environment on temperment can be seen in troubled kids being adopted into caring families, an outstanding teacher turning a future dropout into a success story, overcoming addiction, and troubled individuals finding the right therapist. Sad examples would be the effects of child abuse, PTSD, and a whole range of exposures to chronic stress. For those in education, the most troubling trend is the increase in psychiatric issues in kids, often from perfectly healthy parents. Clearly there are environmental factors involved, but no one is clear as to what these factors are.

    With ultrarunning, OCD tendencies are very common, as others have pointed out. The paradox is that exercise can be an effective treatment for many psychiatric issues, yet it can also turn into a destructive obsession. It is hard to read so many stories of runners trying to run through injuries or race while injured. I was just talking with someone about the 5 cases of acute renal failure at Western States in 2009. That percentage of cases at the NYC marathon would amount to 500 runners going to the hospital. I understand that there are differences between the two events, but I thought running was supposed to be part of a healthy lifestyle.

    Ultrarunners have resilience to spare, which is almost always a positive. Patience is uniformly common as well. It seems that acceptance and confidence may be more common in the average runner than ultrarunners specifically. I am continously surprised as how rare it is for ultrarunners to accept their state of fitness and run at that level, this being more of an issue in men than in women. At short distance track or road races, the vast majority of runners will run even races compared to the average ultra event, whether it is 50k or 100 miles. A perfect example of this contrast is this year's NYC city marathon, where the early women's leader went out a pace 4-5 minutes faster than PR pace, and the consensus among sub ultra runners was that she used poor tactics and gave the race away. If someone runs with similar tactics in an ultra, they are complimented for putting it on the line and running with confidence.

    Although one interpretation of a fast early pace is running with confidence, it may also be due to a lack of confidence in the ability to run well towards the end of a race. At the front of a competitive marathon, the eventual winner will often run their own race, even if someone builds a huge lead. With an ultra, the default race plan is to stay with whoever is up front as long as you can, and stagger home, or to the finish. The crazy thing is that running negative splits is more destructive the longer you race, yet it is incredibly common in ultras. That would be my biggest struggle, to have the confidence to run my own race. The race day challenge is to perfectly align your confidence with the race environment, which would include fitness, fatigue level, weather, and the course.

  11. Michael Smith

    Very thought provoking. I am not an ultra runner (yet) so I have no idea if I've developed or will develop a disposition suited to it. Temperamentally I am a phlegmatic. Will that help or hurt me? I don't know, but I will find out. Anyway, this article will make good food for thought on my next long run.

  12. James Brennan

    I think Ben's points highlight some themes AJW is alluding to in his opening. Contrasting marathoners versus ultramarathoners and ultramarathoners versus triathletes you start to see certain focal points underlying the psychographic. Think about it:

    ultrarunners would rather focus on one sport to train on versus two or three;

    ultrarunners would prefer to push themselves beyond average distances to see what the body is physically capable of;

    ultrarunners tend to tweak nutrition, race management, pacing, through a constant series of trial and error.

    Many of these personality traits: the controlling tweaker, the OCD hyper-focus, the overachiever…thats why you see so many of the same career types in ultrarunning over and over…engineers, military, business owners, self-employed.

    Someone needs to make What Color is Your Parachute for Hobbies…I wish I could have found this sport at 20 instead of 30.

  13. Marco Denson

    This article reminds me of a class I took in college. The teacher asked everyone if they were either type A or type B personality. Well, 99% of the class said they were type A. I guess it wasn't cool to be type B. I was the one percent that told the teacher it was all bullshit. I didn't believe in a cookie cutter theory.

    After reading the comments I think that most people want to identify with the phlegmatic type. No one wants to admit that they are melancholic or sanguine. I think that we can be a little of everything or one or the other at times depending on the situation. Personally I always go out way faster than my pace, then later I realize the situation i got myself into an adjust accordingly. I've hit the low moments in a 100 miler when I question my sanity and sitting down at an aid station becomes very, very tempting. your mind starts to find reasons why you should quit. Those are the moments when I assess my situation objectively and make a decision to continue or DNF. I've had halucinations, dizziness, and brown looking pee when I knew it was time to quit. And I've had the great days when I finish great and sit down and have an IPA with friends at the finish. Does that make me a Type A or B or a melancholic or phlegmatic. I really don't think knowing that makes any difference. By the way I brew my own beer from time to time and I make a mean and hoppy "Mad Dog IPA".

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