Friday, August 29, 2008

"Runner's High": Conquest

"And that's where it stands right now. We have to carry the conquest forward. And carrying it forward is either going to destroy the world or turn it into a paradise--into the paradise it was meant to be under human rule."
We are overcomers. Athletes, I mean. We overcome things. We overcome time and distance and genetics and exhaustion and the ever-present, niggling thought (which comes at us through voices both external and internal): "You can't do this."

We are overcomers.

Here's my question: At what point does overcoming switch to conquest?

The issue is that I've been reading this book. And having read this book, I've begun to look at my life in the context of conquest. Of reclamation. Of forced submission. Because the author argues (in this book) that the drive to conquer is a huge problem for the human race. Humans seem to have this need to force nature to submit. We take oil the earth. We move trees, grasses, animals, hell, even mountains out of the way to make room for our expansion. We spread out farther and farther, extending our reach into the wilds. And the mentality behind this--whether explicit or implicit--is that this world is a battlefield. The earth is trying to resist our expansion, this is our battlefield, and we have to win.

The problem is, if we win we also lose. Because this isn't our battlefield; it's our home. So if we end up conquering the world, we've destroyed our only means of survival.

Or so the author's argument goes. I leave it to you to decide (but I do suggest that you read this book).

What does this have to do with endurance?

Conquest, my friends; conquest. If I decide that I'm going to go on a 10-mile run and my body, at around mile 8, says, "Hell no! Leave me alone! Let's go have ice cream!" and I make it keep going, I've conquered my body, yes?

The problem is, I don't see most endurance athletes fitting into this paradigm. Sure there are a few assholes out there, but for the most part, the endurance athletes I know love life, love the earth, and are remarkably in tune with their bodies, their minds, their spirits, their communities, and their world.

So I'm hesitant to label our endurance training process as conquest; I think it's more a process of overcoming. In fact, I think the two are not at all the same. Because endurance training--difficult as it is--does not treat the body as a battlefield. It treats it as a home. It recognizes that this home is capable of some pretty remarkable things. It is extremely concerned with the health of this home. It is a constant pursuit of making this home better (rather than what we want it to be). It involves overcoming the obstacles, the imperfections, the problems that face the athlete in order to become more whole, more in tune with the body, more naturally healthy. It looks at strengths and weaknesses, uses the one for all its worth and shores up the other. It works in concert with the body, not against it.

But there is a fine line between the concepts I've introduced here, you understand. Can you see how easily the overcoming can turn into a conquest? When you begin to feel your body work against you. When you begin to push beyond the limits of health to eke out a few less seconds, a few more miles. When you feel your body deteriorating, but keep going anyway. When you look in the mirror, say, "This will not do," and vow to be more disciplined so that you may cut part of your body away. When you no longer see your body as a partner--as more than a partner, as a concrete part of yourself.

Well, then you're no longer an overcomer.

You're only a conqueror.


  1. Aren't we overcoming common/modern conception of what is possible? Now that we don't have to go to extraordinary physical lengths to survive, our feats are sometimes viewed as "indulgent" (read: rich snobby kid asking for a pony -- Why? "Because I can"). But in a way the endurance athletes, at least in my opinion, are getting even MORE in touch with Earth/spirituality/their bodies by pushing themselves to ever greater lengths, no?

    I'm going to talk about my particular struggle with the "I can, but do I want to -- and why?" question on my site later this weekend, I think. Your points are very good. :)

  2. Thanks for your comments! It's nice to know somebody understands this whole process of continually asking ourselves, "Is this good for my body? Is this good for my *mind*?" when training.

    Also, I'm definitely thinking about the triathlon thing, especially since...(don't kill me) I decided against running a marathon. I just don't want to run for 3+ hours once a week. I mean, I CAN. We of the short-legged clan can run for daaays (muahaha to the tall folk lol). But I don't really WANT to right now. Plus I think I'm still trying to get over the ED a little bit and won't be able to *not* obsess about the fueling issue enough to do it right now. So, like you and the IM, one day I will marathon. But I don't wanna right now. :)

    Off to bike (stationary...I'm starting SLOW hahaha) after my run. SWAM after my run yesterday. Aren't you proud? :) !!!

    [sorry to spam your post!]

  3. I think we use our bodies to conquer our minds. You can't conquer your body, because it has a breaking point. The body is the weapon, the enemy is the voices you talk about (saying that you can't), or the mirror saying "this won't do", or whatever your demons are.

    Athletes are a "natural" bunch. We're in touch with our inner animal. If conquering means laying claim to something that someone else wants to claim as their own, then I take cues from my kitten. When she wants to "conquer" something, she pees on it. I think this will explain much of my behavior and comments from this summer.

  4. hmmmmm left you a response but in case you dont drop back IM GONNA ISSUE YOU THAT EPIC CHALLENGE :)

  5. Great post. It seems that if we don't push it, we don't improve. Maybe that's less than conquering, but if we don't extend ourselves beyond what's comfortable, we can't expect to improve.

  6. Wow good traction on what could be a very slippery slope. I'm all too familiar with this whole concept - it's tricky for sure to get to the other side in one piece. In the end I think it's much more about accepting who we are rather than conquering, though in the beginning it certainly is more about conquering all those false impressions of self we've created. Fascinating stuff for sure...