“Don’t ever expect to feel good in a race.”

Daniel Winn

Paavo Nurmi debuted internationally at the Antwerp Olympic 5,000 meter race. Sticking to his usual strategy, he set a fiery pace for the first few laps and lead most of the way before getting outkicked in the final stretch by a Frenchman, Joseph Guillemot. Furious, Nurmi stalked Guillemot for the entire 10,000 meter race and passed him in the final stretch. Determined never to let that happen again, Nurmi bought a stopwatch and from then on ran workouts and races with it clutched in his fist.

He would asses his fitness beforehand, determine what pace to run, then run it. On the final lap he would throw the stopwatch into the infield and sprint with whatever he had left. Nurmi’s tactics won him nine gold medals (and three silver), dozens of world records (at one point holding every world record from the mile to the 10,000m) and literally hundreds of races (he ran undefeated for four years over 121 races).

Armed with his stopwatch and incredible work ethic, Paavo Nurmi systematically laid waste to the record books. His calculating method of attacking each workout, each race revolutionized the running world. In interviews, rarely does he mention how he felt, and rarer still does he wax poetic– he simply states what he did and how he did it.

Runners deal in discomfort. Run too fast for too long and the primeval systems attempt to convince the muscles that surely they must either cease or perish. The runner ignores that and goes as fast as they must for as long as they can.

Once, I ran a series of 400 meter repeats at five in the morning in the New England winter. The first repeat took too long. The second repeat, despite increased effort, took longer. One final repeat, this time with as much energy as I could muster, proved only marginally faster. Rather than flail against an immovable wall, killing myself in a workout that mattered little, courting injury and burnout, I recalibrated my expectations: keep the effort where it is supposed to be, endure a reasonable amount of discomfort, accept the splits as they are, and finish the workout. I ran each repetition robotically, I counted steps, I monitored discomfort, I did not ask myself how I felt. The workout went as well as it could, and two days later I ran a race much faster than the workout indicated.

Poets speak of exhilaration and freedom. The runner understands that reaching one’s potential is boring and painful. It does not make them a better person to be able to endure such boredom and such pain, just a better runner.