The Essence of a Hurdler

“There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we’ve discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep cleaning the mirror.” –John Coltrane

Hurdlers are a different breed. We’re weird in our own way. But our weirdness isn’t so obvious. We’re not like pole vaulters holding onto a fiberglass pole as we propel our bodies up and over a bar that’s way above our heads, hoping to land on a mat that will cushion our fall. Nor are we like marathon runners who actually choose to participate in a race that is longer than a drive from one side of town to the other. And even though we are commonly grouped with sprinters, we’re really nothing like them either. Sprinters are showmen, sprinters have swagger. Sprinters spend as much time talking about how they’re gonna whoop everybody’s ass as they do whoopin’ everybody’s ass.

Hurdlers are more cerebral. We tend to live in our heads. We think. We analyze. We over-think. We over-analyze. But what’s most weird about us is the fact that, despite all the groin strains, hamstring strains, shin splints, swollen ankles from hitting hurdles, swollen knees from hitting hurdles, frustrations with never being able to get the rhythm right, aggravations with never being able to get the technique right, despair over never being able to put together a fast, clean race from start to finish – despite all of that, we still love to hurdle. And every time we tell ourselves we’re done with hurdling for good, we end up coming back. That’s weird.

So why do we keep coming back?

There’s something about the hurdles, and I don’t know what it is. I just know that those who feel it feel it, and those who don’t don’t. If you feel it, you’re a hurdler. You were a hurdler before you even knew you were a hurdler, before you ever ran over a hurdle, before you ever even saw a hurdle. It’s something in you. Something in you that responds to that feeling. Something in your body, that resonates in your soul.

Hurdlers want to hurdle. All the time. Here in North Carolina where I live, we’ve had a steady dose of cold weather the past week or so, with high temperatures barely reaching 40 degrees. Which meant it was well below 40 by the time my athletes got out to the track for practice at four o’clock. One day earlier this week, when it was particularly cold and windy, I was planning on giving the kids the day off. For my own sake more than theirs, because I didn’t feel like standing out there in the freezing cold for an hour-plus. But one of my hurdlers came by my office during the day and asked, “Hey coach, we having practice today?” I looked at her, ready to say no, expecting that she’d be hoping I’d say no, but the look in her eyes told me she was hoping I’d say yes. She wanted to hurdle. Today was hurdle day. We always hurdle on Tuesdays. “It’s too cold to do anything full speed,” I said, “but we can do some drills.”

“Yes!” she exclaimed, and skipped out into the hallway.

***

When hurdlers of mine move on to compete at the collegiate level, one thing I always tell them is, “Don’t lose your joy.” And nothing saddens me more than when they do. When hurdling becomes a chore, a job, a grind, that’s a tragic thing. When that happens, a death occurs. Something vital, something essential inside of you dies. I don’t care if you go on to become an Olympic champion. If you win the gold medal and lose your joy, then you’re living a lie. You’re living a pathetic life, regardless of how successful you may appear to be on the outside. Joy comes from being, not from doing. It comes from being a hurdler, not from winning races.

I was talking with my students in my English classes the other day about this difference between being and doing. About how the world judges us on what we do – on what we accomplish, on what we achieve, but how the essence of a person can only be found beneath all of that, in who that person is, before he or she has done anything. There are very few people who have ever lived authentically in that sense – in the sense that who they were and what they did were one and the same. I showed my students an 8-minute clip of a 20-minute video featuring jazz saxophonist John Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things” at a concert in Europe in 1965. For the entire eight minutes, Coltrane is blowing his horn like there’s no tomorrow. He’s in the zone to the point where the audience might as well not even be there. He has a telepathic link with his bandmates, as they feed off his energy, feed him more energy, and push forward with him as together they fly further and further into the great unknown. When the clip ended I told my students, “I showed you that clip because I wanted to give you a picture of what it looks like when somebody puts everything they are into what they do.”

Coltrane was a fire. He burned. He didn’t compromise. He didn’t settle. He could’ve become a very commercially successful artist. He could’ve played a lot of cool-jazz type stuff and made boatloads of money. He was highly criticized by many “experts” for playing the way he did. But he kept moving forward. And every time he picked up that horn to play, he played with intensity, with ferocity, with all the love he had in his soul. He played with joy. When you were watching him play the saxophone, you were seeinghim, the man, his essence. Who he was and what he was doing were one and the same.

The feeling that I had when watching that Coltrane video was the same feeling I had when I first saw Renaldo Nehemiah’s 12.93 race in 1981. I couldn’t articulate it then because I was only 15 years old. All I could say was “Wow…,” but something within me had been stirred. A sense of awe. A sense of wonder. I wanted to know how he did that. I wanted to know how it felt to do that. I didn’t know much of anything about track at the time, except that it was something fun to do in the spring after basketball season, and that it was the coolest sport to watch in the Olympics every four years. But watching this race, watching this hurdler … I wanted to learn how to run the hurdles.

Years later, when I interviewed Nehemiah for an article I was writing on him for this website, he talked about the importance of being “one with the hurdle,” of not backing off, of embracing the danger zone, of how hurdling at high speeds was both terrifying and thrilling at the same time. That’s when I understood what made him so great. For years I’d heard people talk about what a gifted athlete he was, how he could have excelled in any sprinting or hurdling or jumping event. I’d heard people say that, from a purely technical standpoint, there were plenty of hurdlers who hurdled better than him. But all of that was just talk. The truth was, Nehemiah’s greatness had to do with who he was as a man. Nehemiah the man and Nehemiah the hurdler were one and the same. When you were watching him hurdle, you were watching him. That’s why watching him hurdle was so awe-inspiring. It had nothing to do with the times he ran, with the records he broke, with the opponents he defeated, even though all of that stuff was enormously impressive. But think about it, since his heyday, there have been hurdlers who have run faster times than him, who were/are more technically proficient than him. But no one has inspired the awe, the wonder, that he inspired.

***

Not every hurdler can run over hurdles like Renaldo Nehemiah. Not every hurdler can run 12.93. But every hurdler can run like Renaldo Nehemiah.  Every hurdler can learn to be one with the hurdle, can learn to enter the danger zone fearlessly, can learn to purely express who he or she is as a person through the medium of hurdling. And really, that’s all that matters. If you hurdle for any reason besides that, then you’re not really a hurdler. You might as well not even put your spikes on.

Look at it this way. Doing is finite. Whether your hurdling career ends at age 15, 25, 35, 45, 55, 65, 75, or 85, there’s going to come a time when your body can’t take the physical demands required to train and compete.  There’s gonna come a time when you can’t even step over a hurdle. There’s gonna be a time when you come to realize that if your identity as a hurdler depends upon your ability to run over hurdles, then your identity as a hurdler will cease to be. When being relies on doing, then being will die with doing. When you can’t hurdle anymore, you’re no longer a hurdler.

But here’s the deal. Being comes before doing. You are who you are before you do what we do. As I said earlier, you were a hurdler before you ever ran over a hurdle. Just like Coltrane was a saxophonist before he ever blew into a horn. Just like Van Gogh was a painter before he ever picked up a brush. Just like Prefontaine was a runner before he ever laced up a pair of training shoes. So yes, there will come a time when you can no longer run the hurdles. But there will never be a time when you are no longer a hurdler. Being a hurdler lies within you. You decided at one point to run the hurdles, but you never decided to be a hurdler. It just happened. When you fall in love with the rhythm, with the dance, with the way it makes you feel, no decision is being made. It’s totally irrational, totally illogical. And that’s the beauty of it.

And that’s where the universal element lies. That’s where hurdling plugs you in to the whole of humanity. Not in the doing, but in the being. Not in running the hurdles, but in being a hurdler. The basketball player whose injuries prevent him from playing basketball is still a basketball player. The pianist whose arthritic fingers prevent him from playing piano is still a pianist. The singer whose throat cancer prevents her from singing is still a singer. When you understand who you are as a hurdler, you understand who everyone is from their perspective. That’s the level on which we as human beings are connected, that’s the level on which we can see ourselves in the other.

***

Live in the moment. That’s a platitude that you hear so often that you don’t even know what it means. It means love what you’re doing while you’re doing it. During this drill, put all of yourself into this drill. During this workout, put all of yourself into this workout. During this rep, put all of yourself into this rep. Have joy in your heart. Love the fact that you’re alive and healthy enough to be out here training. Don’t be mentally preoccupied with concerns over past failures, with hopes of future successes or fear of future failures, even if you have a meet the next day.

Have fun when you run. “Fun” doesn’t mean a lesser effort, a lesser emotional investment, a lesser physical exertion. Fun is intense. It is the purest of intensities. And I’m not just talking about Coltrane or Nehemiah when I say that. When you see kids playing in the recess yard, the expressions on their faces are serious. Whether it’s touch football, frisbee, kickball, whatever. The choice of game doesn’t matter. It’s the play itself that matters. You never see kids in the recess yard half-assing it. That’s not because they’re dedicated or committed. It’s because they love to play. The play serves as an escape from the drudgery of the classroom, an entrance into a world that is invigorating and unpredictable and spontaneous and fulfilling to all levels of being – body mind and spirit. And it’s natural.

We tend to think we have to choose between one extreme or the other. Either give all you have and sacrifice all pleasures and happiness in the pursuit of excellence, or just have fun, do the best you can, and whatever happens happens. The former attitude leads to obsessive competitiveness. When the end result is the only validation for all the hard work, then it becomes absolutely necessary that the end result be achieved. Otherwise, all the hard work is wasted. The latter attitude is a coward’s way out, one of “So what if I lose? It doesn’t matter anyway. At least I can say I tried.”

What I’m saying is, you don’t have to pick one or the other. You can give total effort without becoming obsessive. You can give total effort without being attached to results. You can give total effort without sacrificing peace of mind. This is what Taoists refer to as Wu Wei, or effortless effort, or pure action. Pure action means you give total effort out of pure love of the activity itself. If you love to hurdle, then total effort will come out of you, without any effort.

My point is, you can love what you do and put all of yourself into what you do. Even further, you can only put all of yourself into what you do if you love what you do. Tension, ambition, goal-seeking, always inhibits the natural flow of the body.

***

I’ll close with this: As I’ve mentioned in a couple other articles on this site, when I was seventeen years old, I was diagnosed with a rare blood disease called aplastic anemia. I spent three weeks in the hospital receiving a treatment that was very experimental at the time. I had only been hurdling for two years, but I loved it. There was a very good chance I would not survive the disease. I had no compatible donors for a bone marrow transplant, and this experimental treatment had less than a 50/50 success rate. So for all intents and purposes, that hospital bed I was lying in was likely going to be my deathbed.

And in the many hours that I spent alone in that bed, all I could think about was the possibility that I might never hurdle again. No more 1-2-3 lead with the knee. I was lying on my deathbed, yet the thought of never hurdling again struck more fear in me than the thought of dying.

There’s something eternal about that. A love that never dies, that survives the decay of the physical body.

So I say to all you hurdlers out there reading this article, be a fire. Burn. Don’t compromise. Don’t settle. Don’t water yourself down. Let there be no separation between who you are and what you do. Be true to the hurdles, and the hurdles will be true to you. They will reward your spirit, they will reward your essence, in ways that are much more fulfilling, much more enriching, than any records, championships, or medals could ever be.

© 2013 Steve McGill

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