Archive for March, 2008

What It Takes: The Agony of Victory

A while back I came across Newsweek‘s Fast Chat with Steve Friedman, author of the book The Agony of Victory.

In the book, Friedman examines “the dark nights of the soul of elite athletes” to shed light on the mental state of athletic champions.

He says that many elite athletes “succeed in their sports because of a yarning hole in their lives. These are people who felt a lack in their lives that only athletics could fill.”

On the other hand, athletes who enjoy their success, “people who seemed perfectly content and happy … tended not to be champions.”

Reading about Friedman’s book reminds me of a conversation I recently had with a buddy of mine. This friend was born and raised in a poor African village. He represented the United States at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and is representing his native African country at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

“The school I attended when I was a little kid was miles from my home and the only way to get there was on foot,” he told me.

“My friends and I — we always ran to school, but we raced to get home.

“During the first few years of primary school, I could keep-up with the older kids, but I could never beat them.

“And there was a girl — an overweight girl! — who always seemed to win. My goal, every day, was to beat her home. But I never could.”Then one day, I ran harder than I ever had previously run. And I got home before she did.

“I was happy I beat her, but I as soon as I stopped running I was doubled-over in pain.

“My stomach hurt — it felt like it was all knotted — and I was coughing-up blood. I had run so hard that I was coughing-up blood!

“I still have that metallic taste of blood in my throat. And now, every time I race, my goal is to run so hard that I cough-up blood again.

“This mindset is how I got to the Olympics. I want to hurt myself when I run.”

The agony of victory, indeed.

Play, think…

J.R. Atwood


March 30, 2008 at 5:22 am 1 comment

The Runner’s High, Part 2


For a little more science to today’s earlier post about the runner’s high, check out “Yes, Running Can Make You High” in the NYT.

Some notes and quotes:

The runner’s high: Every athlete has heard of it, most seem to believe in it and many say they have experienced it. But for years scientists have reserved judgment because no rigorous test confirmed its existence.

Yes, some people reported that they felt so good when they exercised that it was as if they had taken mood-altering drugs. But was that feeling real or just a delusion? And even if it was real, what was the feeling supposed to be, and what caused it?

It turns out, the runner’s high is real — it’s not just in your head. Rather, it is in your head: Exercise increases the number of endorphins that you body produces, which gather in the brain and can lead to substantial mood changes. But it is “not just a New Agey excuse [of athletes] for their claims of feeling good after a hard workout.”

The study, done by neuroscience researchers in Germany and published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, “offers [athletes] a sort of vindication” — we aren’t crazy when we say running makes us feel good! Further:

The results are opening a new chapter in exercise science. They show that it is possible to define and measure the runner’s high and that it should be possible to figure out what brings it on. They even offer hope for those who do not enjoy exercise but do it anyway. These exercisers might learn techniques to elicit a feeling that makes working out positively addictive.

Get your endorphin-on!

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

March 28, 2008 at 5:33 pm Leave a comment

The Runner’s High, Part 1

Runner's High

Scott Dunlap is an inspiration for me in both the world of ultrarunning and blogging. His online journal, A Trail Runner’s Blog, is one of the best on the web — a great source of tips, advice, race reports, and commentary on trail running, ultramarathons, and triathlon. One his most popular entries is “Understanding the Runner’s High.”

Next time someone asks you, “Why do you run so far?,” point them to Scott’s explanation of the runner’s high, a state of relaxation, euphoria, pain cessation, and optimism.

If your inquiring friend doesn’t get it, tell them, in Scott’s layman’s terms, that it is like “two Red Bulls and vodka, three ibuprofen, plus a $50 winning Lotto ticket in your pocket… Or like smoking pot!”

Pass on the grass and hit the trails!

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

March 28, 2008 at 5:17 pm 1 comment


Spark is the name of a new book by John Ratey that explains, in part, how exercise helps to alleviate stress and improve mood.

Another book extolling the virtues of exercise? Ugh! It’s like reading a book that says eating a balanced, healthy diet will improve your health. Yeah, we know — exercise is good!

That’s exactly what I thought. But the subtitle intrigued me: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. Hmmm…

And John Ratey (the author — if you forgot, you might want to lace up those running shoes; exercise helps to improve memory) is a clinical associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and the author of multiple books about the brain.

So I picked-up a copy and have been unable to put it down since. It is nothing short of a wonderful — and accessible — chronicle about the science of, and relationships among, exercise, fitness, neurogenesis, cognitive functioning, and general health and happiness.

I will be sharing some the stories and data from Spark in future posts, no doubt, and kick-off this little new blog with the opening quote of the book:

In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these means, man can attain perfection. —Plato

Let’s collapse the distinction between mind and body.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

March 27, 2008 at 1:59 am 3 comments

Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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