Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Orb

John L. Parker first coined the the term "Orb" in reference to the little ball of energy floating inside our heads before races in his classic, Once a Runner. The Orb needs to be handled very carefully. It is nuclear; while it carries enough power to propel us to tremendous feats, a small leak will poison us almost imperceptibly at first and a major breach will cause the all too familiar explosion we have seen when the favorite limps home in last place. When this happens, coach, athlete and teammates reevaluate training, diet, and a plethora of other factors without examining the health of the orb.

Parker's genius is that he never really describes the orb. He references it. If you have not had an orb experience, you will have a lot of gaps to fill in. If you know the orb, his keywords are all you need. I'm not sure how to explain the orb to non runners. I can get close. All of the adrenaline and mental energy that bring some people to tears, that basically quantify a panic attack, can be harnessed for strength, for power, for speed. It needs to be caged somewhere inside you, your head, your heart, your soul until it's time to break it open and unleash its power. Earlier in the book Parker speaks of demons - which are basically the reasons we choose to do a sport as counter-intuitive as running - and these demons are what we keep inside the orb until the time is right. Like all demons, if not properly caged, they cause all sorts of damage. They will eat you up from within. That's about as close as I can get. If you have been there, you see it, if not, you probably think you do but no, that's not it. 

One of the most sure fire ways to spot someone who has no idea what the orb is or how to use it is to see someone too overtly going through the motions of the psych-up. Ayn Rand once wrote, "Those who speak of love most promiscuously are the ones who've never felt it. " The same is true with the orb and undoubtedly most powerful emotions that take a bizarre combination of passion and patience. I have found that what most people call love is a weak combination of impulses and that is exactly what I see with the orb. The orb is not frenetic, chaotic, false confidence. The more conspicuous the intensity of the person, the less I fear them as a competitor and the more I fear for them as a coach. As the saying goes,  "it's always the quiet ones."

I mentioned before that I felt running as a sport was counter-intuitive. To be more specific, I consider it unnatural. Our bodies are built with a flight or fight response. Running brings two contradictions to our nature. First of all, the response is fight or flight. Not just flight. Always choosing to run is far more socially acceptable but not natural. Furthermore, the flight response is not meant to be trained. As runners, we need to be prepared on race day so we hammer out long runs, tempo runs, intervals and sprints but training is not natural, even if it is effective. From the standpoint of the central nervous system, the more intensely we train, the more we "cry wolf" and the less of a chance we will have our orb prepared on race day. We need to keep this in mind as we train. Physiology doesn't stop with the heart and lungs and muscles. The central nervous system, which controls our mental and emotional health, is itself a physiological process and perhaps the most important one. A healthy CNS is necessary to having a healthy, productive orb.

So how do they do it? What is the secret of the 'big meet performers?" Why do some runners just seem to always be ready on race day? They have mastered the orb. They have perspective. Energy is energy. We can make it positive or negative. We can let it drain us or power us. Energy is neutral. We decide how it affects us. Those who understand the orb understand how to control energy. Nerves, adrenaline, butterflies, whatever you call it. It's all the same source. The trick is to keep it neutral for as long as possible. You can acknowledge it but don't try to tap it until 1) you understand how to use it and 2) it's time. Understanding it is important because it's better to be completely indifferent than to let nerves eat away at you. I learned this from public speaking. I have found the best way to approach a speech is to act like I'm not giving it for as long as possible, even while I'm giving the speech. I don't need energy to speak though so option number two is to use the energy when the time is right when I race. By allowing yourself to feel the nerves, the butterflies, the adrenaline and then smile, and knowing that they are power, and just letting them sit in a special room inside you until the gun sounds, you will have that power during the race.

To just beat cliches to death in this piece, with great power comes great responsibility. If you have properly channeled your energy and gotten the most out of your orb, the first portion of your race will feel way too easy. Here come those demons back to haunt you again. The effort of a five minute mile in training will give you a 4:50 in a race. You need to be disciplined enough to reign those demons in and run that five flat and not use the power of your orb in the first half of your race. You need to know your pace, to run it, and then when the pain sets in, when the faces of your competitors take on that worried expression shortly before it's a full blown grimace, that's when you let the demons loose. Now is when you need the effort to keep steady at five minute miles, or whatever. Now the orb is giving you the stored energy. Before the race it would have been a meltdown if you had opened it up. At the start you would have been just another random body up front before the real racing started. But once everyone else has played their aces, the real runners take over. They are just starting to break their orbs. They have that same confusing blend of focused indifference to their countenance that they had before the race. First or last, world champion or running for the last varsity spot, you want to be that runner. 

Focused indifference. Think about that. Obviously you cannot be indifferent towards your race if you want to do well but you need to copy as many facets of indifference as possible to keep your CNS healthy and strong. You need to care about doing well but not care about what it's going to take to meet your goals. Caring about what it will take will not help you. You need to be prepared for it and then dismiss it. The focus is what keeps you ready to go, the indifference protects you. It is a quiet intensity you master. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer." On the starting line, everyone is a champion. Everyone is about to run the best race of their lives.  At that moment, all runners are equal. In Emerson's proverbial five minutes, that is when the heroes come out. That is when champions are identified. Who is brave, who is tough, who is focused, who is intense at the halfway mark?

While I didn't appreciate the modern day movie, when I look back at the 1970s series "The Incredible Hulk" I think of the orb. I think of that ordinary guy who just needs the right catalyst to become a seven foot, two hundred fifty pound, raging ball of insanity. The scientist who became the hulk always tried to find the formula that would allow him to control that catalyst. When I have watched some of my favorite runners make their move, I see the marriage of the two. I see the intelligent, mild mannered, stoic facade while their eyes are ferocious representations of what their legs are about to do. Where is the orb? I don't know but wherever it is it is reflected in those eyes.

I once stood on the side of a cross country course with an opposing coach speaking of how I hadn't seen that look since the previous season in the eyes of one of the girls I coached. As the lead pack passed through the first mile, I looked at her, then looked him and said, "That's the look, sorry coach, race is over." He laughed at me indignantly and said there was no way I could call the race at the mile based on her "look." Two miles later she came flying down the hill about fifty yards up on his girl.  That's the orb. I've seen people with that look lose, too. But they lost by a few yards to guys they were supposed to lose to by hundreds of yards.  

The Orb! It's Pandora's Box, the Forbidden Fruit, the Wings of Icarus. It is every majestic, powerful, dangerous, apocalyptic myth we have. Control it and you are as close to immortal as you will ever be. One false move, of disrespect, of conceit, of bravado, and you are banished from the garden and melted by the sun. Or at least it will feel that way.

1 comment:

  1. You managed to reference Rand and Parker in the same running blog. Awesome!