EUGENE, Ore. – In elementary school, I used to meet my two best friends at the same tree every recess. For six wonderful years we would sit in class and stare at the large analog clock on the wall, chewing our pencils, waiting for the faithful recess bell to ring. And when it did we ran straight to our tree, no need to coordinate in advance — we always knew where we would find each other. It was like we were reporting to practice. Friend practice. There was something incredibly dependable and comforting about it.
I didn’t really think about the tree again until college, when my teammate Abbey and I read a book called Willpower by Roy Baumeister. The idea in the book is this: our ability to make choices and do things is governed by our willpower, and willpower is a finite resource. When our willpower is depleted, we are less likely to be disciplined about the choices we make.
Abbey and I read about how we actually make thousands of choices every day, and each of those choices uses up some portion of our willpower. The little decisions – when to wake up, what to eat, coffee or tea, when to leave the house – are just as depleting to our willpower as the bigger decisions. Should I study for that test? Can I finish this workout? Since our willpower is limited, we need to be conscious of what decisions we’re allowing to use up our daily willpower supply.
That’s when I realized why my elementary school friendship tree was so important.
Elementary school was hard enough. Managing the social dynamics of the classroom and growing into a body I didn’t understand, navigating the ins and outs of “innie and outie” belly buttons and unibrows was tough, and to have our tree every recess was a much-needed break. We didn’t have to worry about who to play with; we just showed up and reported for duty.
The concept of willpower conservation came up again for me this past January, when I had the privilege of training at altitude with the Mammoth Track Club in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. Mammoth is home to many of my role models in the sport, including Deena Kastor, the American record-holder in the marathon at 2 hours, 19 minutes, 36 seconds. When I got to Mammoth, a new challenge awaited me: I had never done an extended altitude training stint before, and I was anxious to be folding in with a group of world-class marathoners.
I woke up every morning feeling butterflies in a good but nervous way for our day’s run or workout. To be honest, these were all new people and most of them were training for a much longer distance that I had ever raced. On any given day, I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to do what they could do. But every morning, I did know where to be and when. We all did. I was not only welcomed into Mammoth team practices for a month, I was also welcomed into their team routine.
We would meet every morning at Mammoth Creek Park, just after Coach Andrew Kastor and Deena dropped off their daughter at school. At precisely 8:05 a.m., we’d all gather into the team van and drive to whatever adventureland Coach Kastor had in mind for the day.
I thought about my tree again, and about the lessons that Abbey and I learned from Baumeister’s book. Though having a team practice start time was not new to me (we meet for practice in Eugene, too), being transplanted into a new training environment showed me just how important a fixed daily routine is to maximizing our training.
Then, after my first few days in Mammoth, I realized I could take it one step further—maybe there were things I could do in my personal life to conserve my willpower even more.
So, I began willpower budgeting.
I would lay out my clothes, pack my day bag, and set up my coffee pot the night before. Every little decision that I could make for myself ahead of time would leave me more willpower to dedicate to practice the next morning. Slowly, the challenge of keeping up with the workouts was supported by all of these things.
There is so much noise to navigate as a grown-up runner: where to meet, when to meet, who to run with? I felt a tremendous gift in Mammoth, because Coach Kastor created a space that took out most of the unknowns. But there are also unknowns that I had to take care of on my own – the little things – so that when I woke up in the morning, I could relax and focus solely on the run ahead.
What I discovered is that freeing up willpower allows for the joy of the sport to shine through. I began to feel grateful instead of nervous, and this was the biggest gift I got from my time in Mammoth.
Sure, the run was going to be hard. It was going to be at 8,000 feet, it was going to be windy, and it was going to be 10 miles … but it was my entire task. The more space I created in my mind for the task of running, the more deeply I could delve into that task and I ran better and with greater intention.
With a fresh mind, I felt like I had more energy to focus on enjoying the runs and workouts. I found myself engaging my running companions in conversation, sharing and enjoying stories of the running and non-running variety – rather than being stuck in my own head and focusing only on huffing and puffing my way up the next hill. Practice should be and was the best part of my day.
And, I returned to my home training base in Eugene a better runner for it. On Jan. 31, I won the 3,000 meters at the University of Washington Invitational with a personal best of 9:02.
Managing willpower is all about being present in the task at hand. For me, that task is running – but it can be anything. By cutting through the noise and deciding what decisions we’ll allow ourselves to make, we enable ourselves to focus on the present moment and enjoy the trees coming into view ahead.
Alexi is an avid tweeter and her thoughts can be found @alexipappas.
Alexi Pappas graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College before running off to compete in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene. Alexi then joined the Ducks as a University of Oregon fifth-year student, helping lead the team to two NCAA championships in 2012 and 2013. She currently runs professionally for the Nike-sponsored Oregon Track Club Elite in Eugene, Oregon, with her eyes on 2016.
Alexi is also a writer, filmmaker, and actress. She co-wrote the script for the award-winning feature film Tall as the Baobab Tree, and is currently in post-production on her second film,Tracktown. Alexi was a Top 9 Nominee for the 2012 NCAA Woman of the Year Award, and is also a graduate of the UCB Theater improv program in LA/New York City.