It’s So Hard When Contemplated In Advance And So Easy When You Do It

I heard this phrase at about 75 minutes into my run this morning.  It’s from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book I’ve read a half dozen times over the years.  I decided to listen to it on my iPhone while training for an upcoming marathon, just to see what different things I’d pick up from listening to it read to me rather than reading it myself.

The actual paragraph is in the middle of Chapter 11 as the narrator is discussing Phaedrus’ lateral drift.  He shifts back to the present time and talks with some trepidation about heading up over mountain beyond Red Lodge. 

‘We walk past ski shops into a restaurant where we see on the walls huge photographs of the route we will take up.  And up and up, over one of the highest paved roads in the world.  I feel some anxiety about this, which I realize is irrational and try to get rid of by talking about the road to the others.  There’s no way to fall off.  No danger to the motorcycle.  Just a memory of places where you could throw a stone and it would drop thousands of feet before coming to rest and somehow associating that stone with the cycle and rider.”

They finish their coffee and, after puttering around, get going.

“The asphalt of the road is much wider and safer than it occurred in memory.  On a cycle you have all sorts of extra room.  John and Sylvia take the hairpin turns up ahead and then come back above us, facing us, and have smiles.  Soon we take the turn and see their backs again.  Then another turn for them and we meet them again, laughing.  It’s so hard when contemplated in advance, and so easy when you do it.”

At 75 minutes into my run, I was in a very happy groove.  This was not the case 76 minutes earlier, nor was it the case 24 hours earlier.  On Sunday, I had planned to do a 135 minute run.  This is a medium long run for me (a really long run is 180 minutes) but nonetheless generated some pre-run anxiety.  I’d had a busy week, travelled home on Saturday afternoon from Seattle, and was tired.  I had a few beers on Saturday night which was probably a mistake, went to bed at about 11pm, and mentally prepared to go for my long run on Sunday.  I woke up at about 5:30am to the sound of my condo vents rattling – I’m on the top floor and when the wind blows it’s noisy.  I got up (earlier than I’d planned but I was wide awake).  I did some email, had a cup of coffee, and then went outside to see what it was like.  Cold, windy, gloomy, and dark.  Whatever motivation I had to do my long run immediately vaporized and I convinced myself a better path was to go run on the treadmill at the health club down the block for 135 minutes.  I eventually went to the club, grinded through an hour on the treadmill, and then bailed out of complete and total boredom.

I hadn’t done my run on Saturday (too tired) so I rationalized that my Sunday run was going to be my Saturday run and I’d do my long run early on Monday.  To make this happen, I had to be out the door by 5:15am given some stuff I had to do Monday morning.  I woke up this morning at 4:15am – wide awake – and geared up for my run.  I was exactly the same cold, windy, gloomy, and dark that it was the previous morning.  But this time I just decided to go do it.

About an hour into my run, as I was the shoulder of Highway 36 heading to Lyons after Broadway dead ends into Highway 36, I was totally blissed out.  The wind was probably gusting up to 40 miles per hour, it was pitch black, but there were no people anywhere.  A car would fly by every few minutes, but there were long dark stretches of nothing. 

I heard the line “It’s So Hard When Contemplated In Advance And So Easy When You Do It” at about 75 minutes.  I physically felt the smile break out on my face.  I’ve continued to think about this line all morning long – not just with regard to running, but with regard to everything I do.

  • I first noticed this when making Sculpture and making a mistake. I would spend hours or even days thinking about how to fix it, or should I fix it, or could I fix it. This path seemed to always lead to despair. I've since learned it takes less time to fix something than it does to think about it. It's amazing the tricks our minds can pull on us. Maybe it's best to quit thinking and start being.

  • It's so true, isn't it? Our own minds can absolutely be our worst enemies sometimes.

    I've never heard it put as succinctly as the line you quoted, but it's a good one.

    Good luck with your training!

  • Motivation comes along when we need it most, primarily because that's when we're most open to it & are almost certainly subconsciously seeking it.

  • Richard Forster

    So true Brad….I just wish I could remember to "just do it" more often….

  • Thank you for bringing back memories of the book (which I read 3 times only), the thought… and Red Lodge and that same road which my wife and I traveled many years ago.

  • Thanks! The blogpost is very inspiring. I second Richard Forster's quote above "I just wish I could remember to "just do it" more often…."

  • Patricia

    Thanks for this. I'm in the very early stages of training for my first Half Marathon, which I plan (hope!) to run at the end of May, and have been struggling with the treadmill running (I'm not one to run outdoors in this frozen Canadian north until the roads dry up a bit.). This will help!!! And true of so much of life…

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  • I can't remember the source, but Rahul has a great similar quote: "I've never regretted going on a run, but I have regretted skipping one."

  • That is SO apt for marathon training. When I was training, I'd find myself worrying about the next long run as soon as I finished the previous one. There's no real link between all that worrying and how the long run the following week went, but I insisted on worrying about it.

    The worrying itself becomes an addiction, and I think I took some sort of perverse pleasure in it. And if something came up on Sunday (my long run day) and I was forced to do the long run on Saturday instead, I'd be wrecked. I hadn't WORRIED about running on Saturday, and so it threw everything off.

    Except, there was nothing to throw off.

  • Great post, Brad. I heard an excellent NPR interview with Robert Pirsig a few months ago, but never read the book. I'll have to check it out.

    Anyway, this mantra has gotten me through Ironman triathlons, and is currently helping me get into the world of startups. I couldn't bike 112 miles, but I could bike 3 hours one weekend, then 3.5 the next. I don't know how to build a content management system, but I can build a database. I have no idea how to put together a complex piece of electronics, but I can work an i/o pin on an Arduino.

    In my opinion, the ability to work in a state of confusion is the one of the most important traits successful people seem to have. The courage to take a step before you know where your foot may land. This is really great stuff.

  • John

    I have. "Just do it"

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  • Thanks for sharing Brad. I think we often get caught up in our own axle sometimes and it's better to just do it, learn, and continuously improve. Good luck with the race!

  • Sean Benward

    Good start to my morning reading your post Brad. If this is your first marathon then it will be the most important one of your fife. There are very few accomplishments more gratifying then crossing the 26.2 mile for the first time.

    Oddly enough, just doing it is the easiest of which is the hardest. But sometimes the pre-event self inflicted stress is what actually makes just doing it all the more worth while.

    So go for it!

  • Fantastic! It is a reminder to tackle any problem and learn as I go.
    I've tried to read the book at least 3 times – it has been on my night table for years and is this very moment :).
    I also a ride and fix my own bike. I find the philosophy that comes out of the corners of thought as Persig describes the riding experience very near and dear to my heart.

  • Skip Cusack

    Brad, thanks for picking out a gem from a book that is a perpetual string of them. I first read Zen and the Art while in my twenties, and it knocked me sideways, even though I thought I had comprehended only a fraction of it. I just finished it again, twenty years later. It's the only book I've ever read twice. Crazy is all in the perspective..

  • I keep the following, also from Zen…, taped above my desk. It is probably equally appropriate for marathon training as it is for climbing mountains.

    "Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow."

  • YST

    It's true, doing things helps you build momentum. That's been my experience. Do more, contemplate less, learn to act in face of uncertainty (don't you notice that schools teaches the exact opposite?)

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