Mackenzie L. Havey on how to achieve 'perfection'

Her latest book 'The Perfect Run' explores how we can experience flow and transcendence

“Indeed, your life experiences are largely shaped by how you allocate your attention. Very different realities emerge depending on whether the direction of your attention is intentional and focused, or more scattered and random.”

— Mackenzie L. Havey, The Perfect Run

In the opening chapters of her latest book, author Mackenzie L. Havey shares with us the story of Markus Torgeby, who set off at age 20 on a Thoreau-like journey to live in the woods in the northernmost reaches of his native Sweden.

Tapped early on as an athlete with tremendous potential, Torgeby became a track star where he grew up on Öckerö, an island off Sweden’s western coast. At first, running competitively provided him a refuge of the stress of caring for his mother, who battled multiple sclerosis for years.

But over time, competition became a pressure-cooker of its own, leading him to over-train and eventually to burn out on running. So he decided to make a change; he bought a one-way train ticket and used it to travel as far north as he could go, eventually finding a space in the woods where he built a shelter to live in — for the next four years.

“I disappeared into myself, the world outside vanished,” Torgeby wrote in his 2018 book about the experience, titled simply The Runner. And there, he started running again, reclaiming the joy he once felt in putting one foot in front of the other. Only now, he was doing it dozens of miles from the nearest human.

What he found was that, as a teenager, he had turned something he loved and was passionate about into something he no longer did, because he turned into drudgery. But it didn’t have to remain that — if he could reclaim the right mindset, he could turn it into something else again, something less serious and more spontaneous:

“I start to run across the marsh that angles downward from the summit. I run fast on the downhill slope, increasing my speed until I lose control, fall over and slide on my stomach over the muddy grass and am soaked to the skin. I get up, carry on running and laugh aloud to myself. I’m feeling a bit crazy. Am I losing it? I don’t give a damn. I lose control again and slip down into a muddy hollow. This is life. I’m completely consumed by nature.”

If I could sum up what I’m learning from Havey’s wonderful new book, Torgeby hits on it right there — when we combine something that challenges us with play, we can experience magic.

So, what is ‘perfection’ anyway?

The book’s title, and many of its early pages, are dedicated to expanding what Havey says isn’t something only elite runners can achieve, but is within reach for all of us: perfection.

But what does she mean by that? (Because I gotta tell you, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt perfect at anything!)

What I think she means is the kind of bliss you experience when everything clicks on a run — you’re feeling strong, like you can do anything, that the world has melted away, even if for just a brief moment. Psychologists would call it “flow,” and Havey quotes ultrarunner Michael Wardian describing it this way:

“I would describe it as an effortless kinetic sensory experience unaffected by time, gravity and circumstance. When I reach this state on a run I feel empowered, full, complete, confident, and each step is effortless. I am smooth, fluid, my mind clears, and I know this is what I am meant to do. I feel content, at home, and fulfilled. I am not cold, or hot or tired, or hungry or amped. I just am. Some might think this is Zen-like, but I just feel bliss.”

Running can be a ‘training ground for perfection’

I want to emphasize that inside, I still pause for a moment when Havey writes that we can achieve perfection. (Maybe it’s from a childhood spent going to southern Baptist churches when we’d visit my grandparents growing up 😃 ) I still have a hard time feeling that we’re perfectable.

But I don’t think that’s what Havey is getting at. Rather, she is saying we can experience moments of perfection — whether they last only a few seconds, or an entire run. And that they don’t have to be accidental. We can practice approaching them, and train our minds to welcome them in more often.

Havey emphasizes treating running as a kind of meditation, during which you can free your mind from judgement and just be. At the same time, she adds, we can approach running as a form of strenuous play — in which we challenge ourselves with something difficult, but not so difficult that we feel like we’re climbing Everest every time we do it.

Competition is great (until it’s not)

The finest line to walk, she suggests, is one of the biggest temptations we have — treating running as a competitive activity only. Our world gives us abundant incentives to do this, of course, by treating anything athletic as a competition.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! Havey adds, as long as we don’t take it too far:

“Keep in mind that if your stress and anxiety is related to running itself, you should step back and reevaluate your running goals and training as a whole. While a calculated amount of stress — say, the nerves associated with taking on a big goal — might help nurture flow, too much stress inhibits it. In fact, several researchers have noted that an overly competitive environment or mindset is a sure way to kill the chances of reaching this state of mind. This is largely because competition can involve self-judgement and endless evaluation, distracting from the simple rhythm of running.”

When you find yourself evaluating your running too harshly, she says, it’s time to re-think it “If you’re feeling the weight of internal or external pressures and expectations, finding joy and equanimity in your running life will prove difficult... let this be the first nudge to reexamine the course of your training if it’s causing stress in your life.”

We’ll explore this more

I’m fascinated by Havey’s book, because it brings together so much of what I think we’re all after in running and life — we’re trying to become better versions of ourselves, and find some peace out there on the roads and trails.

I’ve really only scratched the surface of it here, but I would love to gauge your interest because I could ramble on for thousands of words! Interested in learning more? Let me know, and we’ll dig deeper into it next week.

As always, have a wonderful Sunday run out there, and a great rest of your day ☀️

Your friend,

— Terrell

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Great running reads

Motivation Flagging? Running’s Evolutionary Biologist Explains Why That’s Normal. When David Lieberman traveled to remote villages in Kenya as part of his field research for his latest book Exercised, he noticed that he was the only one who got up in the morning to “exercise.” No one else there needed it — because they, like our ancestors have for millennia before the 20th and 21st centuries, got exercise in the course of their ordinary, day-to-day lives. Our minds, he says, “never evolved to get us moving unless it is necessary, pleasurable, or otherwise rewarding.”

“Plunk us down in a postindustrial world, and we struggle to replace physical activity with exercise—an optional and often disagreeable behavior.”

Why Running Outdoors in Winter is a Killer Strategy. While it’s tempting to get your winter runs done inside on a treadmill — guilty as charged right here 🙋‍♂️ — cold-weather runs offer a better workout overall, that will help you run faster and longer when springtime arrives.

“Running in cold weather acts like strength training for the lungs.”

Will Major Marathons Actually Come Back This Fall? At first, I wasn’t prepared to accept the scale of the coronavirus pandemic last year. “Sure, races will be able to be run in the fall,” I thought to myself. (Naively, it turns out.) Now, I find myself wondering if we’ll ever get to experience big running events ever again. Maybe my optimism then, and my pessimism more lately, are both unwarranted.

“It may sound blithe to admit that one of the reasons I am rooting for the end of worldwide catastrophe is that I will get to resume a recreational indulgence, but I’m hopeful that the return of road races will have a restorative effect on our collective psyche.”

A Norwegian Runner Set a World Record for the Fastest Half Marathon (Barefoot!) in the Snow. All I have to say is… holy sh*tballs I can’t believe someone actually did this! Jonas Felde Sevaldrud — who documented his feat on YouTube here — says he was inspired by Christopher McDougall’s famous 2009 book on barefoot runners, Born to Run.

“Right now, my feet don’t feel so cold... Maybe they are so cold that they’re just numb.”

The Women Who Secretly Run Marathons in Afghanistan. Running should be simple for all of us. For most people, you just put on your shoes and go. For Martin Parnell, a Guinness-world-record-holding endurance runner, that simple truth flew in the face of what he learned about a woman named Zainab, a woman living in Afghanistan who ran in defiance of local customs. So he decided to travel there and run with her, and make this documentary film, which has been in the works for years but saw its first release at the end of January.

“What got to me is these [Afghan] women can't just lace up their shoes to run like I can. When they run, people call them names, call them prostitutes, throw rocks and they even receive threats from terrorist organizations.”

This week’s training schedule

If you’re following our 16-week half marathon training schedule, we’re bumping up our mileage this week — 22 (or 23) miles, vs. 20 last week. How’s the training going for you?

  • Sunday, Feb. 7 (today) — 3 miles

  • Tuesday, Feb. 9 — 5 miles

  • Thursday, Feb. 11 — 5 miles

  • Saturday, Feb. 13 — 7 miles

  • Sunday, Feb. 14 — 2-3 miles

A nature break

We had (a little) snow where I live just outside Atlanta overnight, which makes me envy all the more photos and videos of winter wonderlands like these:

Words to run by

“Caged birds accept each other, but flight is what they long for.”

— Tennessee Williams