The Secret Ingredient of Success in Dressage

Ready, Set…. Hold On!  Full of eagerness and ready to charge for an Olympic medal, American runner Galen Rupp started to make a move with a few laps left in the 10,000 meter race last Saturday. What happened next became one of the most extraordinary moments in these 2012 games. The young Rupp, who nobody considered a serious contender, felt like he had the strength in his legs to open a gap in the tight pack of elite runners and maybe sneak his way into the history books.

Then a beautiful and pivotal exchange happened. British Somali runner Mo Farah, the man absolutely everyone predicted to win and also the runner with whom Rupp shared a coach for the past year, saw the kid getting ready to take off. The more seasoned Farah, current world champion, looked towards his training partner who in this race was now also his rival and told him to wait. Farah recognized that Rupp was about to make a rookie’s error, an eager miscalculation that he could never undo. While moving at speeds defying human ability, he found the oxygen to tell the youngster: be patient.

What Rupp’s relative inexperience prevented him from realizing was that the next few laps around the track in this lung-scorching event did not require more speed or strength or a lead on the other runners. They required a calm steady mind that could wait for the right moment, and this was not it.

So Rupp checked his pace and held steady. A moment later, when the timing was right, he followed Farah in a sprint down the final stretch. Shocking not only himself but every analyst and coach in the sport, Rupp crossed the line in second place right behind the man he owed the race to—Farah. Spectators could feel his surprise and elation. Cameras panned to his splotchy face staring open-mouthed and bug-eyed at the race clock. There was his name in second place! He had done it! He stared, disbelieving. The gangly kid whose biggest hope was to be an also-ran in a marquee event just won an Olympic silver medal.

In the post-race interview, Rupp credited his training partner fully for the outcome. He recalled how Farah saw him gathering his energy and told him not to blow it. Had he not listened, he would have gone ahead and sprinted too early, flamed out, and staggered to a disappointing finish. After all the years of training and sacrifice and planning, the race came down to one exceptional and hard-to-trust element: patience. A calm, steady mind.

For the rest of the day, I thought about that race and how an experienced training partner helped the younger one reach an elation he otherwise would have missed. I reflected how this applies to training horses, especially for dressage, when we are quick to mess things up with eagerness and our hurry to get the next result. When a moment is going well, our human nature is to push harder, work stronger, expect even more. More often than not, this is where we go wrong. We treat dressage education like a buffet line where can quickly sample our way through exercises.

More often than not, we need to recognize when things are good and then sit still and breathe and allow them to unfold as they are meant. Patience. Admittedly, this plan of action does not thrill students. In lessons, many will tackle an exercise quickly and then look up with eyes that say what now? What next? To their disappointment, my reply is often that they need to continue what they are doing. That’s it. Carry on. Both they and their horses need the time to integrate the changes throughout their bodies and balance based on exercises we’re undertaking in that moment. This involves that hard-to-trust element of patience. In order to get to the next step we often needed to wait right where we were.

I have watched numerous young horses’ training get derailed by eagerness and expectation. Especially when a horse demonstrates talent and willingness, our tendency is to adjust the training to a faster timeline. Riders prefer to speed up the necessary years of solidifying basics before getting to more interesting or exciting kinds of riding. Of course, horses and riders then end up with big gaps in their knowledge and physical abilities. Their performance reflects an incomplete education and a noted lack of the harmony dressage for which dressage once aimed.

A trainer of mine used to watch me accomplish something difficult with my horse and then say “now don’t get greedy.” He meant that I shouldn’t just keep pushing my horse to the next challenge and then the next and so on. Usually his advice irked me. If things were good right now, then surely with more effort they could be exceptional five minutes from now, no?

Another trainer would watch me struggling and frustrated. Before I could try to force something to happen, she would tell me, “Many times, it is just a matter of waiting. You’re doing the right thing. Now just wait.” Wait? Wait? It was one of those instructions that always seemed the most senseless in that moment but proved invaluable a few moments down the road. Learning to follow this advice always presents more challenges than mastering the skill or exercise in question.

When I watched young Rupp step aboard the Olympic medal stand, I applauded his ability to listen to good advice. Indeed, he had posted a blazing time in the race but it wasn’t those results that most impressed me. In the right moment, he chose a calm steady mind over more speed. And that made all the difference.


Digging Deep at Boston Marathon 2012

Apparently ten years of living outside New England can bloat even a native’s confidence to handle what Boston marathon might serve up. My own such miscalculation led to 26.2 miles of sheer struggle on April 16, but it also led to a more defining lesson about this race than the news-making heat that day. While my first attempt at the world’s most notorious marathon did not result in a strong performance, it led to the unexpected reminder how much our own deeply personal goals rely on the help and faith of others.

What I had forgotten about the northeast —and what ultimately saved me—was the stubborn resolve of its inhabitants, those feisty and resourceful fans bordering streets from Hopkinton to Boston who absolutely refused to let their famous race fail during what threatened to make history for its misery. Their legendary commitment to this event, the granddaddy of marathons, pulled us to the finish line even after most of us had given up.

By 7am on race day with three hours to start time, temperatures climbed towards 88 degrees and a gloom hung over a makeshift tent village at Hopkinton High School as over 20,000 runners laced up running shoes and nervously eyed the starting line. Loudspeakers repeated warnings about the dangers of running in such heat. Meanwhile, athletes adjusted their goals while sitting under any possible slant of shade, trading the hope of quick miles for a determination to stay out of medical tents. The night before, race officials made an unprecedented move to urge athletes to defer their entries to next year. Those of us stubborn enough to not heed this recommendation would be running at our own risk. Through repeated text messages, web site announcements, and even flashing message boards along the marathon route, officials begged runners to curb their normal paces in what became the slowest running of the famous marathon in 25 years.

Given its status as the only marathon in the world that runners gain entry to by meeting speedy qualifying standards, Boston’s ranks are filled by experienced runners, the types of sinewy long-legged athletes for whom spandex shorts were invented and to whom a 10-mile run counts as an easy day. And even this crowd was getting nervous the closer we nudged towards gun time. Angst built, moods tempered, and I began to feel positively daunted. Granted, I met Boston’s qualifying criteria of running a marathon under 3hours and 40 minutes for my age and gender, which gained me entry into this event, the most fabled among footraces. But it could have been just a fluke. I had only run a single previous marathon. Somehow, I ran it fast enough to end up at Boston. However, a single marathon didn’t exactly qualify me as a veteran, or even a knowledgeable runner for that matter.

Be safe out there, training partners yelled to each other. Get to the finish line safely! In the hour normally reserved for excited anticipation, my energy was fading quickly. Here I was at the race most athletes train and sacrifice years to reach and all I could think about was the reality that even after four months of preparation I may not make it to the end. It hit me how underprepared I was for the strategy involved with running 26.2 miles in unpleasant circumstances: how to avoid stomach cramps and diarrhea, how to hydrate without risking hyponatremia, when and how often to ingest electrolytes.

With the sun intensifying overhead, we inched towards the blue archway of Boston Athletic Association’s starting line in the tiny downtown of Hopkinton. My dread intensified with the realization that I was already feeling hot, tired and dehydrated, and I hadn’t started running yet.

For Boston marathoners, though, this is the part where New England fans take over. In spite of everything I read in magazines, I could never have imagined the miles and miles of spectators who refused to let their race suffer. To hear about Boston fans is one thing; the experience them is another thing entirely. All of the sudden, my past four months of training was not a deciding factor. Now it was the will of these selfless determined strangers that would push me through the long hard miles to the blue finish archway in Boston.

I should clarify that Boston fans don’t just stand and cheer. Instead, they treat this event with the pride and commitment New Englanders affix to any long-standing creation that has achieved such global renown. As we trotted between mile 2 and 3, I saw them stretching garden horses to the ends of their driveways, blasting us with cold water and tossing wet sponges at us. Those garden hoses at homes all along the course relieved me enough to keep trudging ahead. Whenever I began to feel the heat’s withering effects, I looked up to see another house with its hoses and lawn sprinklers aimed to douse us as we struggled past. Briefly revived by this jolt of cold water against my chest, I slogged another mile and then another.

In the village of Natick, moms and children ran into our mob of sweaty runners, shoving ice cubes into our palms and squirting us with hand-held misting devices. After several more church groups, 4-H troupes, and families throwing ice and water and sponges at us, we reached the half-way point at Wellesley College where the heat whittled the number of athletes still able to run. Dozens staggered to a walk or limped over to the shade considering whether or not they could force themselves to the end. The rest of us moved on in what felt less like running than crawling under heat lamps. Seeing us lose our will to finish, spectators cranked up their efforts. A couple wearing matching Red Sox shirts heaved buckets of water at us, while an impromptu rock band on a neighboring lawn amped out motivational lyrics. Others, concerned for our depleting electrolytes leaned in from the sidewalks with fistfuls of salty pretzels, banana slices, oranges.

Being so far behind my normal pace by now, I stopped looking at my watch and focused every second of concentration on not getting sick. My stomach tends to rebel during rigorous athletic exploits and this was no exception. I felt my insides skirting the edge of total revolt. I knew if I tried to move any faster, or if this race went on much longer, I would be in the grip of head-to-toe nausea. Carefully, I jogged along willing my belly to stay calm and my legs to keep working. Save for a major cramp in the right thigh that felt like a gunshot wound, my legs were doing okay.

Keep going! You’re doing awesome, you can make it! they yelled as still more runners staggered to a walk. They pinned their enthusiasm to us as if we were each Olympians in the run of our lives.

On Heartbreak Hill, the last of Newton’s infamous climbs that comes at mile 20 when runners are already suffering, a middle aged man in front of me stumbled to a walk and then stopped abruptly as if he might topple over. Two spectators rushed off the sidewalk to grab him while their friend sponged his forehead and tied an icy bandana around his neck. Within a minute, the stranger started putting one foot in front of the other again. Elated that their efforts paid off, the three helpers walked beside him to the top of the hill chanting “You got this! You got this, keep going!” It looked like they briefly considered jogging the last 6 miles beside him in their flip-flops. “Go, go” they urged him until the man was over the crest and disappeared from sight.

Ahead of us in the elite men’s division, the predicted winner and course record holder Geoffrey Mutai from Kenya pulled out with stomach cramps at mile 18. Over 2,000 runners received medical attention, one hundred of them going local hospitals. A total of 14 percent of entrants never bothered to pick up their registration packets, and several hundred deferred their entries to next year.

Despite how weary or nauseated or plain daunted I felt along the way, the option of quitting became impossible after I witnessed the throngs of resourceful New England spectators doing everything in their power to get me to the finish. They filled me with pride to call myself a native of this hardy corner of the planet. No matter how slowly or painfully I moved, they willed me to find gears I didn’t know I possessed. So while my running time of 3 hours and 54 minutes disappointed me, I felt nothing but relief when finally crossing under that blue finish arch. Turning back to the thousands of screaming spectators along Beacon Street, I said a silent thank you and bowed to the unrivaled greatness that is the Boston Marathon.

Originally published in The Herald of Randolph, July 2012 ~ Download Article – Of Marathons, Memories, and Misery By Jec Aristotle Ballou