A Phenomenology of Sprinting: 1 – Introduction

My favorite description of what it means to be a sprinter comes from John L. Parker, Jr.’s novel Once a Runner when the narrator starts by commenting on long distance runners and throwers:

images.jpegThere was great unspoken respect between the weight men and the distance runners that was understood but never examined closely. They all dealt in one way or another with the absolute limits of the human body and spirit, but the runners and weight men seemed to somehow share a special understanding, and there were good friendships among them.

The sprinters and jumpers were quite another story. Their art revolved around a single explosive instant during which all was gained or lost. They were, perhaps, the spiritual descendants of the assault troops who leaped trenches and scaled barricades to lead the attack. They were nervous, high-strung, either giddy with success or mired in swamp funk. They were the manic-depressives of the track world. They constantly puffed themselves up with braggadocio, either to bolster their own flagging courage or to intimidate their opponents. The intensity of their competition was ferocious, even cruel…. A sprinter’s race takes only ten seconds…. Cassidy pitied them the intensity of their contests, but at the same time was envious (Parker, Once a Runner, pp. 17-18)

As a sprinter, whenever I read this passage, I can always relate and get a laugh out of it. It so clearly delves into the mind of the sprinter, I cannot think of a better way to write it. From the emotional to the temporal aspect, the writing covers the sprinter’s world.

A question I have always had is: How can I combine two things I love—sprinting and philosophy—two things so seemingly unrelated and incommensurable, and put them into a third thing I love—writing? Is there a way that I can take the experience of running, philosophize it, then write about it? I like to say there is a philosophy behind everything, but I could never find a way to encounter “philosophy of sprinting,” until I realized that the experience of sprinting itself, the happening of sprinting, is itself philosophy. Mid-run, one is in the midst of philosophy, yet it is hard to explicate. images-1.jpegPhenomenology, simply put, is the study of phenomena, or experience. If I were to ask you, “What is an experience? What is an experience like? What is it like to experience something?” how would you respond? Such is the objective of phenomenology, whose goal it is to analyze and explain the nature of experience, no matter what of. Experience itself. But immediately there is a problem: Sprinting is such a short, intense activity—how can one possibly study the experience of it? I am crouching in the blocks, hands spread on the track, head down, when a loud Crack! echoes, and I find myself flying out of the blocks, only to cross the finish line in what feels like the snap of a finger. But did I retain anything? How could I in so short a burst of time? It is like being put in front of a screen that flashes images in microseconds, then having someone quiz you on what appeared. It seems difficult to imagine that the brain can keep up with a short, action-packed instant. Fortunately, the brain, although limited in its power, can retain a lot, if not some, of these fragments. Also to my advantage is the fact that there are hundreds of sprinters in the world, all of whom can attest to similar experiences, thus forming a phenomenological study.

Therefore, in the future posts, drawing on personal experience and experience gathered from other sprinters on my track team, I will be discussing a phenomenology of sprinting. This has long been an ambition of mine—combining sprinting with philosophy—and I am finally setting out to do it. Track and field is an interesting sport in its own right, and perhaps avid fans might be wondering what it is like to run from the sprinter’s perspective. For the next several posts, we will be exploring the inner world of the sprinter—the philosophy of the sprinter.



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