Why We Should Embrace Post-Race Emptiness
Jakob Ingebrigtsen may be a 21-year-old wunderkind, but he’s already learned an important truth about the fleeting satisfaction of success
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Earlier this month, Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the reigning men’s Olympic 1,500-meter champion, gave a post-race interview at the Sound Running Track Meet in California. The 21-year-old Norwegian had just vanquished a quality field in the 5,000-meters despite still being, as he put it, in the “basic training” phase of his season. After answering a few questions about his upcoming schedule, Ingebrigtsen was asked about winning Olympic gold last year. Had the emotional payoff been what he expected? “It’s really strange because I trained for that specific race for basically my whole life,” he replied. “The peak is really high, but also right after the peak there’s a big low. Because I’ve done it. So what’s the meaning of going back and doing all the shit work that’s needed to get back into the same shape?”
Heavy. One minute you think you’re in for another banal exchange about stacked fields and race prep and then you have the young idol of the international athletics world confessing his existential ennui. (Who would have thought that being the best in the world at running laps around an oval would cause you to wonder about the point of it all?) Fortunately, young Ingebrigtsen was able to get out of his post-Olympics funk. “I’m still competitive,” he said in the interview. “I just can’t throw in the towel and say I’m finished. I want to win the World Championship as well. And when I’m this fast, it would have been stupid not to go after some records.”
Although most of us don’t have to fret about squandering our world class talent, the broader sentiment here might feel familiar. A few years ago, I wrote about post-marathon blues—the sense of letdown and anticlimax that amateur runners often feel after an event that they’ve spent months preparing for. At the time, I didn’t know that there was a term for this: “arrival fallacy” refers to the false belief that once you accomplish a particular goal, you’ll attain a sense of lasting gratification. The term was coined by Harvard psychology lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar, but I first heard it from Brad Stulberg, an Outside contributing editor and the bestselling author of The Practice of Groundedness. “We think that some external goal will fulfill us, but it’s this very thinking that gets in the way of our fulfillment,” Stulberg noted last year in a column for Outside. As Stulberg writes, you are better off “enjoying the process and being where you are.”
You’ve probably heard something along those lines before. But what does that actually mean? More specifically, how can the notion of “enjoying the process” be reconciled with the mentality of a perpetual striver like Ingebrigtsen? After all, if his personal cure for the malaise that overcame him after achieving his lifelong dream was to shift his focus to other elusive feats, wasn’t that just moving the goalposts?
When I put the question to Stulberg, he suggested that there was an advantage to embracing the contradiction of pursuing a goal that you know ultimately won’t fulfill you. “I think that once you come to terms with the fact that you can never be content, it gets a lot easier,” Stulberg says. “The trap is the ‘if, then’ syndrome. This idea that if I win a gold medal, then I’ll be content.”
Ingebrigtsen’s case is hardly unique. Stulberg gave the example of the former professional basketball player Ray Allen, who writes in his autobiography that one of the worst days of his life was the day after he won a NBA championship. Winning it all was not the supremely validating experience that he had hoped it would be. (In a 2016 essay in the Players’ Tribune, Allen writes about being plagued by insomniac restlessness after winning his second NBA title in 2013; the morning after his team won a decisive Game 7, he celebrated by going to the dentist at 7 a.m.) Stulberg suggested that it might ultimately be an asset for Ingebrigtsen to confront this early in his career: “You found this emptiness at 20 and you realized that no amount of winning is going to make you fulfilled. If you can drop that psychological weight, then good things can happen.”
Many good things have happened to Eliud Kipchoge, the 37-year-old Kenyan who is peerless in the marathon. He also seems almost constitutionally immune to the seductions of arrival fallacy. In a profile last year for the Irish Examiner, Cathal Dennehy wrote that Kipchoge has an aversion to excessive celebration. This is an athlete whose social media accounts are filled with wisdom like, “The disciplined in life are free.” He is not one for post-race bacchanals. For Kipchoge, celebrating is “a self-indulgent act that might derail his mindset, make him think, somewhere in his subconscious, that he has arrived, the inference being he has nowhere left to go,” Dennehy writes. Another of Kipchoge’s go-to maxims is: “I’m a believer that if you climb to one branch, then you reach for the next branch.”
Sounds exhausting. Indeed, there’s something Sisyphean about a mentality that is centered on constant striving—always focusing on the next branch. But there’s a difference between striving with the expectation that you’ll reach a magical moment of permanent affirmation, and a kind of striving where you accept at the outset that no such point exists. It goes without saying that this doesn’t only apply to professional athletes. Whatever the pursuit, there’s always a temptation to believe that you’re just one fancy job title or recreational triumph away from becoming the person you always wanted to be. And yet . . .
The argument here isn’t against seeking those external markers of success, so much as trying to be clear-eyed about why certain pursuits are valuable. As Stulberg puts it: “No achievement is going to fulfill you. What’s going to fulfill you is setting the right goals and going after them.” Referring to Ingebrigtsen’s example, Stulberg adds, “Even if you know you’ll feel empty after you win the World Championships, if training for the World Championships and being in the community of people training for it and striving fulfills you, then it’s just a price to pay.”
I cannot presume to know what, precisely, Ingebrigtsen might find so fulfilling about the “shit work” of maintaining his status as the world’s premier 1,500-meter runner. Perhaps the knowledge that it’s a prerequisite to experience the electric thrill of racing. Or maybe the recurring sensation of post-workout euphoria, the afterglow of extreme exertion mingled with a feeling of relief that you have several days’ reprieve before you get to do it all again.