During my graduate studies, I lived and trained in Texas. I used to run near an empty field during the winter months that had a sign that said “Wildflowers in progress”. I laughed at this sign, placed on a sterile field. But as spring approached, the day inevitably came when I ran past the field and suddenly it was no longer barren. It was full of wild flowers of assorted colors and shapes. The flowers were there all along, in various stages, from seed to bloom, progressing underground.
The formation is like a field of wildflowers. Progress happens unseen, below the surface, until the season. Suddenly it blooms.
I learned a lot about patience in my time as a distance runner. I’ve learned that breakthroughs in racing are often preceded by seemingly barren periods with little fruit to show for my efforts. I learned that patience and endurance go hand in hand – that the better I wait, the better I endure.
And I learned that patience wears sneakers, not slippers. It involves active and diligent preparation work as I prepare for a new season. Passivity is not patience; it is despair.
Patience is the virtue of staying in trouble. Tully, a Roman statesman and orator, defines it as “the voluntary and prolonged endurance of arduous and difficult things (1)”, and Thomas Aquinas underlines that one suffers well for a “hoped-for good (2)” . Patience is linked to endurance. In fact, endurance and patience are linked into a single concept in Greek. The term hupomoned means “patient endurance”. It implies constancy or “staying under a burden.”
Patience plays a supporting role for many other virtues. It’s related to charity, because it’s hard to love people well when you’re impatient with them. It supports resilience, the virtue of recovery. Being excellent at facing and overcoming adversity (3) requires that we inhabit a difficult and uncomfortable space of difficulty. Patience also serves as a supporting virtue for fortitude (4). Along with endurance, it helps to master fear and stand firm in difficulties.
Patience for runners
Patience is a largely overlooked virtue in Western cultural conversations (5). In practice, we often confuse patience with idleness, and praise impatience as purpose and productivity in a consumerist, work-oriented culture. To be impatient is to be perceived as motivated or goal-directed, and that is a mistake.
If one population is immune to these misunderstandings, it may be long-distance runners. To be patient does mean to suffer from something uncomfortable (6), so it is a virtue ripe for the development of long-distance running – the sport that offers a practice of patience. There is a lot of patience in endurance sports. Here are some lessons I learned about it along the way.
1. Patience wears sneakers, not slippers..
In 2013, American Olympian in the 1,500 meters, jenny simpson, shared the advice she received from her father. He told her to “win slowly”. Jenny explained: “It means making good decisions every day and taking care of what seems mundane. The daily grind is the hardest part, and it doesn’t get much attention compared to the errands. But it is this slow progression that makes the champions (7).
Waiting for the races is not dead time. Patience – both in races and for errands — involves work over a long period of time. The process of formation is difficult and sometimes frustrating, and it takes place unseen, under the ground, before it gives flowers. But being a patient steward of your gifts, day in and day out, is – as Jenny explains – “what makes champions”.
2. Practice makes patience.
When friends ask me about our sport, I often say that it is conceptually simple but difficult to implement. Simply put, distance running just “stays”. It is to continue to do what we are already doing. It sounds simple. It’s simple. But staying is tiring. It takes a lot of physical strength to do it well. Staying makes my lungs burn. It tires my legs. And, when I “stay”, I often prefer to do something else.
Fortunately, patience, like other virtues, is acquired through practice. We get better at repeatedly putting ourselves in situations where we can practice suffering well. This is great news for the impatient. This takes the guesswork out of how to improve. And, who knows, maybe this practice will make a difference in how we expect something else in life outside of sports.
3. Staying patient is a hopeful act.
Every season, as I get back into shape after an off-season, I have the same period (figuratively speaking) staring at a barren field, wondering if my labor has been in vain. And, in every season, there are finally flowers. Patience is sustained by placing trust in a desired good ending. If you lack confidence in the possibility of this thing, it is difficult to maintain the resolve to wait well and to do the work necessary to facilitate its realization.
In running, it’s just the training process. The progress is hidden, and at this point I am confident that my training will not be in vain. But I sometimes wonder about the things outside of sport that I expect or trust. I wonder if their respective seasons of patience will produce flowers instead of dirt. Not all patience is good patience. We must suffer well for good ends, otherwise our suffering is in vain.
Patience is the virtue of staying in trouble. It is active, not passive, and without it we struggle to endure. It’s a hard virtue to develop in our culture of immediacy and convenience, and it’s rarely celebrated as valuable. But if we want to deal well with the suffering that is an inevitable feature of a flourishing human life, we must develop this virtue.
Fortunately, running can train you to wait well.
Call for comments
- Do you find it easy to be patient with your training?
- Are there any tips and tricks for this that you have found useful?
- Tully De Invent. Rhet. ii, as found in T. Aquinas. Summa Theologiae II.2.136.5
- T. d’Aquin. Summa Theologiae II.2.136.5
- N. Snow. Resilience and hope as a democratic civic virtue. In The virtues in the public square: citizenship, civic friendship and duty, ed. James Arthur (London: Routledge Press), 2019, p. 124-139.
- T. d’Aquin. Summa Theologiae II.2.136.4
- SA Schnitker et al. (2017). The Virtue of Patience, Spirituality, and Suffering: Integrating Lessons from Positive Psychology, Psychology of Religion, and Christian Theology. 264.
- SA Schnitker, B. Houltberg, W. Dyrness and N. Redmond. (2017). The Virtue of Patience, Spirituality, and Suffering: Integrating Lessons from Positive Psychology, Psychology of Religion, and Christian Theology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 9(3): 264-275, 265.
- The best running tips of all time. Runners World Magazine. July 31, 2013. Web