Will you "Feed the Rat" ??? by Tom Murrell

The article below deals with a mountain climber’s philosophy of why difficulty is an important part of his life. In reading this I could not but identify his thoughts with those of a distance runner. Though we may most often run for pleasure (which in itself is a very difficulty concept for most people to comprehend), most of us also have the desire/need to occasionally test ourselves. To challenge ourselves in a difficult situation is to find out who we are; what we are made of.

Although I first presented this material when I was coaching high school runners I think the concept can be used successfully to challenge runners of all levels to do more. Do more than just finish the practice session or finish the race, but to use the sport as a vehicle to look inward and discover more about who we are. Too many of our young, and old alike, spent their time avoiding difficulty, avoiding challenging situations not only in sport, but in the classroom, in the work place; in life.

Philosophically I feel racing should be viewed as a personal experience carried out with a group of like thinking competitors. This is the result of years of reflection and study and this for me works to remove the anxiety associated with an ego driven activity ie defining success by who I “beat”. I was excited to read in the March 2010 issue of Runner’s World the story “Mind Games” that deals with Kara Goucher’s struggles and her work with sports psychologist Darren Treasure. Two quotes from the sidebar on page 67 I particularly like were titled: “Embrace your competitors” and “Define success by your progress”. Check it out for the details if you are interested.

My belief is that for the experienced and neophyte alike not being in control is the “kiss of death” for the race experience to be a positive one. By being in control I do not means simply trotting along at a conversational pace but finding that pace that is on the edge of too slow and too fast. Experience (trial and error) is necessary in finding that zone but starting too fast is fatal. So when in doubt too slow is better than too fast. In seeking the “feed the rat” experience it is a given that there will be pain. But by choosing the Buddhists philosophy that:

“Pain is inevitable; lives come with pain. Suffering is not inevitable. If suffering is what happens when we struggle with experience because of our inability to accept it, then suffering is an optional extra.”
In the race experience we accept from the start that there will be pain. When in control we can choose (choose is the key word) the difficulty level and the degree we wish to experience it. If we are not in control – this happens when we start too fast for our current fitness level – we suffer!!

Racing can and will be a rewarding experience if you feel in control of the activity and possess the desire to excel. Control provides a feeling of safety, which in turn gives confidence and allows for an aggressive racing attitude. Personal desire to excel will insure exploring the limits in the quest for self discover.

Note: The author uses the word “suffering” where I would use “seeking pain” or “seeking difficulty” ….. but no matter I encourage you to “Feed the Rat”.

"The truth is, I like an unforgiving climate where if you make mistakes you suffer for it. That’s what turns me on. I like the difference between windsurfing off the coast of Maine in winter and on Lake Como in the summer. One is a challenge, the other is a soft option, something you do on weekends when you want to have a good time. But every year you need to flush out your system and do a bit of suffering. It does you a power of good. I think it’s because there is always a question mark about how you would perform. You have an idea of yourself and it can be quite a shock when you don’t come up to your own expectations. If you just tootle along, you can think you are a pretty slick bloke until things go wrong and you find you’re nothing like what you imagined yourself to be. But if you deliberately put yourself in difficult situations then you get a pretty good idea of how you are going. That’s why I like feeding the rat. It’s sort of a checkup on yourself. The rat is you, really. It’s the other you, and it’s being fed by the you that you think you are. And they are often very different people. But when they come close to each other, that’s smashing, that is. Then the rat’s had a good meal and you come away feeling terrific. It’s a fairly rare thing, but you have to keep feeding the brute, just for your own peace of mind and even if you did blow it at least there wouldn’t be that great unknown. But to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of - I can’t think of anything sadder than that."

– Excerpted from "Feeding the Rat", by Al Alvarez.[1]
The intrigue of the psychological aspects of running and racing has always fascinated me. In my life as a coach the greatest progress always occurred when the mind was vested in the process as well as the body! I hope you found this information “interesting” !!!

smile often, speak gently, be kind.

Tom Murrell
February 2010



1. Alvarez, A., "Feeding the Rat", Da Capo Press, 2001, available from Barnes and Noble


Tom MurrellNortheast Tennessee native Tom Murrell coached track and cross-country for Tennessee High School and King College for too many years to mention. Tom was the founder and race director for Bristol Cross now in its 19th year. He is a former editor of SFTC's Split Times newsletter and also managed the King and Queen competition.