The Secret Psychodynamic Power Points of Masters Running

By Joe Hammond, Ph.D.
originally published in Pace Running Magazine Spring 2013

Pace Psychology

If you are not yet a Masters runner, please, do yourself a favor and read no further.  Masters running is not for the faint of heart, those still wet behind the ears, or naïve to the cruel vicissitudes of sport and life after forty. On the other hand, for those of you in the “Do Not Go Gentle” crowd, it never hurts to prepare for the inevitable. As a 51-year-old psychologist, I am in a unique position to comment about Masters running. And that unique position is, of course, sitting at my word processor.

How best to approach the topic? Well, in my dreams last night I had the good fortune to run with Sigmund Freud on the Stanford track.  We were being pursued by Suzy Favor Hamilton (SFH)*. A bit distracted, I nonetheless took the opportunity to quiz the Father of Analysis about the psychodynamic secrets of Masters running. As a teacher at a community college, I do not soar to intellectual heights and cannot (therefore) do justice to the nuances of my dream.  But, I can give you the Power Point version.

Freud reminded me that consciousness is the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath sunk the Titanic, not to mention Suzy Favor Hamilton. Yes, the real meat and potatoes of the mind are in the unconscious. It is there that we gain an appreciation of the enormous role defense mechanisms play in the life of a Masters runner. Foremost among these are repression, avoidance, identification and denial (“RAID” or “ARID” for the mnemonically inclined). Like highly compensated Vegas professionals (re: SFH), these defenses flow together seamlessly as they work their magic.

Denial, as we all know, is not just a river in Africa, it is a core Freudian defense mechanism. For the Masters runner, denial is not something to avoid, but to embrace. The successful Masters runner never believes that he** did not, in some fashion, do better than he really did in any race.

I (narcissism is premium fuel for the defense mechanisms), for example, recently placed 25th in the Run Downtown. However, being a Master of Denial, I cannot even read what I just wrote. No, what I see is that I won the Run Downtown (Grand Master division).

Secret Psychodynamic Power Point Number 1:
Never compare yourself to everyone in the race, only to those in your age group. The modern psychologist would call this tactic “reframing,” or “lying.” Whatever you call it, it works.   But, only as long as we select races with “start over” categories. In about nine years, I hope to see a Great Grand Masters division with lavish awards at all the races.

Al Gore, Great Grand Master from Tennessee, not only invented the Internet, but also the Internet’s single best tool for the Masters runner in denial. It is called the age-grade calculator (AGC) and I love it more than Freud loved cigars. If you have never used an AGC, throw away your Prozac, go to Google, and have some wholesome family fun. The Master of Denial can enter his “time” for a race (gun, chip, fantasy) and see it magically inflated. Using myself, naturally, as an example once again, I not only won the Run Downtown (GM), but according to the AGC, I ran faster than all but a few in the entire race. Now, if I avoid thinking of or talking to those few (here denial is flowing seamlessly with avoidance), I can believe I actually won the race. Such is the power of denial.

Repression refers to our ability to psychologically push unpleasant memories so deeply into the “hurt locker” of the unconscious that they are inaccessible to the conscious mind and, voila, gone for good. Through practice, one may learn to repress any inconvenient memory. Just ask my wife. In interviewing an authoritative source for this article – my best friend since high school – I was reminded of a useful affirmation for the Masters runner: “The older I get, the faster I was.” And it’s true, as long as you harness the immeasurable power of repression. So, the next time your performance doesn’t measure up to your standard, take the advice of the noted analyst Donnie Brasco and, “fuhgeddaboudit.”

Secret Psychodynamic Power Point Number 2:
Facts are often at odds with defenses, so the careful Master will selectively avoid them. If you have ever wondered why so few of the best Masters have training diaries, access to the Internet, or published phone numbers, now you know.

Identification, in addition to being who you are, is who you are not but can make believe you are.  Identification requires that you align yourself with two things – symbols of real and imagined power, and buddies who will play along. For the Master looking to align himself with power, a few of Freud’s suggestions are, like cigars, not suitable for public consumption. However, one need look no further than an edition of Runner’s World or a season’s set of races to find countless sources for identification.

First, there is the apparel. Masters can sport labels and fashion connecting us to past glory on the plains of Marathon, to tigers and cheetahs, to storied collegians and their coaches, to impossibly fit models and glorious Olympians. Spandex covers a multitude of sins. Hats cover our baldpates and sunglasses mask our wrinkles. Behind those Foster Grants, we are Mo and Rupp, and Salazar is our coach, not our contemporary.

Then there are the awards and such.  We can get medals of all kinds – gold, silver, bronze, platinum, and processed plutonium – just for finishing a race, let alone figuring out a way to have won it (see above). Again, Freud said it best, “Medals are the measure of a man.” Photographers take our pictures. Our names are announced when we enter the stadium to finish a race. We join racing teams, hire coaches, and go to Masters-only events. How better to maintain the illusion that we are not fragile, failing, fearful mortals, but rather forever young and courageous, forever fit and relevant?

Secret Psychodynamic Power Point Number 3:
Midlife crises only seem that way to others. Those in the midst of reawakening former glories are happy in their déjà vu all over again. They have Mastered identification.

Defense mechanisms don’t dwell alone, and neither do we. The successful Master must find others to share his folie a deux. The best place to start is, of course, with other Masters. Just as an alcoholic at the bar is right at home, so is the Master among his mates. Freud reminds us that social identification is even more powerful than the symbolic variety. Who better to perpetuate our myths than those with a stake in the game?  When I was young, my best friend (see above) and I took turns pretending to be Shorter and Rodgers. Only he is not embarrassed when I mention this in the company of other adults. Thus, he will always come first on my speed dial.

Secret Psychodynamic Power Point Number 4:
Birds of a feather flock together, even as they fall from the sky. As the great band Yes so aptly urged, “Don’t surround yourself with yourself,” surround yourself with those who will let you pretend to be a highly idealized version of yourself.

There you have it, the four Secret Psychodynamic Power Points of Masters Running I discussed with Freud in last night’s dream. Take them for what they are worth. Please. And, use caution when applying these tips.  The royal road to the unconscious is trickier than the yellow brick road and we all remember what happened there (except for those who repressed the – spoiler alert – flying monkeys). Finally, if these tips work for you, you won’t know it because defense mechanisms are unconscious. So, if you don’t believe this article has helped, it probably has.

* Now, there is a psychodynamic case study deserving further analysis.
** Freud, the unabashed chauvinist that he was, expertly manipulated my unconscious to write from the masculine perspective.


Joe Hammond, Ph.D., is an instructor of Psychology at Greenville Technical College, thefounder of Greenville Technical College G-Force and is in private practice in Greenville. He is a highly competitive Masters runner.

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