Stoicism: The impediment to action advances action

Running the Doon Valley on Exmoor in January 2020 – a feast for the senses

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on this blog. It is 11 years since I first raced the Iditarod 350 in Alaska, 10 years since I first raced The Tour Divide, and 9 years since I first raced the full Iditarod to Nome.

Life caught up. The biggest asset for someone committing themself to racing long distances is a lack of other commitments. That couldn’t (and didn’t) last for ever: Getting married, buying a house, raising a child, living with a menagerie of animals. I wouldn’t trade a thing, but it puts me in an interesting position now.

The hunger for adventure and challenge still burns inside, but the opportunity has been severely attenuated. This has lead me to Stoic philosophy. Stoicism takes the virtues that I found independently out on the trail, and works them into a coherent whole.

In Alaska, Bill Merchant reported to me Mike Curiak’s reasons for racing the 1000 miles of frozen trail from Knik to Nome:

We go out there to look for cracks in ourselves. We keep coming back to see if we have fixed any of them.

That made a lots of sense to me back then. Now, reading Stoic philosophy, I find the same idea:

Neither a bull nor a noble-spirited man comes to be what he is all at once; he must undertake hard winter training, and prepare himself, and not propel himself rashly into what is not appropriate to him


I found myself out there with strong intuitions about what was right, and how to behave. In Stoicism, I found that I had actually been reinventing (or rediscovering) old truths.

Even without that extremity of adventure in my life today, the lessons of Stoicism are valuable. I sometimes find myself bemoaning my misfortune at not being able to take up another big challenge (yet). This is incorrect in so many ways (I have a lot to be thankful for) but Stoicism also has a message about difficulties:

Our actions may be impeded… but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting… The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Marcus Aurelius

At first sight, this sounds trite. Like the aphorism that every cloud has a silver lining. But it is more than that. It is closer to: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. With the additional reminder that events are objective. They are not good are bad. It is our perception of events that causes us to consider them good or bad. And the grit of a hard situation may turn out to be exactly what we need to grow.

My current sport is running. Before my son was born, I would do a 15-20 mile trail run on most weekends. Now, I sometimes struggle on a 5 mile run. Which sounds bad. But I have a choice in how I perceive the situation. Making the right choice has turned it into something valuable. There is virtue to be practised here.

When I was running more miles, I aspired to run an ultramarathon. The only problem was that I couldn’t slow down to a sustainable pace. People talked about developing a plodding pace for ultras, but I couldn’t do it. I’d run relatively fast, then I would either finish or blow up at around 20-25 miles. If the race was longer, I was doomed.

Now that I have less time to run, 10-15 miles is suddenly a significant challenge. If I have time to fit in such a long run, then that run is beyond my ability for my standard pace. So, I have been able to take this awkward position of being less fit than ever, and turn it into an opportunity to practice humility and pacing. And this is the way I’ve found my plod. It is the only way I can run 15 miles these days.

I have no idea when I may be able to turn that plod into something I exercise at an ultra, but I’ve found it. And with the plod came the feeling that I recognised from the bike. When I could be out on a wet winter day for 12 hours, and still feel comfortable, then I knew that I was ready for a big bike race. It didn’t really matter how many miles I covered in those hours, as long as I felt calm. Until I found my running plod, I’d never had that same feeling on foot.

The impediment to action advanced action. The obstacle turned out to be the way. Now I have more mental tools for running, and they came about in a way that I never would have expected.

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