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Be a Dark Horse, Not a Race Horse

Image of Dark Horse by Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas
Dark Horse
by Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas

In last month’s “Year in Review” post, I recommended setting some “guaranteed goals” for the coming year. Instead of falling into the PR-pursuit trap as the only reasonable goal, consider running a new race a success, or joining a new weekly run an achievement. While my main reason for recommending shooting for such easily obtainable standards was to break the bad habit of viewing all our efforts as fruitless if they do not result in our greatest ever performance, there is a secondary (and perhaps even greater) benefit in breaking from the “standard” pathway and view of success. Fulfillment.

Over my winter vacation from classroom teaching, I finished Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas’s brilliantly insightful book Dark Horse. In the book, Rose and Ogas call for a rethinking of our approach to success based around the specific characteristics and motivations that make us unique in lieu of the “standardization covenant” that has dominated our traditional view of success. The “Dark Horse Mindset”, as they term it, is the belief that rather than conforming to a preset algorithm in the pursuit of success [“do what everyone else is doing, just do it better”] by understanding, utilizing, and accentuating the nuanced differences within each individual we can find fulfillment in our endeavors, leading to more long-lasting and meaningful success.

Though the book is largely focused on the academic and business world, there is tremendous possibility in the application of this framework of thinking to our athletic endeavors. In many cases, our pursuit of athletic “success” adheres faithfully to the standardization covenant. Run the same amount of miles as before, just run them faster. Do the same workouts, just do them harder. For many of us, when we seek out training, we turn to a training plan printed in the world’s foremost running magazine or in a book published by a well-respected international coach. Certainly these plans are physiologically sound and are based on decades of trial and error, research and science, and empirical evidence. In short, they are perfectly designed to help the vast majority of people who pick them up. But they were not designed to help YOU.

This “just keep ratcheting up the dial” approach and “follow the mass path” may very well lead to improved performance based on the single stopwatch metric for a period of time, but it is unlikely that it will provide the long-lasting fulfillment that is possible when we embrace the fundamental principles of the “dark horse mindset.” Focusing on what makes us “tick”, what drives us, what choices empower us, and who we are as individuals, and then designing our training and pursuits around that is critical to fulfillment, and therefore success beyond the fleeting and elusive personal-best.

If venturing to the local high school track for half-mile intervals makes you dread lacing up your shoes, but searing your quads up and down a root-infested single-track trail brings you sadistic delight, you should quite literally take the “road [or trail] less traveled by.” Likewise, if cranking out precise mile paces along a groomed bike path results in glee, but logging hours of long slow distance in a meandering manner is maddening, then get out there and race the cyclists.

This is not to say that as athletes we never have to do something that we do not love. There are specific physiological adaptations that need to be driven to improve as athletes, and these don’t always come joyfully. However, by prioritizing our uniqueness in training design and goal setting, we can break from the cult of the average and enter the bastion of the individual, and achieve a success that is more personal than a number and more lasting than a season.

For more by Todd Rose visit his website here.

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