The manifestation of inner strength.

My body aches to quit, my muscles turn to stone or wood, and yet my mind is two miles down the road. There is no question of quitting, no possibility of stopping early. I have broken the spirit of my body like a rider to a mustang, spurs scraping deep against the flesh till the blood flows freely. The sweat pouring from my skull like streams from melting snow, dumping salt into the scratches and cuts and ground. I care little, if at all. Two more laps makes three miles…Which makes 2 miles left…But the last one is just a sprint anyway.

A good runner comes to be optimistic in their math. It’s not out of compassion for the body. On the contrary, it’s because the end is where the battle is, where you can really exert that crushing authority. Where your lungs gasp and cry for air, and calves stretched like taunt cables, and like a light switch, you take it to a whole other level. And all the body’s whining fades to background noise as you conquer your own limitations.

But today, here, I could barely move. Nearly 30 miles a week for a month straight is bound to catch up with you. And did it ever. At mile two, my body stopped responding. That control I cherished so much, left me as it does a general attacked on both fronts. Screaming commands left and right, faster, longer strides, anything–just don’t slow down, but nothing worked. And as it left me, so too did my spirit. My confidence is founded on this premise–that I had grown to a position of control. That my body was the subject of my mind and never the reverse–at least, never again.

I tend to agree with Aurelius when he said the body was just “rotting meat in a bag.” Or Tyler Durden, that self-improvement is masturbation. I prefer self-flagellation to self-improvement. Self-destruction, Jack had responded, was a whole different animal.

The work I do on my body is not about looks or health. A sculpted body to me, is the sign of a sculpted mind. The media–even popular culture–doesn’t exactly bear this theory out, but that’s not really important. To some, the body is the manifestation of what’s on the inside. It embodies, literally, determination. It’s a punching bag, the scourge for frustrations. For that control to escape me, for the first time since I really started was shock I could not prepare for.

It wasn’t long ago that this relationship was inverted. And my mind would scream for me to quit long before my body. In retrospect it was pathetic–but then again, most youth is. To have a mind that’s reluctant to be inside itself, or weary of itself, is not healthy. It’s the mark of an intellectual weakling, to not enjoy the time to think, to not relish control. But that’s where I was.

I promised myself that I would win–that I would finish. As I have so often found, when you really want something, it doesn’t come easy. You grind it out one step at a time, the world fighting you for every inch. That’s how it was here, at the speed of walker and the form of a runner.

Tears welled in my eyes, limbs barely moved. My legs turned to stone, dragging behind me, tin cans tied to a car. The track circles basketball courts. As I slowly passed them, I’d turn my head in shame, not wanting anyone to see me like this. The struggle inside me is epic, but on the outside, it’s nothing; pathetic even. I’d have loved to shout–“this is a watershed moment…I’m overcoming an obstacle”–but instead my actions said, slow, lazy.

But I did finish. I eeked out every last step–hitting the end with perfect form at breakneck slowness. There was no glory in it, I felt awful; worse even than I had in each lap prior. This isn’t Forest Gump, and all you’ve got to do is break free of the leg braces. This is reality, and it’s ugly and hard. When I stopped I collapsed into the grass and laid there until I could breathe.

And I sat and stretched; something I hadn’t taken the time to do in weeks. As the body contorts, and really pulls closer to itself, the tension dissipates. It’s a paradox surely, that when you place it under literal strain, the imaginary kind–the kind your head creates as it races to a flurry–just goes away. I felt the pain flow from my body and into the air. When I rose, my steps were free and unhindered, my mind relaxed and slowed, clear for the first time.

And yet as I walked away, I could not shake the feeling that I wasn’t finished. So I stopped and sat on the stairs that look down on the track. There I stayed, and just thought–finally without that self-loathing that so often accompanies my inner monologues. What was that I was running from? Why do I do this, come here and eviscerate my body with such completion and disregard? Can extreme discipline justify the rest of my excessive? Or at least, counterbalance it?

I left with no more answers than I had come with. That’s not really how life works. Epiphanies don’t come to those who beg, or sit and ponder. They snap at the unexpected, the dismal and the hopeless. Surprisingly, I was none of these, not today at least. Peace at enveloped me as I rested on those stairs, hands clasped atop my head.

The drums of a Rush song, pounded away, beating the rhythm for my thoughts. “We sometimes catch a window, a glimpse of what’s beyond…” For once, to be without that hatred, that disappointment was all I needed. Here was my hope. Though my body had all but quit–hit a wall that left it barely able to stand–my mind had granted me a reprieve. There was no twinge of crushing sadness, no reminder of the loneliness or sleepless nights. Just genuine self-reflection and with that, relaxation. And I felt “the push and pull of restless rhythms from afar,” which once more brought me to my feet.

And I ran the distance home, with a lighter load than I had come with, than I had woken up with.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.