The Artist And The Athlete

Early on in my MA, one of my tutors touched on the idea of the development of skills. Practice. Repetition to achieve perfection.

In the same breath, he said that this wasn’t the same as athletic training, because an athlete’s only skill is to continue repeating the same thing.

I call Bullshit.

As covered elsewhere, I’d say I’m an artist. Whether I could be considered an athlete or not I don’t know, but I’ve competed in 10Ks and half marathons, including road and trail running. Training for athletic events might not light up the same creativity glands, but as I told my tutor then and I’m telling you now, development as both artists and athlete requires the same ability to focus on a particular goal, and the willingness to keep your hand in the fire longer than the other guy.

Sure the goals are different. So are the tangible results. My photographic work fills several hard-drives, boxes of SD cards, I’ve got envelopes full of prints and yard after yard of negatives. From my athletic endeavours I’ve got a few T-shirts, some finisher’s medals and a couple of race numbers. But the sense of satisfaction is pretty similar, although it may come in larger doses at the end of a half-marathon (where it’s exaggerated by endorphins, and the ability to drink guilt-free beer at 10:30 on a Sunday morning).

But there are similarities. You need to prepare. You need to get someplace at an unreasonable hour of the morning. You need to grind through all the tedious details, through the early stages where you can only see the back of the guy in front of you, through to the later parts where the pack begins to space itself out and you can start to look around you. You have to put aside the aches and pains, the occasional bout of low-grade nausea, fuel yourself with your own self-belief. And then, when you get in sight of a conclusion, you get that last spurt where you focus in on your goal and power through all the snags, the snarls, the uneven track you’re navigating and sprint for the finish.

All of that is also true of long-distance running.

Of course, both are addictive. When I picked up a camera I never thought I’d be joining an art course. When I started training for my first 10K I only wanted to get it off the bucket list. But I wanted to get better at photography, and once I’d put the training in for the 10K it seemed like a waste to let it slide.

What all this boils down to is that if something’s worth doing it’s worth doing well, and nothing worthwhile is easy. Being an artist involves a lot of time spent in isolation perfecting your craft, and while not all athletes train in the same way I do (practice playing rugby with yourself, see how far it gets you) I do. I’m not a member of any running clubs or athletic societies, because I’ve got all the collaborative hobbies I need and running’s something I can do by myself at three in the morning if the fancy takes me (it quite often does) and without worrying about club protocol, politics or any of the other shit which follows organised groups of people like Odin’s ravens. But whether I’m running training laps, curating digital images, performing deadlifts or developing film, I am channelling my energy into a focus, with an eventual end goal. It’s no coincidence that many of the world’s best known artists have also had an abiding interest in sports of one kind or another – Hemingway’s hunting and big game fishing are a classic example.

If those are the similarities, what are the differences?

Sports might be more physically demanding than art (though not always), but on the other hand sports will often have a more clearly defined end goal. You can’t “Win” an art exhibition, and while art competitions abound they’re ultimately based on the personal tastes of the judges. If they prefer another artist’s image to mine, it will be because of a number of details, informed by their experience and personal tastes. If I place higher than another 10K runner it will be because I ran ten kilometres in a shorter time than they did. How I ran it, my motivation for doing so or how my time or performance might be viewed by anyone else is irrelevant. If my chip time is one picosecond shorter than theirs, then I have won. Frankly, there are times when that’s deeply refreshing.

Why the separation? Tradition possibly. Or perhaps that general feeling – which seems to get more pronounced by the year – that we’re living in the age of the specialist. That everyone must devote all of their energy to getting very very good at one thing. I find that runs counter to my personal philosophy – the insights and experiences I game while running go to inform my writing, my writing cross pollinates my photography, my photography maintains a relationship with the theatre, and the theatre is made easier by the stamina I gain from training.

I’m one of nature’s generalists. Overspecialisation will just lead me to run right out of ideas.


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