Zen, Motorcycles, and Running: Gumption Traps


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Thirty years ago, I used to run across people who, like me, had read and enjoyed Robert Pirsig's wonderful, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book remains one of the most intriguing ornaments in modern American literature, but, like I said, I haven't heard anyone talk about it for a long time.

For those of you that haven't read it, it is, in short, a memoir of a man's journey--physical, psychological, and spiritual--across the northern U.S. with his son. They are on a motorcycle, but as Pirsig tells readers early on, the book "should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either." I'll just add this, after reading the book you won't be able to think the same about the word "quality" or for that mater, motorcycles, again.

So what's this book have to do with trail running in West Michigan?

OK, bear with me a moment. Here's a snippet that I often think about. Pirsig writes:

I like the word “gumption” because it’s so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along. I like it also because it describes exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality. He gets filled with gumption.

A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption. . . .

Throughout the process of fixing the machine things always come up, low-quality things, from a dusted knuckle to an accidentally ruined “irreplaceable” assembly. These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things “gumption traps.”

There are hundreds of different kinds of gumption traps, maybe thousands, maybe millions. I have no way of knowing how many I don’t know. I know it seems as though I’ve stumbled into every kind of gumption trap imaginable. What keeps me from thinking I’ve hit them all is that with every job I discover more. Motorcycle maintenance gets frustrating. Angering. Infuriating. That’s what makes it interesting.

So this passage introduces the notion of a "gumption trap." Perhaps it's the quarter-inch coating of ice that has put a Cling-Wrap seal over our sidewalks, streets, and our beloved trails. But when I look out my front window this morning, I find myself settled smack dab in the middle of a gumption trap. Gumption traps can be introduced by an event, internal or external. This one is largely external, but the way out is--and this is the art of life of course--internal. In the face of this kind of weather and these running conditions, how do we stay "at the front of the train" of our own awareness and keep our gumption up? The solution is in our attitude. Since the "machine" we are working on is really ourselves, the answer is somewhere embedded in our mental response.

I'm not exactly sure the way out of this gumption trap. It probably is a matter of seeing and accepting--looking at this weather as something of a problem to be solved in some way, not as an obstacle in the way of life. Should we plow on through it--tough it out, take control of it, beat it back, master it, show it who's boss? Or do we hunker down and shy from it something that defeats us this time? It seems to me that both of those responses are playing into the hands of this gumption trap. I feel that the way out is somehow to participate with it: not defeat it; not succumb to it.

To participate with it means something a little different. It means finding a quality trail through it. That quality trail may be different for each runner. It may be a hike, it may be a careful run, it may mean the treadmill, it may mean storing up that glycogen for the first moment this cling wrap thaws.


Rob Andro's picture

Well said and perfect in so many ways. And I love that book. I've read it three times and each time learned something new.