Among Chuang-tzu's many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. "I need another five years," said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.
Although this is a story about how it takes a long time to perfect a skill, it is wonderfully condensed. It says nothing directly about how it is feat is achieved. The implication is that the final drawing is the result of all the life experiences but we don't know if he spent the time in contemplation, study, endlessly practising or getting drunk. In other words we know nothing of the training, we only know there is one final, perfect performance.
In this way the story can apply to sport as well as art because sport is also about those extraordinary moments when a lifetime of practise and trying suddenly come together in a way that transcends all previous expectations. Think of Bob Beaman in the 1968 Olympics (see the Wikipedia entry here)who in breaking the world record by such a wide margin also broke the hearts of all the other competitors. Think of Paula Radcliffe in the 2003 London Marathon, cheered on by the whole of the city. Such moments also bind the spectators in a collective euphoria. For example I can still vividly remember the mounting excitement of the closing laps as David Bedford broke the world 10,000 metres record at Crystal Palace, 35 years ago.
In the fable there is a painting that will continue to exist but for the sportsman there is only the moment. The record books tell nothing of the spirit of the moment, memories get distorted and TV pictures flatten out the physicality of the event. The moment can only be savoured and then there is the next event. Sometimes the magic can be repeated but eventually there will be decline, and that state of grace can never be recaptured. That is the law of nature.
But what of all of us plodders who will never get close to such perfection, is there anything we can take from this fable?
Actually there is quite a lot because it is not primarily about the crab, it's about time. It's about recognising things take time and that you are ready when you are ready. Before that there may be nothing - you have to be patient, have faith and keep going.
And that is all you ever need to know about running