A Case of Jogorrhea

By Matt Seidel

I could see his eyes glazing over. As a runner, I’ve grown accustomed to recognizing such signs of growing boredom, having long regaled friend and foe alike with tales of my training feats. But this time was different. I thought I could detect a hint of hostility in the expression of my former college teammate and captive listener, John. “Take your breathless paean to the glory of running and shove it,” those eyes seemed to say. But I simply couldn’t stop myself.

If logorrhea is the compulsion to talk, I was suffering from the runner’s version: jogorrhea (not to be confused with a similar-sounding digestive ailment). Medically speaking, jogorrhea is an acute form of runner’s high in which sufferers are unable to stop talking about the exercise that induced their euphoria in the first place.

My bout of jogorrhea struck at 5:30 a.m. in backwoods Oregon. I was on a team competing in the Hood to Coast Relay, a 197-mile race starting atop Mount Hood and ending at the beach in Seaside. I had just completed the third of my four assigned legs, a 6.8-mile trek over a mountain that coincided blissfully with the newly dawning day.

An hour earlier I had been in a fouler mood. One team ahead of us included runners from our old college archrivals, another my brother-in-law, which meant I would be hearing about the defeat for many holidays to come. Moreover, owing to a last-minute cancellation, a strained calf muscle, and a freak spider bite, our team had been reduced to nine members from the ideal twelve, which meant one more leg for each runner and even less opportunity for sleep over the twenty or so hours it would take us to complete the course.

Not that it would have been possible to sleep, miserably crammed into our miserable team van as we were. There wasn’t one remotely organized packer among us, so every inch of the already tight confines was littered with overstuffed bags, shoes, industrial-sized cans of energy powder, banana peels, and sweaty apparel. A Styrofoam container, which for some reason we thought would increase the car’s tidiness, was wedged between the front and middle row of seats, further reducing legroom and making a horrible scratching noise every time one of us tried to extend a limb: an environmentally unfriendly, perpetually sounding alarm clock.

In spite of these less than ideal conditions, I only very reluctantly dragged my chafed and weary body out of the vehicle to run up a mountain in darkness. And yet nearly seven miles later, I was pretty sure I had never had a happier non-bourbon-related experience in my life.

An experience which, by Mercury, I would communicate to my friend!

The problem was that as I was cresting the wave of my runner’s high, John was wallowing in a trough: sore, sleep-deprived, and with the specter of his next mountainous leg already taking shape in his mind. I knew this well, having but a couple of hours earlier been in a similar trough. And yet being in the throes of jogorrhea, I carried on my early-morning ramblings:

“That was everything I wanted from this whole trip. I was floating out there. The only thing I could hear was the sound of my own breath. You know when you’re in that groove and you actually enjoy everything about running, even the pain? Perfection.”

This was met with unintelligible muttering and some rather pronounced flatulence, which I chose to view as the inevitable by-product of a Clif Bar–rich diet rather than as a pointed riposte to my monologue.


Author, fourth from right, and his unsuspecting teammates. (Photos courtesy of Claire and John Traugott)

I experienced the same swing from sullen to manic with my previous leg. That run began with me loitering beneath a Portland underpass at midnight—an exchange zone chosen by a particularly mischievous race director—as I waited for a teammate to materialize out of the darkness. I soon set out past a group of teenagers hanging out alongside the riverfront path. They reflexively hid their beer cans and joints from the intrusive glare of my headlamp, warily eyeing me and my stylish blinking vest. I gave them one last, longing look: Oh, to be eighteen again and blissfully ignorant of all-night road races.

Half an hour later and my jogorrhea was raging. I volubly held forth on the surprising serenity of the Portland esplanade; that incomparable sense of briskness one feels when running at night; and the eerie quality of overtaking a solitary racer along a deserted stretch of idle factories. John met each flowery description with a grunt.

I thought back to when he had finished his last leg—a gravelly slog through the darkness in which the numerous vans had kicked up so much dust that he had veered a half mile off course before realizing his mistake. When John made it back, he blathered on about the surreal atmosphere, the steady rhythm he had established on the climb, and the clueless runner who had led him astray. Blah, blah, blah.

I had nodded politely but wished that he would leave me alone and let me wallow in my bitterness. Of course he didn’t. We were doomed to repeat the obvious pattern: when one of us was most talkative, the other was most ragged. Worse, our periodic bouts of jogorrhea, the desire to relate and thus relive our bliss, made each of us blithely ignore the other’s obvious and profound lack of interest. Any little workout can produce an uplifting runner’s high, but an event like Hood to Coast, by forcing the body so low, demonstrates the incredible potential of that boost to annoy everyone in the immediate vicinity.

For my last leg, I resolved to break this pattern and keep quiet after finishing. However, after hopping back in the van, it was tough. Jogorrhea is a compulsion, after all, not a choice, and I had it bad.

How I yearned to gush over that final leg! The increasing intensity of the sun and my perseverance under its punishing rays, the mental tricks I played to keep my depleted body churning for just a few more miles, my brazen attack of that last hill. But I kept (relatively) silent. I could relate all that at the Seaside beach party.

Once there, beer in hand, I turned to John, ready to unload.

He was asleep in the sand, a beatific smile on his face.

I approached another unsuspecting teammate instead.

Matt Seidel is a staff writer for The Millions living in Durham, North Carolina. More of his work can be seen at matthewseidel.com.

Inside the Box

By Mike Christman

The first day that I shot at another human being, my gun jammed. I was standing “strip alert,” meaning that I hung out in the ready room bullshitting until, somewhere in Afghanistan’s Helmand Valley, the historic home of the Taliban, the infantry called for close air support.

When the horn indicating a firefight blasted, you dropped everything and bolted to the flight line. I was piloting an AH-1W Super Cobra, a workhorse of the Marine Corps’ aviation wing for the past twenty-five years. The aircraft is an attack helicopter designed for only one purpose—to save the lives of our friends by taking life from our enemies. The cockpit barely fits the two pilots, and we didn’t deliver mail, transport troops, or pick up the wounded. On that June day I would find out whether the training had been worth it.


A section of two AH-1W SuperCobras, a fighting unit in which each supports the other. Photo by Mike Christman.

I heard the low wrrrrrr as the fuel ignited and then the whoooooo as the turbine engine spun up. By the time the second engine was on line, my copilot had jumped in and buckled up. I passed him the controls and buckled my own harness. We put our hands up (and off the controls) so that the ordnance Marines could arm the aircraft without us accidentally firing off a rocket.

Seven minutes after the horn sounded, we were airborne and sprinting to the fight, the aging airframe shuddering as the fully fueled and heavy aircraft struggled in the hot high desert of Afghanistan.

 * * *

The events of 9/11 occurred just as I was entering adulthood and I knew that this was going to be a much different war from the one that my father, a career naval officer, had trained to fight. While his generation was prepared to defeat communism through Top Gun-esque dogfights, I knew that the decisive battle against al-Qaeda wasn’t going to be won from fifteen thousand feet in the air, but by young men and women on the ground. I wanted to be a part of the fight. I had initially joined the Marine Corps hoping to be an infantry officer, but I found myself at flight school, and becoming an attack-helicopter pilot was about as close as you could get to the grunts without walking on patrol. Before I could fly combat missions over Afghanistan, however, I had to learn to keep the helicopter inside the box.

On your first day your instructor takes you to a concrete pad on which a large white box is painted. Your goal on that first day is to keep your TH-57 training helicopter inside the box while hovering. It turns out that this is more complicated than it sounds. The instructor begins the lesson by handing the controls to you one by one, eventually taking them back before you have the chance to kill everyone on board.

The cyclic, or stick, is the first to be passed over and is meant to be controlled deftly, not with brute force. Push the cyclic forward and the nose goes down. Pull back and the nose goes up. Move it left or right and the aircraft rolls left or right. When these inputs are performed correctly, the entire aircraft can be controlled with the delicate movements of the wrist and fingertips.

The collective, which controls the power, is a lever with a sandpaper surface rough enough to feel through your glove. Pulling up on the collective creates more lift and will cause the helicopter to go up. Coordinate that collective pull with a little nose down and the helicopter moves forward. Holding the collective in my left hand always provided a comforting tactile connection to the machine, and manipulating it allowed me to change the altitude of the aircraft by inches. It was while hovering six feet off the ground, rather than among the clouds, that I felt the clearest sensations of flying.


A view from the front seat of the Cobra on a combat mission in Afghanistan. We used iPads to eliminate the need for paper maps. Photo by Mike Christman.

But the pedals are a bitch. While your hands are the stars of the show, creating the seemingly effortless symphony of hovering flight, your feet are working the pedals furiously, trying to clean up the mess created by the hands. Every collective pull or cyclic input causes an equal and opposite reaction in the aircraft, and it’s the pedals’ job to counteract these unintended consequences. Because the rotor blade turns counterclockwise (left), the torque causes the nose of the aircraft to turn in the opposite direction (right), meaning you must apply left pedal to keep the nose straight. Many of us therefore described the physics involved in helicopter flight simply as BFM, or “black fucking magic.”

Out of pure luck I picked up the ability to hover on the first day, which created a false sense of confidence that would quickly shatter. The instructor then directed me to maneuver the helicopter about the box, and I quickly found out that I wasn’t as good as I had thought. I pushed the stick down in an attempt to move forward, only to have the aircraft descend. At six feet off the ground, I overreacted by yanking up on the collective, shooting up and spinning right. A second too late, I mashed the left pedal and we snapped back, all the while sliding to the right and outside the box.

The instructor tried to be helpful: “Don’t overcontrol it. Smaller inputs.” “You’re squeezing the paint off the stick; relax.”

But it didn’t matter; I didn’t have the brainpower to both pay attention to his coaching and not crash the helicopter.

I didn’t know of anyone who was able to stay inside the box on the first attempt. Some could do it by the second day, and the vast majority of us did it by the third day. Anyone who couldn’t do it by the third day risked being dropped from the program.


My four years at an Ivy League university had left me ill prepared for the training techniques of the attack-helicopter community. I quickly realized that there was little room for an inquisitive mind in the cockpit—and asking “Why?” wasn’t really an option while winning a temporary battle against the forces of gravity. An old joke asks, “What’s the difference between a Cobra helicopter and a condom?” As it turns out, you can put two dicks in a Cobra.

The Marine Corps doesn’t encourage students to question their methods—two wars were raging and they needed pilots overseas. The training pipeline emphasizes memorization and repetition until flying the aircraft becomes second nature. It was only after you learned to fly the aircraft that you could learn to fight your aircraft. After learning to hover you were taught to land, then what to do when an engine failed, then to fly off your instruments in the clouds. Upon leaving the training command, you graduated to the AH-1W SuberCobra, learning to fly on a moonless night using night-vision goggles and becoming an expert in the weapons systems. The best became weapons and tactics instructors, directing the actions of other aircraft while at the same time ensuring the safe and effective delivery of their own ordnance in support of the grunts.

* * *

On that day in June, we left the airfield knowing only that we were supposed to fly northeast. With the collective drawn up to my armpit and pulling as much power as the aircraft would allow, we raced toward the battlefield. The blades struggled to get a bite out of the thin Afghanistan air, and the needles on my instrument panel were flirting with the red line that indicated danger as I asked for more. The transmission buckled under the pressure that I was putting on the aircraft; it wasn’t designed to work this hard for this long. We were risking a broken aircraft for a precious extra few minutes. It turned out to be worth the gamble—a Marine had been shot and we needed to escort a MEDEVAC helicopter, call sign “Pedro,” into the zone to pick up the wounded man.

The most confusing time during a firefight is often right after you check in, and it can take several minutes to orient yourself. Distinguishing between friendly and enemy locations is the most vital, and often difficult, task, and is even more complicated in Afghanistan given that every compound and tree line looks the same from the air. It’s up to the guy on the ground to talk the aircraft onto the right target. Add the fact that he’s often getting shot at or has a friend who is badly hurt, and you’ve got a stressful situation.

View from above

From two thousand feet in the air, it can be hard to distinguish individual buildings and tree lines. Photo by Mike Christman.

In this case the grunts let us know that they were taking fire from a tree line about 100 to 150 meters to the north. From the ground, a football field and a half looks pretty far. From the air, when you’re throwing rockets down, 150 meters seems very close. We took a couple of turns in a holding pattern just to make sure that everything was good.

The framework for every attack is identical, and we repeat a series of steps to ensure that everyone is on the same page. The format is called a “nine line” attack brief, and it’s standardized so that you don’t have to think when things get crazy. There are a million other steps that I’m thinking about as we prepare for the attack—ensuring that all my switches are in the right position, that I know where the target is, that I’m in a good position behind lead. Key pieces of information, like the target coordinates, are read back over the radio to the ground controller, or JTAC. There are too many instances in which friendly and enemy coordinates have gotten swapped and Americans have been killed because of sloppy procedures.

Lead to me: “This will be a guns-only attack.”

Me to Lead: “Roger, guns only.”

The 20mm cannon, a highly accurate but low-yield weapon, was perfect for the tree line in which the Taliban were taking cover. The stabilized turret fired high-explosive incendiary rounds that exploded on impact and were designed to take out lightly armored vehicles at a relatively pedestrian 650 rounds per minute.

In addition to being more accurate, the gun turret allowed us to remain relatively safe high above the battlefield. We positioned ourselves to come in from the south of the target so that any stray rounds would skip to the north, away from the Marines and toward the Taliban.

Lead to JTAC: “Apocalypse 58 in, heading northwest.”

JTAC to us: “Apocalypse 58 and flight, cleared hot.”

Ba-ba-ba-ba goes the 20mm, but a few seconds later the gun slows down and eventually stops firing. As the second plane in our two-aircraft section, my only job was to cover lead, and my fucking gun had jammed.

As we pull off, the JTAC tells us that we’ve got good effects on target and he wants us in again, same setup. Lead aircraft passes that his gun has also jammed, so he’s going in for rockets. We come around again and my front-seat copilot triggers down for gun again. Five rounds come off and then nothing.

Me to my copilot: “Going fixed gun.” (In this mode the gun is straight off the nose and fired from the back seat, requiring me to dive toward the target, leaving our altitude sanctuary.)

I tip in to orient the nose of the aircraft toward the enemy and trigger down. Nothing. I start to pull off, and the JTAC yells over the radio, “You’re taking fire! You’re taking fire!”

I squeeze off four rockets to suppress the enemy fire and pull off. Shooting rockets in the Cobra is as sophisticated as throwing darts at a wall. Now throw those darts while trying to balance on a ball and you’ve got about as close as you can get to shooting in a helicopter. Once you’re set up, you fire off one rocket, see where it goes, and adjust. This is all made worse since my heads-up display has failed. Awesome.

As we pull off and get back up to sanctuary, we find out that the MEDEVAC helicopter is inbound to pick up the patient and plans on landing in the field between the Marines and the direction of the fire. At this point they are nine minutes out, so we coordinate to put suppressive fire into the area when they are one minute away. At the very least, this will keep the Taliban’s heads down while the MEDEVAC helicopter is on short final, where it is low-and-slow and at its most vulnerable. With the jammed gun, I have just eight rockets left, two of the conventional-explosive variety, and another half-dozen “flechette” rockets, which saturate an eighty-by-eighty-foot area with more than a thousand metal darts.

Typically Pedro will give a one-minute call, but we ask for a two-minute call so we can set up to put fire down just before they get into the zone. We take a couple of turns and start to push for what we think should be the two-minute call. Nothing. Okay, another turn in holding.

Pedro: “One minute.”

Fuck! Okay, I guess they’re coming in. We push, and lead starts his tip-in for rockets. Just as he’s slowing down for the dive, I see the second MEDEVAC helicopter come in right under his nose. “Pedro’s under you,” I tell lead. Lead delays for a second or two until Pedro moves out of the way and then tips in and expends his rockets. Usually we train to do a twenty- to thirty-degree dive when shooting rockets, but because lead has to delay he ends up in something that looks to me like closer to a forty-degree dive. Steeper dives lead to more accurate fire, but they’re a little uncomfortable in a helicopter. I come in behind and put down a pod of flechette rockets.

By the time we pull off and I get my eyes back in the zone, the patient is on Pedro and they’re off. No more fire has come from the tree line.

After returning to base, we discovered that the lead aircraft had been shot in the rotor blade, less than thirty feet from the cockpit. Later in the deployment, my helicopter would be shot just under the front-seat pilot, and although the round didn’t penetrate the frame, it did hit a critical air tube, knocking out my airspeed indicator. Another aircrew member would earn a Purple Heart after a round hit the soft spot in his body armor and wounded him in the chest. All that, and we were lucky to have no one seriously injured during the entire deployment.

*  *  *

At the end of the day, the training had worked—flying an attack helicopter had indeed become second nature. I was able to use the extra brainpower to make more complex decisions in situations that weren’t as cut-and-dry as staying inside a small box. It wasn’t the flying that was hard anymore; it was the choice whether to pull the trigger.

While its consequences can be horrific, for many veterans war is the most important event of their lives. No amount of training, no matter how thorough or intense, can prepare you for that. It may be uncomfortable and difficult for people without this experience to understand, but combat can provide a level of excitement and purpose that is almost impossible to replicate back home. For some, there is nothing more thrilling than having someone shoot at you and miss. For most, there is nothing more rewarding than creating a bond with someone so strong that they would die for you without thinking twice.

I’ve never had a better job than those deployments, and probably never will. I miss it.

Mike Christman served in the Marines for nine years as an AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopter pilot and a Forward Air Controller. He is transitioning back to civilian life and will be attending the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. He was selected  as a 2014 Tillman Military Scholar by the Pat Tillman Foundation.

The Giddy Summit

Huntington Beach US Surfing Open

szeke via Compfight cc




“The body moves naturally, automatically, unconsciously, without any personal intervention or awareness. But if we begin to use the faculty of reasoning, our actions become slow and hesitant.” ­– Taisen Deshimaru, quoted in Jaimal Yogis, Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea

In Roughing It, his travel narrative about his experiences in the American West and Hawaii, Mark Twain describes one episode from his journey:

In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea, (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell!  It did not seem that a lightning express train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed.  I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it.  I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself.–The board struck the shore in three quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.

We know “surf-bathing,” of course, simply as surfing, and Twain seems to have experienced what many surfing initiates have also discovered: it’s a demonically difficult thing to master, perhaps better left to the natives than to curious foreigners. “Miss[ing] the connection,” as Twain puts it, extending the metaphor of train travel, results in an unpleasant experience that is in stark contrast to the exhilarating sight of one successfully riding the “prodigious billow.” Rather than the hair-lifting speed of the express train, the surfing beginner receives some mouthfuls of water and is thumped, unceremoniously, onto the shore.

Twain’s experience, although played for humor, is nonetheless instructive about precisely how not to learn a new, complex skill such as surfing. He embodies the easily dispirited beginner who gives up at the first sign of difficulty. Later, we will see another late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century American literary figure who embodies an entirely different, and superior, mode of learning. But first, a quick word about my wedding.

In front of friends and family, at the age of thirty-two, I took a public vow to learn how to surf. Then I got married, and the rest of the evening was its own kind of wave that had to be ridden, and when I returned to California, it was late fall, which is not the ideal time to learn, because the waves usually get a little bigger and the temperature a little colder. Of course, it is never the ideal time to learn anything, if you listen to the mind’s evasions and the body’s reptilian fears.


In his The Art of Learning, chess master and martial artist Joshua Waitzkin writes that “we have to be able to do something slowly before we can have any hope of doing it correctly with speed.” In surfing, there is no such luxury. You cannot practice slowly when you are in the water and at the mercy of the waves. Even in between waves, the water is still constantly moving, forcing you to paddle if there is a current or simply to adjust yourself constantly on the board.

During my first surf lesson, taught by a man (let’s call him J.) who also offered “ocean therapy” (helping people overcome a fear of water and the waves), I was joined by two women. As we lay on our boards in the sand and looked up at him expectantly, he launched into a condensed speech that he had clearly given on many occasions: “Paddle-paddle-paddle, arch, pop down!!” He repeated this mantra many, many times, and had us enact his words on the beach. It was easy to feel, having mastered J.’s tripartite instruction on land, that mastery in the water was not far away. But as soon as we ventured into the ocean, the clean, smooth motions we had practiced on the beach became nearly impossible. Everything happened too quickly, too powerfully, too unpredictably, too messily. The younger of the two women quickly became spooked and, only half an hour into a two-hour lesson, returned to the beach and refused to come back into the water. “She needs ocean therapy, not a surf lesson,” J. told me, clearly irritated, once he’d checked on her.

I do not mean to imply at all that J. was a poor or unempathetic surf instructor. In fact, he was quite good. But, by virtue of all the time he’d spent surfing, he did seem to have forgotten the visceral helplessness that beginners feel when attempting something as daunting as surfing. “It’s just so easy to me,” he told me, after I asked how he’d just caught a wave on the foam board he’d borrowed from the woman who’d lost her nerve and was now waiting on the beach.


Researchers have often examined the difference between “external focus” and “internal focus” in the learning of new motor activities. An external focus is one in which your attention is directed to the effect you are having on or in relation to the external world; an internal focus is one in which your attention is directed to how your own body feels or is coordinated. If you are shooting a free throw in basketball and concentrate on how your wrist feels as you release the ball, your focus is internal. If you focus instead on the rim or the backboard or the basketball, your focus is external.

The leading proponent of the superiority of external focus in learning motor skills is a psychologist named Gabriele Wulf. She came to the idea in the late 1990s, not by theoretical cogitation but out of her own experience learning how to windsurf. As she describes in her review of fifteen years of research on motor learning and attentional focus, she was struck by how changing her focus while attempting a windsurfing maneuver produced a marked difference in her performance: “While practicing a power jibe, I found that directing attention to the position of my feet, the pressure they were exerting on the board to change its direction, or the location of my hands on the boom, resulted in many failed attempts and frequent falls into the water over several hours of practice. With the spontaneous decision to simply focus on the tilt of the board while turning came instantaneous success.”

The first laboratory experiments on the effects of external focus were performed on balance tasks, both on ski simulators and on something called a “stabilometer.” Participants were asked to focus either on their feet (internal focus) or on the object against which they were exerting force and trying to balance on (external). The subsequent comparison of the effects, which in most instances showed that external focus was a superior method of learning, were subsequently extended to more sport-specific motor skills: golf pitch shots, basketball free throws, soccer throw-ins, and even darts. Jump height was improved with external focus (by focusing on the measuring device, a vertical contraption called a Vertec, rather than on the tips of the fingers).

I emailed Dr. Wulf after I’d begun my quest to learn how to surf. She wrote back quickly and decisively: “I have no doubt that a focus on the surfboard would be more effective than any focus on body movements.” Buoyed by her confident declaration, and feeling that I now had the authority of scientific kinesiology at my disposal, I returned to the water. But either my focus remained insufficiently external, or I was focusing on the wrong part of the surfboard; my frustration was relieved only by the pleasure I took in observing the pelicans dive-bombing for fish in long, elegant arcs, or the stately procession of dorsal fins as dolphins swam parallel to the shore, just beyond the break. I was accumulating “time in the water,” which might eventually translate into the physical reality of surfing waves.

I had read about territoriality in the water, but I never experienced it. Instead, I discovered that a remarkable loquacity, not always eloquent but often philosophical and incredibly sophisticated, characterized many experienced surfers you might encounter in the water or on land. T., a retired airline maintenance worker who now ran a pool cleaning business, which left him plenty of time to surf in the winter, described to me how he loved the surf cameras that were installed all the way up the West Coast to Alaska, allowing him to track the swells as they moved southward. He explained to me the difference between “back-foot surfers” and “front-foot surfers” (he himself was a back-footer, having grown up surfing on single-fin boards), and how the topography of Point Concepcion deflected the bigger swells and how the most experienced surfers at Swami’s, a famous break north of San Diego, could tell when a big set was coming, because they’d see it hit first a little farther north, at Boneyards, and then they’d be able to get into position for the best waves before the less experienced surfers knew that anything was coming. He described his annoyance at these same ignorant surfers, who instead of learning to read the ocean would simply observe and follow the more experienced guys, exploiting their hard-won knowledge to get into the right spot at the right time.


Then there was Travis. We were the only two out on a very small day when I was struggling. Travis had floppy back hair and was thickly built—he told me he’d played baseball and football in high school, and now, at twenty-three, had been completely swept away by surfing. He went out nearly every day, regardless of the conditions, and had a kind of Saint Bernard-puppy-dog enthusiasm for the entire experience. He would wax poetic about the waves and the water and asked me several times if I knew what he was getting at, as though he couldn’t approach this magnificent thing directly. He alternated between offering me technical advice on the takeoff and my paddling (“You got to cup that water!”) and reaching more abstract, philosophic heights (“It’s not a bad way to live”). He told me about surfing a challenging break in La Jolla before he really knew what he was doing. “I went right in there with all the other guys and fucking charged those waves! I got fucking worked, but they were all like, ‘I fucking love this guy!’”

It was tempting to think that you could watch guys like Tim and Travis and get better just by observing them. In fact, the usefulness of observing experts in action has often been noted as an aid to learning, and correctly so. But to me there was always something slightly deceptive in watching an experienced surfer negotiate the waves; it appeared so easy, so effortless, that I had trouble pinpointing its causes. On the other hand, I found it very helpful to watch beginning surfers, those at my level or even worse, as they failed.  Their failures, which were also my own, highlighted by a kind of negative example the correct technique. For instance, if someone had not acquired enough speed and was merely slapping at the water in desperation, you could see that you had to give yourself a few extra seconds to build some momentum, and then take long, smoother strokes that extended deeper into the water. It was easier for me to see precisely why you had to paddle in a certain way when I saw it done so poorly. You might call this the power of aversive learning. In a sense, it’s another incarnation of external focus: rather than an object or piece of equipment or ball, you’re focusing on another human being, and can see more than you can in observing yourself.

To account for the presumed superiority of external to internal focus, Wulf has proposed the “constrained action hypothesis.” An internal focus, she suggests, induces a conscious mode of control that constrains the body’s unconscious and automatic motor processes. The result can sometimes be what she calls an episode of “micro-choking.” I would suggest, however, that the superiority of external to internal focus also has to do with proprioception, our sense of where and how our bodies are moving in space. In general, when we are learning a new movement or skill, our proprioceptive senses are inaccurate, sometimes wildly so. You think your body is doing one thing while in reality it’s doing another. It takes an observer or instructor to notice that you’re not really bending your knees once you pop up on the surfboard, or that you’re not really following through once you hit a forehand, though in both cases you think you are. If an internal focus on the body’s own movements is encouraged, then that focus may be naturally distorted by our (mis)proprioceptions, and bad habits may be hardened into permanent errors. But if we adopt an external focus—make sure your foot reaches that logo on the surfboard, for example, or that you scratch your opposite shoulder on the forehand follow-through—our proprioceptive faculty is not nearly as important. We are forced to look and orient and feel ourselves outward, to an objective marker that will guide us to the correct bodily technique.

There is something unwittingly Platonic about this theory of learning. If knowledge, as Plato argued, is the soul’s recollection of things once known, so too is the learning of complex skills a way of allowing the body to access patterns of movements it already knows how to do. In surfing, for instance (once you discount some of the minimal fitness required to paddle and swim), none of the movements required are individually difficult to master; it is their swift integration that poses the greatest challenge. External focus allows you to access those unconscious memories, or skills already learned, to perform more complex actions.

 * * *

After I had reached the point of being able to stand up in the whitewater and it came time to go out beyond the break, where real surfing actually took place, a profound frustration set in, which I suspect is common to many beginning surfers. One of two failures usually took place: either I could not generate sufficient speed to catch the wave, and pounded at the water helplessly as wave after wave passed me by; or (to compensate for the first failure), I slid up on the board to generate more speed and shift my weight forward, and thus found myself constantly “pearling,” or digging the nose of the board into the water, which led to a head-over-heels wipeout that was often frightening. Caught between these two extremes, which seemed to represent hydrological physics conspiring against my success, I nearly cracked and gave up. There were middle-aged men with potbellies who took off effortlessly and gave me slightly pitying looks as I flailed about, fit but helpless in a foreign world.

One day in late summer I remember as particularly awful. I’d gone to a spot slightly farther north that had been recommended as friendlier to beginning surfers, and the conditions looked favorable. Two hours in the water produced not a single ride, and my shoulders ached from the buildup of lactic acid. I came out of the water convinced that this had now become an impossible task, that I was too old or had some East Coast, neurotic gene that prevented me from catching waves. I had reached what the philosopher William James, in an essay on the sources of human energy and second winds, called the “fatigue-obstacle.”


It is astonishing that even tiny differences within the broadly correct technique itself can have such large effects on whether you’re able to surf the wave. For instance, the pop-up is one of the most difficult things to master in surfing. You must go from lying prone on your stomach on the board to standing, arms out and knees bent, your front leg having darted forward under your chest and establishing a firm stance near the center of the board. I found it nearly impossible to get my front foot far enough forward—to the spot where my hands were when I began to press up. Focusing on the leg, willing it to move forward more powerfully and quickly, failed to work. My “internal focus” on performing the correct movement seemed self-inhibiting. By chance, I experimented with the placement of my hands, and noticed where they were in relation to the board when I initiated the pop-up. When they gripped the side of the rail, I was unable to generate much force to raise myself up. When, instead, they were pressed down entirely on top of the board, so that I was able to mimic an actual push-up, my leg swept forward much more easily, and ended up much closer to the correct spot. An “external focus” on my hands in relation to the board had solved the problem of my leg placement.

The day after my terrible session, I returned to the water once more, not quite desperate but with more resignation than usual. It was mid-August, a Tuesday, late morning. The waves at Grandview Beach were small and clean. I caught a wave, pressed up, stood, and surfed it for several exhilarating seconds. Convinced it might have been a fluke, I paddled back out. And then: an impossible profusion­­—one after another, too many to count. I couldn’t consciously and precisely identify what had changed, but it had less to with sheer effort than with timing and instinct. As I watched the waves roll toward shore and my board, I knew, at least on that day and on that morning, with that tide and slight offshore wind so perfect for sculpting rideable waves, exactly where to be.


 Roughly one hundred years before my small but long-awaited breakthrough, Jack London recorded in his memoir Cruise of the Snark his travels across the Pacific, which took him to Waikiki in 1907. His is a much more elaborate, and wonderfully overheated, account than Twain’s. London evokes the fear, and the awe, that the beginning surfer may feel: “Why, they [the waves] are a mile long, these bull-mouthed monsters, and they weigh a thousand tons, and they charge in to shore faster than anyone can run. What chance? No chance at all, is the verdict of the shrinking ego; and one sits, and looks, and listens, and thinks the grass and the share are a pretty good place in which to be.” Suddenly, however, appears the figure of a dark man, “rising like a sea-god, not struggling frantically in that wild movement … but standing above them all [those mighty monsters], calm and superb, poised on the giddy summit.”

And here is where London’s experience veers sharply away from Twain’s; where Twain retreated into helplessness (“Only the natives truly master the art of surf-bathing”), London’s sense of possibility was aroused: “you are a human being, one of the kingly species and what that Kanaka can do, you can do yourself. Go to.” Joining the young Hawaiian boys in the water, London “tried to do everything that they did, and failed utterly. The breaker swept past, and I was not on it.” He misses wave after wave, remaining “in disgrace behind.”

He is saved by the appearance of a friend, Alexander Hume Ford, a “globe trotter by profession, bent ever on the pursuit of sensation”—an early twentieth-century adrenaline junkie. Ford had been surfing for a month and was “wedded to it.” He gives London his board, a seventy-five-pound behemoth, and shoves him into a wave when it rolls through. He instructs him on where to lie on the board (“just so far forward on the board and no farther”). Falling under the spell of what he calls the royal sport, London agrees to go out the next day, farther out where the “big smokers came roaring in.” He describes the first big wave he ever caught, and recalls the “ecstatic bliss” at having done so. His second session lasted for four hours, and yielded an agonizing sunburn that kept him bedridden the next day. It is from this bed, suffering from painful blisters, that he produced this very account, which he concludes with a rousing call to the water: “But tomorrow, ah, tomorrow, I shall be out in that wonderful water, and I shall come in standing up, even as Ford and Freeth. And if I fail tomorrow, I shall do it the next day, or the next. Upon one thing I am resolved: the Snark [his boat] shall not sail from Honolulu until I, too, wing my heels with the swiftness of the sea, and become a sunburned, skin-peeling Mercury.”