The Cougar Complex

FLEET FEET St. Louis: Cougar from Top GunDo you remember when Cougar lost the edge and turned in his wings? (Sorry—I was really trying to keep Top Gun out of this. I failed.) At the very beginning of the movie, Cougar has an emotional breakdown in the cockpit of an F-14, which happens to be a very bad place to have an emotional breakdown, or really a breakdown of any kind. After he finally manages a wobbly landing (with a little unauthorized assistance from Maverick), Cougar calls it quits. His abrupt departure grants Maverick and Goose two tickets to Top Gun where, of course, they get to play sand volleyball in jeans.

Yet Cougar plays a pivotal role in the film, even though he spends 90% of his screen time hyperventilating and the few lines he does have aren’t particularly flattering. In his own pithy way, Cougar teaches us all a very valuable lesson.

Namely, “Don’t be Cougar.”

We all want great things. We all have good intentions. Noble ambitions. High aspirations. I have no doubt that Cougar really wanted to land that plane. He really wanted to go to Top Gun. He really wanted to play sand volleyball in jeans. And I bet he really wanted those things even after he tossed his lapel pin on the desk. Because Cougar didn’t forfeit his want. He forfeited his willingness.

The other day, I was approximately halfway through a hill workout when pain and discomfort began to set it. In one fell swoop, all of my enthusiasm and motivation completely dissipated. I was tired. I was bored. I was hungry. I started to run slower. I even skipped a repeat.

Lame. I know.

What just happened? I wondered as I walked to catch my breath, feeling somewhat betrayed.

What happened was the “Cougar Complex.” (No, not that kind of cougar. Top Gun Cougar.) It seems that in my eagerness to reach the end goal, I had forgotten about the realities of training. The want was there, but the willing was questionable. And so, when the going got tough, I lost the edge.

To want something is to desire the end result. When we want something, we overlook the gap that separates us from the prize. We ignore what lies between and see only a grand culmination. Don’t get me wrong: a flagrant disregard for obstacles or hardships is a good thing. (I’m picturing Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell singing, “Ain’t no mountain hi-iiigh enough…”) Refusing to be intimidated by the challenges before us can lead to extraordinary accomplishments. The problem is that sometimes it’s hard to know when we’re boldly facing our challenges and when we’re simply living in denial.

My running life is filled with all sorts of delightful-in-theory “I want” statements. I want to be faster. I want to be fit. I want to improve my 5K time. I want to be one of those really healthy people who eat fish for breakfast and snack on vegetables and write foodie blogs with titles like, “Why I Can Say ‘No’ to Cupcakes.”

Great in theory. Difficult in application.

Willingness is the hard part of the want-willing equation because it is to come face to face with the reality of a challenge. Willingness is not passive. It is not a state of being. Willingness demands action. Dreams may speak with grandiose language. Want may wave the banners and cheer. But willingness is in the trenches. Some say, “You can go as far as you want to go in life.” I’d make an argument for, “You can go as far as you’re willing.”

And that, my friends, is the exciting part. No one can cap your willingness but you.

Oh, and lest you think I suffered the same inglorious fate as Cougar during my disastrous workout, never fear. I didn’t turn in my wings. My willingness wasn’t gone. It simply needed to be recalibrated.

If only someone had told the same to Cougar.


Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious RunnerHer second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Storywill be released in 2014.

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