Thursday, November 1, 2012

Mind Games

I've been itching to write a post dedicated to the simple pleasure of the casual run - the kind where you didn't necessarily plan it ahead, and you're just blowing off steam - but this morning's run was just the opposite of that and quickly proved it deserved its own post. I suppose the other will wait for another day.

If I had to define what kind of racer I consider myself, I would say "cautious". I go into each race thinking, "I'll just keep my pace steady; I hope I meet [insert really easy goal here]." I don't have much swagger or confidence. I set my expectations low to avoid failure, a weakness in myself I've discussed a couple times.

I'm scared that if I push my pace, I'll burn out and end up limping my way to the finish, unable to even conjure up the energy to trot. So instead of setting a race pace that's really challenging, I actually try to ratchet down my speed during races. I know the adrenaline and the people all around will get me going, so I purposely try to counteract that by setting a slower pace.

But today's run - and Tuesday's, as well - have been working on my mind to lift this fear. Our Monday run left me feeling a bit tired, and I hadn't really given it my all, so I was happy to only do three miles Tuesday. But during those three miles, K and I ran at the same pace. She was doing a pace that was easy for her, and  in wanting to keep up with her, I reminded myself that this was a short run and therefore I could push myself and be okay. Her easy run is, for me, a challenge.

We finished those three miles in just over 28 minutes. My 5k time is usually mid-29s. So this means, of course, that I've been shortchanging my 5ks. I told M later that evening that I realized I could probably run a 5k in 28 minutes easily if I were just willing to be a little more uncomfortable for the duration of the run. Of course, letting people know of a goal like that means setting yourself up for embarrassment if you don't reach it, right? Well, maybe not, but it's certainly how my mind works.

Then we ran today. We did a 4.5 mile tempo run. I'd had in the back of my head K's latest blog post, wherein she mentions that the warmup mile we usually do was too slow for her these days. I kept this in mind as we ran this morning, doing our first mile together. (For those new to training runs, a tempo run gives you a warm-up mile and cool-down mile, and you run the middle distance at race pace.) That mile was around 9:28, which was faster than the race pace I did on the last tempo. Our run took us over the bridge and back today, so as I kicked up my speed for the middle 3+ miles, I had that moment of doubt.

K took off at her pace, and I followed diligently. Something in my mind seemed to click. This is "pounding the pavement". I am not going to die from this. I am going to run at a pace that feels uncomfortable until it's time to stop.

And I did. My second mile was 9:13 and my third was 8:56. This is including the bridge. The last mile came in at 9:11, and I took the last half mile in the 9:20s.

I finished this run thinking that I actually felt sore, a good kind of sore, and that I felt I had broken some barrier and proven to myself that the old dictum of running being mostly mental is so damn true! My tendency to slow down at the halfway point, my constant worrying and "checking in" with how I feel, my aggressively uncompetitive nature...these are all obstacles my brain has created to keep me from facing the pain of failure. (The most dangerous is that mid-run slowdown; I know it will destroy me in the Half if I give in to it.)

If you don't try your hardest, you can't be ashamed when you fail, because you can always say, "Oh, well, I didn't really try." How many times have I seen students working under this impression? How often have I told them that failing is how we learn, grow, and make progress? It's terrifying to take a risk, but the outcome is almost always worth it.

I don't think I'm "cured" of these mental hangups by any means. But I do think that these two speedy runs will be strongholds against that whispering doubt. And I know eventually that the doubt won't be able to break through, especially if I do it again and again, running at a faster pace, pushing myself harder, throwing fear of failure and discomfort and momentary pain to the wind. If I relive these runs in my head until the next run, and then the next, I will create stepping stones away from doubt and toward a new confidence.

It scares me to realize how truly desperate I am to feel confident in my runs, in my races. Because wanting to be good means I'm making myself vulnerable. I'm not talking about competing with others; I am fighting a battle with my own mind. I intend to win.

"The real purpose of running isn't to win a race; it's to test the limits of the human heart." -Bill Bowerman, Co-founder of Nike, Inc.



  1. That's so great! I'm so happy for you!

    And this was exactly what I needed to read as I head into my weekend's race and wonder what my goals should be. My training has been all over the place the last two months and I've not been getting good sleep the last couple of weeks so I think my original goal is unrealistic... but I don't want to sell myself short, either.

    Have been doing a lot of thinking about this topic recently and plan to re-evaluate my training over the winter. Will be posting on it soon!

    1. Finding the right goal is such a difficult balance. I guess that the ability to be realistic AND challenging comes with experience. I'm excited to read your thoughts on it, and what you decide for your race.

  2. This is all so true...try your hardest and either way you did your best! Great advice...way to go! Oh and by the way...I have decided to write a series of blog posts about being thankful..for the month of November...I am trying to start a "Count your many blessings" movement within the blogging community...I will post on Sunday the 4th for Nov. 1-4 then next week 5-11 and so on...are ya with me? Pass it along either way, blessings and hugs! Link back to me if you could..thanks!

    1. I think that's a lovely idea for a blog series. I try to keep my blog solely running related, so I'll likely do a post sometimes this month about being grateful for all running gives me. I'll link back to you :o) Thanks for continuing to be an inspiration!