I have some big running goals. I want to qualify for and run the Boston Marathon. For an average age grouper now masters runner like me, getting to Boston would be like playing in the Final Four or competing in the Olympics. I was not an athlete growing up and hardly attach that label to myself even now, so the idea of one day running in an elite and prestigious race such as Boston would be a dream come true. In order to get there it will take years of hard work, patience and learning how to overcome the negative self-talk that seems to creep up when I start to get uncomfortable in races. I must learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable and believe in myself, even when I am hurting. I know this and my coach knows this, which is why she tells me that I need to practice racing more often.
I am in the middle of a marathon training cycle, but this weekend raced a 10k instead of doing my weekly tempo run. My coach told me to go for it and push myself. Taking her advice, I decided to go for the sub-50 PR that I had been chasing for a couple of years. The 10k is tricky for me. I tend to start out too close to my 5k pace and then flame out in spectacular fashion by the middle miles. I shared my goal with my friend Sam just before the race, and we decided to run together. I was thrilled to have someone to run with.
Sam and I started off together and ran the first couple of miles just under our target pace. I felt good and strong and with Sam beside me I felt like we had a ton of positive energy going back and forth. Without saying a word, I felt that we were supporting and encouraging each other with every step and I loved every moment. Just after mile three, Sam encouraged me to go ahead. I didn’t want to leave her side, but I also didn’t want to make her run at a pace that wasn’t feeling right for her. Eventually I pulled slightly ahead, hoping she would stay just behind. And every time I glanced behind, she was right there.
Around mile four to five, I started to get very tired. My legs felt heavy, I wasn’t sure where Sam was (although I was expecting her to blow by me at any second), and every time I glanced at my watch my pace was over my target pace. This is the point in the race where you need to stay strong. Where you need to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and soldier on. Where you need to build yourself up mentally, take it one step at a time, and will yourself to finish.
I know all of the things that I am supposed to do at this point in the race where it starts to hurt, where I get really uncomfortable, when I enter the pain cave and start to suffer. Yet there is a disconnect between what I know and what I actually do. Because what I actually did yesterday and what I tend do a lot in this situation is the following: When I got to the point of discomfort I started to beat myself up mentally. Instead of telling myself that I could do it, I told myself all of the reasons that I could not. I told myself that I was too old, too tired, and too heavy. That I did my long run last weekend too fast so that I ruined any chance I had of earning a PR at this 10k. That I am not a good person and I do not deserve things like PRs and negative splits and good races. Ridiculous, mean, defeating self-talk. Not the self-talk of a champion. I would never say these things to a friend, so why do I say them to myself?
After the race, my running team met for happy hour. One of my friends and teammates and I were talking about goals. I told her about my Boston ambitions and how I would like to do a longer triathlon. She is an accomplished elite triathlete and although she clearly has racing goals when I asked what those goals were she replied simply and beautifully: “Joy.” I think this should be my goal, too.
I reflected on her answer for a good portion of my long run this morning. I told my husband last week that I want to and that I will get to Boston, but more than that I want to enjoy the process of getting there. Mostly I do enjoy the process. Having a big goal motivates me to get up early in the mornings and do the hard workouts. Running is a huge part of my mental health regimen, and my running group is my social outlet. I have met some of my dearest friends through running. I also like having something to work toward, even if it will take years to get there. Part of this process will be learning how to keep those negative thoughts from creeping up when I enter the pain cave during a race. It will not be enough to have those around me tell me that I am strong enough and capable. I must truly believe it myself. Once I do, I will be able to silence those voices once and for all, even when I am pushing myself physically to the limit.
When I approached the end of mile five yesterday, I saw that I was going to be very close to reaching my goal of sub-50. At the six mile marker, I realized that I may just make it in under 50 minutes if the course was measured accurately. I pushed my legs as hard as I could, coming in at 49:46, barely under 50 minutes, proving once again that it was my mind and not my body that was holding me back.
I was thrilled to have met my time goal yesterday, but I do not like how I beat myself up mentally in the pain cave. Numbers are not everything and if my ultimate goal is to find the Joy in the Suffering, I have quite a bit of work to do. I race again in two weeks. My goal for that race is to enter the pain cave again, but next time I am going to be kinder and more gentle with myself. I am going to try again to find joy and beauty in the suffering that we as runners and athletes create when we push ourselves to our limits. That type of suffering is sacred and I am thankful for the days that I can race and do that without being injured. I want to celebrate it and be kind to myself in those moments. It may take some practice, which is precisely why my brilliant coach keeps telling me to race more and to push the pace until I figure it out!