“You need to come to grips with the fact that this won’t be your fastest marathon,” my physical therapist wrote, responding to my question about how to build my mileage back up after a stress fracture. He’s a smart guy, throwing out that little gem in an email rather than waiting for the next appointment to provide his poorly received opinion.
I stomped around the house (putting well over 4x the normal force on my recovering metatarsal) venting to my husband, the children and the dog, none of whom were actually listening. “I still have plenty of time to get back to full speed for Boston! What does HE know anyway?!” For the first 15 minutes, I allowed myself to indulge in unmitigated rage and ignore the sane voice reminding me that helping injured runners get back to running is what my physical therapist does for a living. Also? Since I am paying for this infuriating advice, it might make a tiny spot of sense to listen to it, right?
So I listened. For the past several weeks, I’ve followed a very slow and cautious return to running plan, though I still can’t take the air quotes off when I say I’m going to “run.” While I’ve been cleared to do small doses of pitter-pattering with walking breaks, I’m still a very long way from the marathon base mileage I’d planned to have under my belt by now. My sub-3:30 Boston goal feels further out of reach with every low-mileage week that passes.
What’s worse, the ugly, destructive thoughts have crept in: I’m running out of time to train properly for a marathon! I’m not sure I’m even a distance runner anymore, I mean, I’m not even running more than 20 miles a week! What if I just can’t do this anymore? What if I’m doomed to be perpetually injured? And even if I’m healthy, how the hell am I going to work back up to 20 continuous miles in the dead of Alaskan winter?
And those are just some of the not-so-helpful thoughts that I admit to entertaining during this season of recovery. But as I’ve learned in Pilates (yay for injured runner cross training!), you have to engage your core to keep from slouching. You don’t just think, oh, there I go slouching again. Stop it, you stupid sloucher. No. Instead, you think, tighten up there, core. I need you to sit me up properly so I can be a strong, square-shouldered 80 year old someday. You replace slouching with muscle engagement, and before you know it, you’re sitting in your cubicle with the freakishly perfect posture of a ballerina.
Recently, it dawned on me: it’s the same principle at work in the mental battle.
We can replace the slouchy self-sabotage, doubt and fear by engaging in optimism, believing in ourselves and in the process, and practicing courage!
All this fluffy talk about “engaging in optimism” probably makes me sounds more like a yogi than the impatient, monkey-brained runner that I am. But don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you to inhale for an ever-loving hour while you clear your mind of distractions. Instead, I’ll just share a few ideas that have helped me to engage my mental core and keep the slouchy negativity at bay.
1) In the (very) long run, time is on my side. Whenever I’m tempted to fling myself into the pit of the despair over a botched race or (as is the most recent case) non-existent training, I remind myself that I still have plenty of time. It takes years of focused training to yield maximum results, so in all likelihood my personal best really is yet to come. And it will come over a period of years, not days.
2) Enough is enough. I’ve written before about scarcity, and how we tend to spin ourselves up about not having enough sleep, mileage, time, results, etc. Focusing on what we aren’t able to do will only bring discouragement. Instead, it’s important to focus on what we can do, and let that be enough. Obviously, if I can’t run a mile on land due to a stress fracture, I wouldn’t trust exclusive pool training to be “enough” to prepare me for a marathon. But it would be enough to maintain some fitness so I can race a marathon the following year. Accepting our current limitations–whether due to injury, work or family circumstances–doesn’t mean we are content to stay limited forever. It just means we’re making the best out of the hand we’re dealt, knowing there will be plenty more rounds to play and go all-in. (See #1).
3) The process is its own reward. And if it ever gets here, the finish line is gonna be freakin’ awesome too! But honestly, nothing has revealed to me how much I love the process of running and training more than a forced hiatus from it. Even though I’m only back to slow and relatively short runs (with walking breaks to boot!), I’m loving every minute of it. And even if I could never race a second faster at any distance, I’d still run and train throughout the year if I could. Why? Because for me, when it comes to running, the process is most definitely its own reward.
4) Relentless hope outruns feet-dragging fear every day of the week and twice on Sunday. I loved this article about Meb, specifically this part:
“Meb has had his share of injuries and he’s been written off time and time again. But he keeps coming back. His secret is relentless hope. He thinks, ‘If it can’t be today, maybe tomorrow. If it can’t be tomorrow, maybe next week. If not next week, then maybe next month.”
I tend to get caught up in the fearful “what ifs:” What if I can’t finish? What if I never get over this injury? What if I can’t get in the training I need for Boston? But I’m learning to replace those with hopeful “what ifs” instead: What if I could qualify for Boston in my first marathon? What if I could still be going strong at 75? What if I actually could get faster as I get older? Sure, fear can be a powerful motivator. But hope? Hope wins. Every. Single. Time.
Do you struggle with mental slouching? Where do you find encouragement in the face of setbacks? What ideas do you hold on to when trying to find your own sit-up-straight optimism?