There’s Power in Pain

What is this season even going to look like, I wondered?  I knew how this cross country program had gone for the past 9 years, but this?  This wasn’t the program I knew at all.  It was some sort of mutation, and the thought of my runners missing ‘Last Runner Standing’ runs, a whole season of races, and barely getting in regular practices felt futile. The fear of losing well-established traditions, connections, real effort, and just plain fun was real for me.  I honestly wondered why bother if there wasn’t going to be anything I could really salvage for these kids.  The challenges of trying to establish a meaningful cross country program with all the limitations presented by the pandemic felt completely overwhelming,  

I love coaching and I am passionate about the program I have coached for the past 10 years.  It has given the kids who have run for me real connection and fun.  I’ve been honored watching them stretch and grow to achieve the goals they set for themselves.  Trying to think of ways to put together a season that would give this year’s runners those same things felt overwhelming, and filled me with sadness for my runners and even for myself. 

It is not easy to ease into emotional pain.  In fact, most of the time it doesn’t feel like we ease into it at all.  It’s more like jumping into a tub of ice water, except this is filled with cold fear and anxiety that causes us to lose our breath.  

It’s true the fastest solution to avoid the pain is to jump out of the tub, but are there benefits to the icy cold water?  I know for me, when I run hard, an ice bath, albeit shocking, helps my swelling, reduces the pain in my legs, and promotes healthy blood flow, so I can recover faster.  But there IS that initial pain.  That discomfort.  There’s no denying it.  Being suddenly submersed in shame, fear, anxiousness…all feel terribly uncomfortable.  But is there information useful?  Are there benefits to allowing ourselves to sit with these emotions for a bit when they come up for us?  Can becoming familiar with these emotions ultimately enable us to build our resilience over time?

These questions feel easily answerable…when we aren’t feeling fear, what I call being in “the arena.”  When we find ourselves in the area (braving something new), struggling and don’t come out on top, instead finding ourselves lying there with our face in the dirt, the icy chill of fear or shame washing over us, we need to be brave enough to allow ourselves to feel those emotions.

But, we don’t just brave these emotions to reach an external goal.  We brave them so we don’t fear feeling them.  This doesn’t mean we seek out our uncomfortable emotions.  But becoming familiar with them helps us learn that they don’t last in our bodies, and that 

they can’t truly cause us harm.  Like a martial artist, we don’t train to fight, but rather to keep peace (or, stay centered).  

But we don’t run from a fight either.  When it comes right down to it, I don’t want to be uncomfortable.  Failing would be fine if it wasn’t served with a big helping of anxiety and self persecution, washed down with a big old cup of shame.  Think about it.  If we’re always comfortable, then how can we ever know that we are actually trying.  Our discomfort provides us with important information, letting us know that we are stretching or growing, telling us we are doing something that goes against our values or best interest, or even that we have just plain messed up.  

When you boil all of the uncomfortable emotions down like fear, grief, anxiety, anger, or shame, it comes down to this:  

We want to avoid emotional pain.

Nobody wants pain, I get it.  I don’t want it more than the next person myself.  But avoiding pain and not liking it’s sensation but listening to what it’s telling you anyway are two TOTALLY different things.  Emotional pain in all of its forms is there to tell you something.  It’s there to give you information.

It is this willingness and learned discipline of ‘staying’ with our uncomfortable emotions, listening to them, getting the information they provide and moving forward that allows us to become familiar with them.  We need to release our emotional judgement of anxiety, fear, and self doubt, becoming familiar with them to such a degree that we realize they are mere advisors.  Like any advisor, the information they provide may or may not be taken, but that decision is always left to us, and it will leave us that ability to choose, no matter what emotion rises within us — that is resilience.  

After giving myself some time to acknowledge the emotions of overwhelm and sadness, I mentally stepped back and wondered what information they were providing to me.  I realized that the sense of overwhelm was tied to my desire to give the kids a meaningful season, which would mean having to create something completely new!  Of course that would feel overwhelming.  My sadness informed me how important it was to me to try, in spite of how overwhelming it might seem, because it was important to me for these kids to have as much connection, fun, and growth as could be had!  

I told myself, “Though it’s not gonna be like last year, what is it that I can control to give these kids the chance to have the experience I want them to have?”  The fear began to subside.  Curiosity took its place (and a bit of anxiety too of course). There’s no guarantee that anything new that I make will work out.  But there is a guarantee that if I don’t try and instead just stick with the old way of doing things, then, rather than being guides, the disappointment and sadness will just stick around and hold me up.  I think I’m gonna follow my team’s motto this year. “Change is inevitable, growth is optional.”  I feel a bit of excitement creeping in as I contemplate a structure for our first week of practices… 🙂

Fail Your Way to Your Success

I’m caught in self-doubt. Anyone who has ever put themselves out there, done a new, more difficult, or challenging course has had that moment during their taper where their inner critic, that voice in their heads that judges them harshly, reminding them of all the mistakes, goofs, and blunders they’ve encounter over their training. 

The biggest mistake I made? On the longest training run, which was just last week, I failed to utilize that time on course to try all kinds of different foods (because, honestly, you want to have ‘choices’ in the culinary department when attempting 100 miles). I’m not gonna lie to you, I’m going to have self-doubt anyway.  I’m going to wonder if I did enough training, but at least I have my training log to reference.  But, during my run, when I felt my stomach go off around mile 30, instead of slowing down, focusing on my heart rate, and just trying some different foods and being ok with whatever happened, I stuck with what worked. Or, more truthfully…what didn’t.  “The foods I was eating at least weren’t making me throw up,” I thought to myself.  But honestly, the goal was not to run a 55 mile training run without throwing up. The goal was to accomplish the distance, try new foods and learn.  

I simply didn’t want to take the risk. To have things go from bad to worse.

So, I watched my time instead of my heart rate, ran through aid stations when I probably should’ve taken a seat for five minutes and tried a new food. I should’ve tried different things besides peanut butter and jelly, because that old standby was not working. I should not have an Ensure shake every single hour of those 11 hours of training when I knew that my stomach wasn’t a big fan of them at 10 miles in. Then why did I stick with what wasn’t working?  I didn’t want to try something and have it be worse.

One of the biggest obstacles that we face with any challenge is how we deal with making a mistake. Most of us will stick with something that we know isn’t working simply because it has been tried and tested and worked at a time before we changed what we were doing. The reason for this is simple:

Setbacks don’t feel good.

The shame of goofing up and answering a question wrong in front of others, the embarrassment of reaching for something out of your comfort zone and falling on your face…in the mud…while it’s raining. The self-judgment that goes along with publicly making a mistake or messing up in front of others, or even just ourselves, when we put ourselves out there doing anything and it doesn’t go well… It simply sucks. But, if we’re honest (which can be a tall order when wanting to make a change), are we really saving ourselves emotional pain by not putting ourselves out there? Avoiding change, allowing our goals to sit in the dark corners of our minds, unrealized, comes with a price. A price to what we pay for trying. That price is uncomfortability.

It is true that when you go after the things that are most important to you and you fall a little bit short it feels emotionally difficult. It can rob you of your confidence for a minute, or longer and cause you to self-question. But here’s a secret:

No one feels avoids uncomfortability when they don’t try either.

Your inner critic tries to tell you that if you just leave things the way they are that you will be better off. But, if you’re honest with yourself, aren’t you already feeling regret, or shame, or disappointment for not going after the things you want or trying to make the changes in your life that could lead you to greater success? Most of the time we’re already feeling regret, self-judgment, and fear of being stagnant in our lives.  The pain of allowing setbacks to permanently stop you from attempting what matters most to you can linger like a chronic, life-threatening disease that takes its victim only after years of ‘playing it safe’ has silenced their heart.  

I have one long run left to do next week. It’s a night run. I probably should’ve done more of them, but I’m going to make this one count. I’m going to practice with all kinds of food that might help me reach my goal of completing 100 miles. I’m sure some food won’t work out, and there is a very good chance I’ll be suffering from the mistakes I make along that training run. But a consistent effort that keeps my emotional heart beating is better than a flat line before I even walk on the course. So, I choose the uncomfortability that comes from the attempt, rather than apathy.

What Do You Want?

I’m sitting on the edge of my bumper.  Scratch that–now I’m sitting on the bumper. Before that I was in my car for 15 minutes.  Alright…before that it was ‘the struggle’ to get running clothes on this morning.  But hey, I’ve gotten as far as the bumper, so that’s something.  To be honest I feel completely exhausted.  I realize running 60 or 70-miles a week for the past few months could be a factor.  But I know that ‘tired’ and this isn’t it.  This is literally the easiest week I’ve had to do in months. To make it even worse, I’m sitting on this bumper like a worn out prize fighter in a ring (instead, I’m in a parking lot) with the shortest run I have to do on this very easy week in front of me.  I slept alright last night, no complaints there. I ate well too.  

So, what is zapping all of this energy and keeping my butt glued to the back of this car?

My thoughts.

There hasn’t been a minute in the last two weeks that I haven’t had thoughts of this 50 mile training run I have coming up.  Now, if you were to ask me whether or not I was worried about if I could complete this 50 mile training run, I would say no.   I have some physical ailments for sure.  Some nagging pains, difficulties that have created some doubts as to whether or not I’ll physically be able to complete the hundred miles.  I also know I have the legs this year from all the solid training, and have completed some really good long runs.  

Of course, the physical is not where my thoughts go…or, should I say, where my Inner Critic, the voice in my head that feeds me fear and self doubt, takes me.   Those thoughts say, “Yeah, you may feel pretty good at the end of the 50 mile training run…but, you know…another 50 is a whole other thing!”  Another good one, “What happens if you don’t feel good on the 50 miler?  What does that mean for your hundred-miler?”  Or, “I wonder how cold it will be…  Colder than what you’ve been training in, that’s for sure”  It goes on and on…  I think you get the point.

Whether I know it or not, these are the most important moments in training.  It’s when the actual turning of the tide can happen.  And, if I don’t give a real effort to support myself, rest assured  that tide will become a tidal wave that will crash right over me.  What I need now is to give up this inner critic and all of it’s garbage-filled thoughts.  These thoughts are using all of my energy for fuel to ‘supposedly’ keep me safe and sitting on that bumper.  The Inner Critic’s voice is firing off all of these horrible bumper stickers about how I’m not good enough or capable enough so rapidly that I can’t seem to hear a word from my Internal Coach.  My Internal Coach is that other voice in my head that consistently has had my back during these tough moments.  It helps me with constructive criticism.  Reminds me of all the ‘wins’ I’ve accumulated over the many years of running and that this isn’t my first rodeo. 

I’d like to say that times like this (bumper-sitting times) are far and few between.  That I’ve never just had those human moments where, having that Inner Critic front and center megaphoning self doubt and fear, has caused me to pack it up and take comfort over progress.  It has.  But, over the years, it has become far more of the exception rather than the rule.  I’ve learned that if all I can manage is to stop and just ask myself one question before throwing in the towel it is going to be this:

What do I want?

I’m not talking about the fancy shirts, medals, or belt buckles from finishing races.  I’m not talking about accolades, people patting me on the back, telling me how awesome I am, a lucrative contract with Adidas that gets me my very own cool van, whisking me around the country to the all high profile races, kissing babies, and seeing myself on a Wheaties box (though, as I’m actually typing this, that sounds like that would be pretty damn cool…  Not the point though).  What I’m talking about is, “What do I want to feel?”  Because right now, by listening to my Inner Critic, I am feeding myself thoughts, images, worries, and concerns about a future that hasn’t happened, yet this is creating fear, anxiety, and self-doubt in real-time.  

These emotions are unhelpful, energy-draining, and dampen the wick of inspiration and motivation that I know is in me.  I’m not saying all these self-preservation emotions aren’t ever needed.  I’m just saying, they’re not needed right now.  Not while I’m stuck to this bumper.  

What are needed are the wonderful images and memories of past successes in this arena (any arena I’ve been successful in actually) that fill me with inspiration, confidence, and possibility.  Mental reminders that provide gratefulness (which is the antidote to my Inner Critic’s anxiety) that I actually have experience in this arena.  That it’s normal to be nervous before a race, or even the smallest of training runs as I get closer to my event.  And that every, single time I’ve chosen to get off ‘the bumper’ and make the effort required, whether on easy training runs or in the hardest races I’ve ever done, I’ve felt stronger, lighter, and more capable within just a few minutes for the mere fact that I put myself out there. 

I’ve got my hydration pack on and I’ve slowly gotten up off the bumper.  I’ve accepted that this may not be my fastest or best-feeling training run.  And that’s okay.  Truth be told, I’m going to feel a lot better for getting out and actually doing this, than if I had handed my fate over to that Inner Critic today.  What I really get is the confidence that I can trust myself and get myself out the door when I need to, and the joy in the accomplishment that I will feel when I am finished with this training run.  Gaining those feelings is worth a little physical discomfort.  In fact, it’s worth a lot of physical discomfort.  

It will be incredible if I can finish my hundred-mile race, and I am sure that will fill me with all kinds of confidence, joy, and feelings of capableness for myself.  But if, for whatever reason, I am not successful, the confidence and joy that comes from knowing that I gave everything that I had, that I put in real, consistent effort to get myself to the starting line, is just as real and just as important to me.  These emotions are what I want to fee/. I know they are not found on the bumper of my car, they are earned out on the road.  That’s where I’m headed.