My coach has been telling me this since cross-country in the fall of 2009: It’s mental. I understood the concept, and I thought it was wonderful in theory, but I could never apply it as well as I hoped to. Near the end of cross-country I became better at tolerating the pain that came with actually racing my 5Ks—my PR (personal record) for the 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) was 25:43, and I was proud of myself at the end of the season. However, I hadn’t yet won the battle of the mind.
It is so hard to make my body use everything it can when all my involuntary and subconscious (and perhaps rational) signals fight back. In some ways it is better not to know about the way brains work, because it gives an opportunity to avert blame. When I try to run hard for a long time, I am going against not only a lack of oxygen and sore muscles, but also my own mind.
I usually consider track and cross-country practices as “good days” or “bad days.” If I my muscles became tired quickly or were tight, I would just accept the slowness—I would call it a bad day and blame it on a lack of sleep or proper nutrition, or being out of shape after a holiday or long weekend. Some days this is actually a hindrance, but I let it control my performance too much.
Sometimes when I’m running too slowly, I’ll think—It’s OK that I’m slower than usual because I had a hard day at school, or, I had a really tough run on my own yesterday, and I will slow down even more. Perhaps I use this as a shield against guilt—guilt because I know I do, in fact, have more to give.
If it so happens that I can run with less effort than it normally would take, I stay within my comfort zone and just enjoy it. I would thus love sleep, healthy food, and workouts all the more because I consider them my foundation for a “good day’.”
These things are essential, but a deficiency in them is not the real issue for me on an overall scale. The problem is all in my head.
I have no bad attitudes or stumbling blocks about school—you can bet that I want that A++ or college scholarship or special recognition, for whatever reason, and I will do what I can to achieve it. But I have trouble applying this to running, probably because it involves immediate physical pain.
However, I feel like I finally overcame my mental block about running—a self-preservation instinct, perhaps, that I don’t need (no matter how hard I push myself, I am not going to die during track practice).
On Thursday of this week (yesterday), I knew it would be a workout day at track practice. Earlier that day, in P.E. class, we ran a timed mile, just 4 laps around the track (I jogged it in 8 minutes and beat all the girls in my class – discouraging my hope for the USA’s collective health!) and played several intense games of Knock-Out/Gotcha (basketball) in the gym afterward. I didn’t feel tired by it.
However, when I started running the warm-up for track practice (also a mile) I felt really fatigued. We stretched and did drills, and then went to the black box. What in the world that thing is even for I don’t know, but it to us it is the black box of death when we are commanded to go there at the beginning of the workout, and alternatively the black box of life when we sprawl over it in between sets/laps. Mostly it just marks out half a lap.
Another factor painfully prominent that day—I had a sore throat. I attribute it to running in cold, dry weather, and I knew it would get worse the longer I laboriously breathed.
Our workout was to run 200/400/400/200 sets: you run half a lap, almost sprinting, then jog across the football field, and then rest a little bit and get some water, then run a lap, and rest more than before, and then another lap, and rest, and finish with a final half-lap and jog. It’s two laps around the track altogether. And the hardest part of all—repeat. We rest for longer in between sets, to catch our breath and revive slightly.
I knew it would be mental that day. Ironically put, I knew that I could not rely on my body to get me through the workout. My breathing was more painful than ever, and my legs were tired from P.E. I knew it, so from the first 200 I tried to keep up with Ruthie, the fastest girl on the team. I know that I can, in theory, keep up with her, so I make that my goal. I did pretty well on the first set, but after that it kept getting worse and worse. Sidney would catch up with me, and encouraged me with her presence or her words to push through the pain and get to the finish line. The last 50 meters of the 400’s were the hardest—the setting sun glaring into my eyes, Coach Stout with her timer and the finish line so close—I just wanted it all to be over.
At some point, Ruthie said she was running on E for Empty or [No] Energy or something. I said I was running on M for Mentalness (I don’t speak complexly or eloquently after running), but it was running out. Before starting the first 400 of the second or third set, I remember wiping tears off my face. After that lap, I lost it for a minute. I dumped out the last inch of water in my water bottle, saw the water spreading out over the metal surface of the black box, and started laughing, and then sobbing. I wanted to cry—I pitied my own pain—but I was laughing hysterically, and as I was trying to take control of myself, everyone was looking at me worriedly. We started the next lap, and I was still laughing… but once I finished it I felt a surprising clarity.
I finished the workout well, but it was never a solely physical problem. It was me struggling to make my body run as hard as it could, with no limitations—breaking past the mental wall. The breaking point brought me as close to insanity as I’ve ever been, but after that climax I felt like I could do anything.
I really needed that. I asked God to help me with the willpower part of track, and He did. I needed yesterday’s workout to tear and build up my tolerance and will, not just my muscles. On Monday we have our third and final indoor track meet. Marvin Ridge, after school—and if I can keep on top of my mental game, I can do my part in our 4×800 relay team to help us qualify for the state meet.
I prayed all week that it would not be cancelled tomorrow; it was postponed to Monday, which is better because right now I have half a voice. I am not sick—my throat is just sore from running, just like the muscles in my arms and legs. Praise the Lord. I run because I want to show off what God’s creation can do. I run because I can.