You can run incredibly fast if you can still breathe.
That’s the main lesson I learned while attempting to ramp up my marathon pace repeatedly the past few years.
Each pace felt somewhat different. At first, marathoning felt like survival, something to make it through. Soon it was a calculated equation, a stride that I could sustain. But before I knew it, as I attempted for external standards, it began to feel more like I was skipping along, nearly taking flight, without an ounce of conservation. Despite all the new signals warning me to slow — a panicked feeling that I was moving much too quickly — I found that if I could settle my breath and my heart rate as a result, I could continue.
Once I learned this it reframed how I saw other runners. Watching the Pros in the New York City Marathon rolling through Manhattan, I could see in their eyes that even at 5 minutes per mile, they were calm under duress, which meant they could breathe. And if you can breathe, even as your legs begin to scream and your body burns through calories faster than ever before, you can calm your mind and settle your stride.
Until you can’t.
Then the effort quickly begins to mount. As the stress risks overwhelming you’re forced to recalibrate on the fly. To keep finding the line of utmost exertion where you can still breathe. I found I could run much faster than I’d ever previously imagined as long as I focused intensely on settling my breath and my stride amidst increasing signals of panic.
I’ve been considering this truth amidst the pandemic. These months I’ve seen a wide range of performances around the world, from incredible personal records to depression and fatigue. With the onslaught of new stresses, some athletes have shined, others have faltered.
“He must still be able to breathe calmly even amidst all this.” I thought, reviewing a man’s new record.
Others, including myself, have disappeared from racing, likely due to the simple truth that we’re unable to maintain the steady calm that we were before. It’s an understandable, but frustrating, change. Something difficult to solve.
For me the shift from laptop work to days spent keeping up with a five-year-old has burned off the extra energy I was accustom to each day. The reserve of speed I could tap into previously is simply missing during days spent making snacks, wrestling on the floor, reading books, and taking bike rides. In hindsight, it should have been obvious, but it was a frustrating truth to keep ramming up against during hard efforts. One workout after another I simply could not settle my breath at the same pace as before.
No need for pity, this isn’t a cry for help, simply a reminder that sometimes you are more capable than you ever imagined, other times less able than you expected.
A reminder to myself that capacity is a sum of all the stresses each day, and despite my aspirations and ambitions, in my breath lies the honest answer of my ability.
This piece was from Issue 1 of The Positive Split newsletter — you can click here to subscribe and receive more writing about running.