Could an older runner’s words save a younger athlete from his harshest impulses?
Is it possible to convey the sensations that lead to success instead of frustration when the nuances often feel so slight? I have never explicitly intended for my writing to aid others along their athletics journey, but I welcome the suggestion that I may have.
I recently received a stellar compliment,
“Your stuff has helped me focus and be more calm in my running goals.”
Hearing this from a young runner means a great deal because it indicates that my work could possibly help him avoid some of the heartaches I put myself through.
The reality is, if you give yourself time, there is more space for your body to adapt and grow than a novice runner can imagine. But I can only state that now because I spent years caught in a cycle of effort & frustration.
While running collegiately I wanted badly to succeed. Too badly. While chasing my teammates, I felt that if I missed a day it meant my whole week was shot. And if a week was ruined then there went the whole month, and possibly the season.
All because of a run.
It’s insane, but I believed it.
Even if I knew it was foolish, I felt it.
Such is the mind of an over-eager athlete fixated on his dreams, holding himself to a standard set by no one except himself.
The irony I’ve found in athletics is that in order to evolve I must learn, but in order to remain competitive, I must maintain the childlike spirit to sprint without restraint. Now two decades removed from enrolling in university, when the interval watch beeps, I still take off around the track’s arc picturing myself the same. Still aiming to embody the same spirit of speed, if possibly a bit better at understanding the edges of my daily ability and the relative importance of a single session.
In college, I never felt like I’d done enough. The miles were too few, intervals too slow, and race finishes too low. It was a terrible pressure to endure. All self-imposed. It was merely what I thought the best athletes put themselves through to succeed. The acceptedly onerous path to success.
The worst outcome of this negative pressure loop was the way it tainted every aspect of my athlete self-image. As I “failed” to succeed by my own standard a list began compiling of personal inadequacies. I thought my legs were too short. Figured my VO2 max was too low. And worried my willingness to hurt was too weak.
As I passed season after season on the edge of burnout and injury, I irrationally believed it was because I wasn’t “wanting it enough.”
I can still picture the evening light setting outside my bedroom window as I flipped open a cellphone to call my parents in search of answers. Stressed and strained beyond capacity, nearly in tears, I fumbled for words to explain what was going on inside my deranged athlete’s mind.
“I’m so sorry P. But are you having fun?” I recall my mother asking, her maternal instinct calibrated toward the more critical elements of sport. I reasoned that I suppose I still was. Sitting in a house I shared with great friends, at a top tier college, with all the resources necessary to pursue my dreams. Of course, I was privileged, but that wasn’t solving for the thing I wanted most: running success.
When I returned to competitive racing almost a decade after college I promised myself one thing: I wouldn’t run through injury. Having spent too many seasons in pain agonizing over lackluster times I understood that wasn’t the path to happiness or competitive success.
There had to be a better way.
And so I dedicated myself to pushing with the same level of love for the sport but half as much urgency or ego. I endeavored to achieve near-term goals that were calibrated to my ability. And aspired to enjoy the experiences along the way as destinations themselves. It’s a perilous balance to strike. Dramatically easier to state than to solve for.
Frustratingly, I’ve found the path to running success requires a series of subtle lessons that are difficult to convey because they are grounded in self-awareness. What I’ve learned, deep in my mileage hardened bones, is that running success requires more time and effort than I previously thought possible, as well as the audacity to repeatedly do less than my over-ambitious imagination demands.
It’s taken me decades to understand that I’m capable of gaining tremendous strength over years if I’m willing to humbly admit weakness over days and weeks. My body has shown me that regardless of what my schedule has penciled in for a given session, the only actual growth to be gained is what it has available to give on that day. It means rapidly distinguishing, “Ouch this is uncomfortable!” from “Oh no this is unstainable!” repeated over months, seasons, and years.
It feels presumptuous to propose lessons to others that were fumbled about by myself, but if a younger me was willing to listen I’d beg him to prioritize his efforts in order to do less but better. I’d implore him to interpret his body’s sensations not as tantrums to be beaten back but as knowledge to be absorbed. And I’d plead for him to offer himself grace despite lack of progress. I’d explain to younger me that it’s peacefulness and joy that produces success, not the other way around.
But I probably wouldn’t have listened to older me. There were too many miles to run and personal bests to chase in the short-term to consider a patient path for the long-term. In my young athlete’s mind, ability had to be proven each day, every day, toward linear progress on a schedule that I was already behind.
I doubt that any number of my words could dissuade a young athlete from his own tenacious path, so I’d settle on conveying one simple, almost frivolously basic truth: There is more than one path to running achievement, so take the time to consider alternatives before commencing a full sprint.
This is from Issue 26 of The Positive Split newsletter by Peter Bromka, you can subscribe here for new pieces of writing