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Mental Fortitude

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

I started this post 3 months ago and am finally finishing and posting it to get it out of my unfinished drafts. It's a little dated, but there's some positivity in it that I think is good to share... or at least is somewhat cathartic for me.

Over the last year, running has gotten progressively easier and easier, that is until the holidays. When I started running last year I had to deal with shin splints. With some new shoes, ice, and some strategic rest days, they eventually went away - much to my relief. However, over the holidays I went for extended periods of time without running because I lost my two gym motivators - my wife, due to vacations, her gallbladder, and developing pregnancy, and my strength training buddy, because of his other commitments. - and I am finding it much more difficult to motivate myself to workout 5 - 6 days a week. 10 pounds after the holidays ended (which falls on my calendar somewhere around the middle of January) I decided I didn't want to gain any more sympathy weight and I really need to get back to the gym - or at least back to running.

Since running is the easiest thing to do - i can just put on some shoes and run around the neighborhood - that's where I started. Unfortunately, I was re-accompanied on my runs by my new arch enemy, shin splints. With some ice and some NSAIDs, I soldiered on, but it's been grueling and frustrating since I thought I had overcome those months ago. However, unlike my former high school incarnation, I now realized I have developed something important that I previously lacked: mental fortitude.

Sports are said to be something like 50% physical and 50% mental. My high school coach tried to ingrain this into my head and 15 years later I think I'm finally "getting it." I now believe that all too often in high school I wasn't running for me. I would rather have been playing football and running was my sport of second choice, so too often I was training and racing because I was "told to." I blindly followed our assigned workouts and skipped them or ran slower when I felt tired or just didn't feel like working out. Now that I'm running for my own health and not to please anyone else, a switch seems to have flipped in my brain. I no longer "skip" workouts - instead I "am forced" to "miss" them because of other priorities. I try not to let myself slow down and often purposely run further or longer than i intend to. This past week I was feeling particularly bad on a run with my shins hurting and my shoulders and back hurting. The old me would have stopped and walked home. The new me decide to run faster and work through it so I instead could get back home as fast as I could. I ended up running faster than I thought I could for longer than I thought I could, and wow did that ever feel good!

The one big example I can think of that really drove it home in my own mind happened at the end of the 5k I ran this past year on Thanksgiving morning. It happened in two parts, but together they were a very important mental signpost for me.

The first happened with about half a mile left in the race. I had been overconfident in the first half of the race as I tried to power up the uphill and paid the price in the second half as felt I was giving all I had to give, but had hit a wall and was completely gassed. I was going downhill and felt like I was trying to run as fast as I could, but it seemed like I was slogging through waist deep water and I was slowing way down. Then, with only around a half mile to go, it happened - my mom passed me. That had to be one of the most ego-deflating moments in my life. And she didn't just slowly catch up, either - she passed me pretty quickly. In that moment I mustered up all the energy I had left and tried to stay with her. After 5 seconds I thought there was no way I was going to be able to stay with her and for a moment considered slowing back down and letting her pull away. But, something in the brain said, "No! You have to keep up with her! You will NOT do this again. You will NOT let your mother beat you! You will NOT slow down. You can do it! You HAVE to do it!" And sure enough, the longer I kept pace with her, the easier it became until I moved back in front of her near the final turn for the finish.

That's when the second part happened. As we turned the corner to the last tenth of a mile to the finish line (which, by the way, was all uphill), I was passed by a young man probably in his early 20's who was barreling his way towards the finish line. Being very competitive - even though this far back in the pack our placing really was pointless - I could not let him pass me and I sprinted to keep him from passing me. I quickly was matching his speed, but he saw me and wasn't going to let me beat him, either. This gave me an instant flashback.

Years ago I ran a 5k with my aunt. As I came down the last stretch towards the finish line I ended up racing some 30 or 40 year-old man I didn't know towards the finish line. Try as I might, I just couldn't out sprint him, so being tired and at the end of the race, I eased up and let him beat me.

Now, back in the moment, I was not going to let my past repeat itself, and I refused to ease up. Close to the finish line and racing this guy stride-for-stride I found myself gaining some extra speed and I pulled away from him and even passed someone else before crossing the finish line.

In the end, I didn't have a very good race, even tho I did still achieve my goal time (that bar was set way too low, but hey, it makes me feel good). I still had my moments of mental breakdown in the race and I have quite a list of areas to work on, and I really need to get back to working out consistently, but those moments of mental strength have really given me a boost and are good building blocks to continuing to better myself. In hindsight, this race really helped when it came time to run my next 5k and it gives me something positive to think about every time I'm in the gym or visualizing my next race. And speaking of my next race... there's more to come on that very soon.

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