50 Thoughts #5: Finally, I get what the marathon has been trying to teach me

A couple of weeks ago, renowned sports psychologist Peter Jensen came to speak to our fabulous running club, The Runner’s Shop. As he talked about performance in sports, I was thinking about writing.

I rarely acknowledge this, and certainly never to myself, but running long, writing long — indeed, chasing any big dream — is brutally hard. It takes physical and mental strength, focus, discipline, a sense of humour, will, and, toughest of all, a belief in the worthiness of yourself and the thing you’re going. And that can only come from deep within yourself.

No one else, nothing else can give it to you, not money, awards, fame, booze, drugs, not even great sex or therapy. At least this much I have learned as I stare down 50.

I took up marathoning for a bizarre reason, perhaps. I wanted to write a novel. I sensed that running long had something to teach me about writing long. Yes, you have to set an end goal, establish a writing schedule, put in the word count, be patient with the training drafts, sharpen creative skills, blah blah blah. It’s not like I’m new to this writing game.

But for the biggest dream project of all, I sensed I had some deeper lesson to learn, though I had no idea what that was, until it clicked during Jensen’s talk.

Running is my pure place, my innocence, my five-year’s joy and glee and ecstasy. Yet, as I pushed towards the finish line of my novel, anxiety, doubt and dread began to bleed into my running, stalk my steps, weigh down my strides. I was training for Boston — Boston! I had qualified for Boston! By 16 minutes! — yet something was sucking the thrill out of it.

Jensen was explaining strategies to deal with hitting “the wall” in running, that precipice when physical energy is exhausted and all you have left is mental energy to carry you to the finish. What mental energy are you going to summon when you’re at your weakest? Positive? Negative? Friend? Foe? Believer? Critic?

What your mind feeds, the body eats.

Negative energy is a McDonald’s Big Mac. Positive energy is a grass-fed, organic steak.

As Jensen spoke about hitting the wall in running, I realized I was hitting the wall in writing. I could see the end but rather than being energized, I felt dread. Rather than having a friend on my side as I wrote into the homestretch, I had a snarling black dog questioning whether I had the finish in me, whether all the time, effort and love I had put into my novel was a big fat useless waste of time.

For years, friends have told me I’m hard on myself. I finally heard them. I was stripped to the core. And what I saw, I did not like.

Jensen preaches the power of positive visual imaging to Olympians and other high-performance athletes. Like any training, it takes work to come up with feel-good images that can power you through the wall — and practice to fix them in your mind, so that you can draw on them when you’re most vulnerable to the snapping black dogs.

I hate platitudes, like you have nothing to lose by going after your dreams. Oh, there’s everything to lose if chasing the dream stirs up a voice that’s intent sucking the life and vitality out of you. Maybe there’s good reason I put off that novel.

Which poses a question to self: Can a brain that’s so clearly brilliant at taking me down, with a little conscious rewiring, be as brilliant at taking me up?

This much I know after two university degrees and 20 years of teaching university courses: I’m a physical learner. I know things through my body.

Towards the end of a brutally hard 30-kilomentre run last winter, on a freezing, blustery, snowy day, this memory flew into my mind, actually flooded it so that I felt like I was inside the image. I was a kid again, riding my horse Rebel, who was full of wild, pent-up winter energy, and we were burning off that frenzied power by galloping through deep snowbanks, and he was lunging through the air, and I was hanging on, terrified, laughing. And in that moment, my exhausted aching runner’s body became weightless, floating, and I charged through those last kilometres, a smile on my face, a kid’s zealous smile.

Now as I write, I will focus on summoning up the marathoner in me, to carry me home.



One Response to 50 Thoughts #5: Finally, I get what the marathon has been trying to teach me

  1. PeterM March 1, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this experience so candidly. A moving read and a great revelation too!

Leave a Reply