The very last line of Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnameable reads: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”.
In context, the book’s narrator is coping with a pretty severe existential breakdown. I’m not. As a runner, however, I think this quote is salient, particularly when applied to the art of recovering from a shitty race.
Last Sunday I ran the Houston half marathon. In the weeks preceding the race, I had executed some of my best training in months. I felt fit, strong, and (cautiously) confident. The ZAP contingent arrived at the Hilton Americas Houston on Friday night, where we were treated to first-rate hospitality, including one of the most exquisite banquet spreads I’ve ever seen at a running event; unfortunately even high quality food couldn’t prevent my spending Saturday as an electric bundle of excitement and raw nerves. But I was ready. Everything was perfect.
And then I had one of the worst races of my life.
So what happened? Honestly? I don’t know. When I told Pete as such, he nodded and gave me a radical piece of advice: “That’s ok. Move on.”
At the time, “moving on” didn’t sound likely or even appealing. How could I just move on after all the training and effort that I put into the race buildup? But now, several days physically, emotionally, and temporally removed, it’s advice I think I’m ready to take. Because it’s true: sometimes, even when you do everything right, you don’t have a good race. And that’s ok.
No, really. It is. Hear me out.
If you do anything for long enough, you will inevitably fail. It’s something that every athlete has to come to terms with, eventually. Not that you need to be satisfied with a negative result – far from it. But there is value in recognizing that from time to time races simply don’t pan out. The important thing is not letting that fact scare you.
There exists a past version of myself from, say, four years ago, who would have been absolutely devastated over a race that bad – probably for weeks. She would have pulled out a katana and (somewhat) jokingly offered to commit seppuku. She would have been so wrapped up in analyzing each second, each footstep, and trying to retroactively correct them that she would start to lose sight of her overarching goals for the season.
Even worse, she would start to doubt herself.
Research suggests that the majority of endurance athletes’ self-doubt and anxiety stems from the number-crunching nature of our sport. In their study “The Perils of Perfectionism in Sports and Exercise”, researchers Felt and Hewitt propose that “perfectionists will be particularly at risk (e.g., susceptible to psychological distress and motivational deficits) to the extent that they are experiencing failure as determined by objective measures”. In other words, runners like to quantify: calculating splits, tallying milage, checking for changes in elevation, in heart rate, in VO2 max. It is incredibly tempting to turn that mindset inward and attempt (whether consciously or subconsciously) to measure our value as human beings.
We think, for example: “Wow, I set a new PR; I am an awesome person.”
Or, conversely: “Oh my God that race was awful and I am garbage.”
The truth is, running doesn’t impact anyone’s worth. At the end of the day, it’s just a race; there’s always another one. You, however, are a person, and there is only one of you.
Ok, this is the part of the blog where I admit that I’m a bit of a sucker for cheese, so I’ll end with this. In Disney-Pixar’s masterpiece Finding Nemo, there is a scene where Nemo’s father Marlin, totally distraught, is on the verge of giving up. He doesn’t want to risk everything and lose; he’d rather stay in safe waters and quietly panic.
And then Dory steps in with this gem: “Hey there Mr. Grumpy Gills. You know what you gotta do when life gets you down? Just keep swimming.”
Now. I recognize that I am a twenty-four year old woman and that this is a philosophical insight offered by an anthropomorphic blue tang in a mass-market children’s movie. But damn if that line doesn’t make me tear up a little every time. More importantly, I genuinely believe that it is applicable to running (and, you know, life in general).
When you life gets you down, when you don’t meet a particular goal or time or training milestone, there are a few options:
1) You could quit. Nobody’s forcing you to run (probably). Plus, as we all know, running is an awful lot of effort.
2) You could make excuses: i.e., oh, I only performed poorly because the person in front of me kept slowing down…and the weather was bad…and I was tired. But then you run the risk of distancing yourself from your true capabilities.
3) You could wallow in a mire of self-pity and despair.
4) Or you could keep running.
I know which option I’m taking. I’ll see you in two weeks for the U.S. cross country championships.