Remembering to focus on the present and not the past
Three years ago, through a odd combination of determination, luck, and carbohydrate motivation, I fell in love with running. It wasn’t an instantaneous head-over-heels type of love; it was more of a I-like-you-but-you-don’t-like-me type of pursuit. I had tried to create a habit of jogging at least 3-4 times during my college years, but it never stuck.
My on-again, off-again relationship with running always concluded with excuses like “I have no endurance,” or “I can’t breathe properly” or “My knees hurt.” However, for some reason, I finally decided to enter into a committed relationship with running back in 2013 and I’ve been happily partnered with it ever since.
Running and I have been through a lot together: 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons, mud runs, and even obstacle courses. I’ve burned through my wallet on gym shoes, and I’ve earned medals, trophies, and plaques for my efforts (and once, I even earned free slot play at a casino…infinitely cool). I’ve pushed myself in training and discovered new sensations of pride that I never experienced before. And, I’ve also suffered through running injuries that made me question why I even picked up running in the first place.
In October, a slight ache in my right foot turned into 3 stress fractures by the time I reached a doctor. In the peak of running season, I was unavoidably sidelined for 10 weeks, confined to the healing prison of a walking boot. As someone who has run almost every week for the past 3 years, it was really, really difficult to hang up my shoes for a while. I had never broken a bone before in my entire life. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t jog, and I couldn’t even do basic yoga. Any pressure on the injury could make it worse, so I was forced to play a waiting game until the healing completed.
Fast forward ten weeks to January of 2016: I’m slowly returning to running, determined to rocket back into races with fresh enthusiasm and zest. I had early success with a few runs right off the bat, but mentally, I was extremely frustrated that my endurance and speed had taken a hit: I was running slower, I had no stamina, and my former PR’s were ghosts of the past. As each new race came up, I made small improvements to my times, but the small voice in my head kept nagging me: you’re not as fast as you used to be…your endurance sucks…you’re losing your edge.
I remember lacing up my running shoes one Friday to complete a pre-race “test”: I would run the course and see what my time was like, determined to start a little faster and better my overall pace. This was a tactic I had used several times in the past to improve my numbers. I headed outside, the sun beating down the brightest it had all spring, and started my timer: 3, 2, 1…GO!
I was off with a start, bounding down the street with a quick cadence and Fall Out Boy in my headphones. Good, I thought. This is a good pace, keep this up. The pace did seem a little ambitious, so early in the run, but that was the point of the exercise: start quicker and finish quicker. In the first three minutes of the jog, something didn’t feel right. My breathing was off, my feet felt heavy, and a wave of nausea overtook me. You can’t stop, I berated myself. This is going to be a practice run before the race tomorrow. I tried to push on, but the nausea got worse, along with the devil in my head. You’re being a baby, giving up so quickly. You’ll never get back to where you were if you stop running right now.
Inevitably, a mere 5 minutes down the street, I paused my run, hands falling to my knees to steady myself. The pain in my side persisted as I took deep breaths of biting air, a reminder that I had given up and wimped out. While my mind waged war with itself, I kept walking down the street, trying to rationalize what was happening with my training. I was taking all of the right steps, but I wasn’t seeing the results. It was a much longer road back from recovery that I had initially planned on, and I was becoming impatient. Why can’t I run as fast? Why can’t I breathe correctly? Where has my endurance gone? Why is running not fun anymore?
It was at that moment that I stopped on the sidewalk. When had running become a chore? When had it changed from something I was extremely proud of to something that became a source of negative mental criticism and strict expectations? I remember the day that I was first able to run a mile without stopping. It was a great day, a morning not too different from the one that currently found me paused on the pavement. I remember feeling such immense, personal pride after completing one mile of running without stopping and feeling like I was going to keel over and die.
I remember how that day propelled me to create new goals for myself: run a 5K, run a 10K, run a half marathon. I remembered how each new achievement brought me great satisfaction, even if I wasn’t the fastest one on the course. When, then, had all of that personal satisfaction turned into personal disappointment when I couldn’t run at 100% effort?
That was when I noticed the trees slightly blowing in the wind, their young, spring blossoms gently cascading to the street below. I noticed the church bell tower’s grey stone, looking as cold as the white clouds above. I smelled the food trucks lined up around the square, and my mind just stopped. I had been so busy yelling at myself internally that I had forgotten to stop and smell the pavement. I had been completely ignorant to the beautiful day around me, especially after surviving through yet another bitter, snowy winter. These days were what I longed for during negative wind chills and snow squalls. Why wasn’t I appreciating the day for what it was? Why was I so concerned with pulling myself down?
As I grow older, I’m finally realizing that I am my own worst critic. When I was younger, I attributed my success and achievements to a small voice in my head that always pushed me to be the best…looking back, I realize now that this streak of perfectionism also tinged the voice in my head with camouflaged anxiety. This fear of failure manifests itself when I mentally condemn my efforts: I have to give 100%, otherwise I won’t succeed.
But you know what? You can’t always give 100%, and you’re not always going to succeed. And sometimes, you have to completely forget why you laced up your shoes in the first place and just enjoy the cherry blossoms falling around your feet. I’m not advocating a reliance on excuses and ignorance to survive all of your shortcomings….but what I am advocating is a moment of self-reflection when your inner critic goes haywire.
Unhappy with your run? It happens. You know what doesn’t happen all the time? A warm, sunny 70-degree day in Erie, PA. A beautiful, fragrant spring day that almost escaped my awareness because I was too busy beating up myself. When I did wake up from the negative mental lecture, I stopped focusing on my shortcomings and started focusing on what I should be grateful for.
I’m (usually) able to run six miles without stopping. I’ve run four half-marathons and completed difficult obstacle courses. I fell in love with a sport and achieved success that had previously evaded me. And I’m still logging my weekly runs, month after month. I haven’t quit, and I’m still chugging along. Thinking about being frustrated over one failed run now seems silly.
Do you know what’s even sillier? Not being grateful for a gorgeous, sunny day. Let go of your inner critic. Stop and smell the pavement. The beautiful, glorious pavement.