Recently, I read an engaging article in the Atlantic about creating narrative arcs for our lives. I found the article fascinating, of course, because I studied English in undergrad and history in grad school and both fields are highly concerned with how we tell stories. So, naturally, I started thinking about how we mentally shape what type of runner we become and why you should create your own running narrative.
Many of us have likely developed an unintentional narrative for our running based on how we perceive ourselves in comparison to other runners or how we comprehend our shortcomings and strengths. Maybe you characterize yourself as slow, because you aren’t as fast as some other bloggers and runners you know who are whipping out sub-1:30 halfs with ease. Maybe you have begun to doom yourself to a self-fulling prophecy that you always get injured after a race, because it happened a couple of times in the past. Perhaps you’re scared to try and run a marathon because you’ve told yourself you’re not a long distance runner for so long.
Success in running is as much psychological as it is physiological. While training, recovery, and personal abilities most certainly determine our achievements, the more I learn about the sport of running, the more I believe that our perception of our abilities is the defining factor in how we run. A deliberate narrative for your running will help you improve your psychological approach to the sport and overcome mental barriers, thus leading you towards becoming your best running self, however you may define that.
Yesterday’s run was awful, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the numbers. Data-wise, the run went well: two easy miles for warm up, 4 x 1.5 miles at half marathon effort, which ended up being right at a 7:35-7:40 min/mile pace, what it should be for aiming for an 3:30:00 marathon, and a slow and gentle mile for cool down. In real life, though, this run was a fight the whole entire way. My stomach was angry at me, probably because the lunch I packed for the previous day’s hike had gotten a little spoiled in the heat without me realizing it. My legs were heavy and I was tired, both mentally and physically. It was already warm, or at least warm for Seattle.
At mile 2, I thought, I could do an easy run and still cover the same distance and just do this workout another day this week. A total of 6 miles at half marathon pace is no easy workout. Or, I could fight, mind over matter, and do my best for that day. So that’s what I did, one interval at a time.
I feel like a year ago, I would have quit. Maybe I should have quit, since I ended up run/walking my cool down mile. Still, I completed by intervals at a strong pace, which was the primary goal of that workout. I have, over the past few months, re-written in my running narrative what type of runner I am: disciplined, resilient, driven, dedicated. I don’t quit easily. BQs and bigger goals are not achieved by easy workouts; they are achieved by pushing through even when you want to quit, when you have to actively fight the physical and mental urge to stop. The marathon, after all, will involve a series of fights between the deep-seated desire to achieve my goals and the urge to just quit or ease up on the pace.
How you perceive yourself as a runner can shape your success. If you write your narrative with can’ts, won’ts, shouldn’ts, then you are mentally limiting yourself and will likely get in your own way of your goals. If you write a narrative of perseverance and dedication, where you roll with the punches and overcome mental and physical barriers.
Redemption Narrative and Overcoming Perceived Failures
Not every race is a victory. Whether it’s due to undertraining, overtraining, injury, GI distress, poor pacing, nasty weather, or just a plain off day, all of us have races, training runs, or even easy runs that we’d rather forget. We can think of these runs in two ways: one, as failures that will cause us to doubt ourselves, or two, as stepping stones on our path to our goals and as valuable lessons. The second option is a redemption narrative, in which we move past our perceived failures, take away something of value, and keep working towards our goal.
So a bad race, in the redemption narrative, is not a bad race. It is a race which taught us the value of proper pacing, showed us which gels simply do not agree with our stomachs, or revealed to us the mental demons which we must learn to overcome. Whether we reached our goals or not, the race itself is only what we make of it and how we move forward from it.
Why do you run? Part of creating your own running narrative is discerning why you run. Staying connected with the reasons why you run and how you developed your passion for running will help you stay motivated and continue to be an eager and joyful participant in the sport for many years.
Understanding your intrinsic motivation will also help you clearly determine your goals and thus shape your identity has a runner. Not every runner has to be a marathoner; if you find more exhilaration in the fleet-footed pace of shorter races and are more motivated to train through track workouts than long runs, then why force yourself to train for longer distances? Write your running narrative so you do what you love, whether it’s 5Ks, trail ultras, or pure and simple raceless running.
Be the runner you want to be and be that well. Don’t let extrinsic pressure shape what type of runner you are, whether it’s running marathons several times a year or signing up for every fun 5K. Don’t let doubts and “can’ts” limit you from being your best. Running can bring out the best of you, so let you running narrative do exactly that.
Questions of the Day:
Have you created a narrative for your running? What type of runner do you perceive yourself as?
What mental obstacles hinder you from achieving your goals?
What’s your motivation?