Sunday, August 7, 2011

Lessons in Persistence

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I have a pair of shorts I still wear regularly that my mom bought for me back in high school. The edges are slightly frayed, the seam on the left side torn slightly, the string initially thread around the waist long since pulled out in the wash. But despite the stains, the missing stitches, and elastic that is growing weak, the shorts work just fine for a long run in the wood where no one cares what I look like as long as a little mud is a welcome addition.

On Friday the sun came out for the first practice all week. Wednesday’s slop fest was followed by an even worse run on Thursday where the valley between two mountains was a wind tunnel and the rain pelted our faces with such a stinging force that I couldn’t look ahead without squinting and shielding my eyes for a quick glance. My coat rustled in the wind like a parachute, and the wind howled so loud I could hardly speak to people right beside me.

On Friday we talked about mental toughness. Sure, the conditions were miserable Thursday and some of the athletes were ill prepared—but could they have pushed further? So much of athletics is mental toughness: what do you believe you are capable of? When the wind and rain are in your face, can you run a couple more steps? A half-mile? Four?

If there is one thing I have gained from twelve years of running, it is an increased appreciation for the difference between mind and body. Eight years of organized competition and two marathons later I know that it is very easy to cave when the workout is hard, the conditions are bad, or I just don’t feel good. And sometimes—knowing that I could continue—I stop.

One morning a couple summers ago Curtis and I woke four hours before church to fit in a twenty-mile run. It was a rainy day at the end of a month long visit that we spent sleeping on a futon at my mom’s house, and I just couldn’t do it. I was leaving to fly back to the Midwest without Curtis, who had to finish a rotation. My body was tired from the endless miles that I was logging at the peak of marathon training, and the endless rain that August grated on my optimism. I wanted sunshine. I wanted more sleep. I wanted more time with my husband. I had mentally lost the battle for that run hours before my alarm went off as I lay awake in bed dreading it.

After church we had a four-hour block before dinner, before my flight, and we set out to complete the deferred run. It was still gray and raining, but the earlier defeat had not sat well with me, and I knew if I got on the plane without completing it I would spend fourteen hours disappointed. So Curtis hopped on the bike and we ran…and ran…and ran. All the way out to my old house, past the school I would get a job at two years later, up the epic hill that challenged me endlessly on summer training runs in high school and college, and around the routes that I traced during high school practices over and over again.

I walked away from that run soaked, chaffing, and with an aching Achilles tendon that would give me trouble for the next three weeks. But I got onto that plane with soreness that kept me awake and satisfied on three flights, and through the full day of in service training that followed. I had won the mental fight that day, and would find that training perhaps even more valuable when the marathon race the following September turned into a battle to finish rather than to hit a particular time.

Coaching a high school team that runs on the same trails and races at the same venues that I did is a perfect avenue for wandering down memory lane on a regular basis. And in revisiting specific runs and races I find myself measuring how far I have been stretched and how much I have experienced since high school.

A lot of my athletes would benefit greatly from an extra measure of mental toughness, that will to push through discomfort and adversity when they meet it in practice or races. The reality is that most of them haven’t had the opportunity to gather it yet. They haven’t yet really struggled for something, fought for something, worked against opposition for a goal that couldn’t possibly be lost. And that, perhaps, is my favorite part of coaching. While I can’t force anyone to fight for a race or a workout that they could just as easily coast through, I can certainly offer them the opportunity.

Sometimes one opportunity is all it takes: the chance to learn that pushing a moment longer, hanging on a second more is the difference between success and just another day. At times the only thing on the line is a race, or a long run in training for a bigger event. Other times it’s one more day at work, one more conversation about a difficult topic, or one more hour of being optimistic about a difficult situation. Whatever is at stake, I feel like challenging workouts and long runs on the trails have trained me to withstand the circumstances in life that wear me down to a breaking point. There may be nothing special about a pair of old running shorts and trails that weave through neighborhoods around town, but this is the uniform I wore in learning important life lessons, and those routes hold the same nostalgia as a valuable text.

I wish I could share these truths with high school students in a language they would understand. I would love for them to understand that fighting for a workout is good practice for fighting for substance in life . But I know that if someone had told me all this when I was fourteen, I would have raised an eyebrow and tucked it in the back of my mind with wisdom that I knew to have value but didn’t quite understand.

Years down the road, when I had learned the truth for myself, I would have finally understood what I had to recognize for myself—and I hope that they can do the same.

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