"It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem'd to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meager?
Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," 1891/92
This Sunday morning was a "step-back" run (and I love the day when the "shorter" run is only thirteen miles. It feels like progress.). I normally run on Saturdays, so I didn't know many of the people out on the road today, although it generally seemed like a fast bunch. Not surprisingly, then, I ran alone.
Around mile ten, I was pouring myself a swig of Gatoradeand, if you have been reading this blog, you know my take on itwhen a small group of runners that I had passed a few minutes earlier ran up to the water stop. I said hello, and, with no preamble, one of the men informed me that he had run a race yesterday and pushed himself hard, and so he was really feeling the effects today. I asked him what race he had run and how it had gone, and he answered quickly before adding "many of the faces [I] was seeing here" in his group raced yesterday. I had the distinct impression that the subtext of this brief encounter was, "If our legs were fresh, my friends and I would have lapped you five miles ago."
Over the years, I have found this kind of conversation is not uncommon. I have to believe that I am far from the only one who finds himself waiting for a race to start and having a conversation with someone who, out of the blue, will provide a litany of reasons for why he or she is ill-prepared, or over-tired, for the coming run. Similarly, at the finish line, there is usually at least one person who, rather than celebrate the accomplishment, will immediately begin explaining why it doesn't truly represent what he or she is capable of.
And, the truth is, while I try my best not to say these sorts of things to other runners, I certainly say them to myself. Even when running alone, I am running with and against my expectations of myself, and, as if this opponent is not formidable enough, the sight of another runner is usually good for a burst of speed until either mental discipline or fatigue reasserts itself. I have two phrases that I repeat silently when I suddenly notice I have picked up my pace in order to (try to) match another runner: "run your race," and "stay in yourself." Granted, this doesn't always do the trick, but it at least reminds me that, unless I am in the last half-mile of a true race, I am not running to beat this or that runner, but to reach my personal goal. And honestly, racing other runners is far easier, for when they beat me, I know it is simply because they were faster.
But failing to live up to my own expectations? Now that stings. No wonder we make excuses. My hunch is that we are not explaining our performance to others, but to ourselves. I have more I want to say about this topic, but I am struck by how much I run with, from, or against my own insecuritiesmy fears that I am not strong enough, or fast enough, or attractive enoughand yes, I know how silly that last sounds, particularly when no one looks good after ten miles. But let's be honest: our egos are one of the things that we either lug around or let go on a run, and the latter is not as easy it sounds. One of the great rewards of growing older is that the prod of vanity has diminished significantly; still, there are always moments when, rather than simply enjoying the run, my concern is that other runners are judging my performance, and me, and finding both wanting.
When we reflect on our feelings calmly, dispassionately, of course we all know that other runners are quite likely NOT thinking about us when we run. Like we do, they have plenty to keep them occupied: they are watching their form, their time, their playlist, the traffic, and, who knows, perhaps they are competing in that same race within themselves that we are running. But the mind can be unruly, particularly when we are tired, and I have learned that I have to train myself to stay focused on the task at hand nearly as much as I have to train my body to run a certain distance or pace.
This is a long, difficult race. It may be impossible to outrun my insecurities entirely, but I am trying, one step at a time.