I am a mother of two. I have raced professionally for 30 years. Apart from, perhaps, a life of manual labour, I don’t think I could have chosen two less physically demanding of careers: motherhood and sport, doubling up on both for the last 14 years.
I have had my share of exhausting days, and sleepless nights. I have gutted out repeat after repeat of leg burning, lung searing 400’s at the track and ridden so hard up hills that I thought I might just puke and keel over on my bike. You’d think I might take a break, put my feet up when the kids are at summer camp.
This occurred to me the other day, as I ran all alone, in a state of bliss, under the hot summer sun. I was running 1k repeats off a really hard bike workout. Half way through the penultimate interval, finding my stride at 700m in, I had one of those moments, where you look at yourself from the outside. As I ran though the fatigue and discomfort, willing myself to quicken my pace, run even a little harder as the discomfort increased, I realized I was completely enjoying myself, and my moment was this: am I a total oddball? Here I am, running my guts out at the track, when I could be relaxing with a coffee and a book or even getting my nails done. I am not twenty six years old any more and training for an Olympics, or a world Championships, or anything remotely glorious as all that. I wasn’t suffering for the sake of hitting a pace time or besting an opponent or anything so tangible. I was out there running fast for the sake of it.
Because I actually—and this is the truth—love that feeling of running hard and fast and pushing myself when I am fit. It is not an obsession or a love hate relationship. It is all love.
Truthfully, I didn’t actually think all that while I was running. I was much too immersed in the act of running as fast as I could, as effortlessly as I could, to think all that. I got about as far as “Why do I love something that is so darn hard?” After the last incredibly satisfying interval, I ran slowly on the grass around the infield. I drank in the peace and quiet of the track and forest that surrounds it, padded out some easy laps and mulled over the shiny fragments of my existential thoughts.
This is what I came up with: I don’t push myself in training because I know it’s good for me or my health (for all I know it could be just the opposite, except that I figure my emotional happiness makes up for any physical damage that is occurring.) I don’t do it to burn calories. On some practical level, as an athlete and a coach, I know that training with a progression and hitting energy systems (especially my threshold) is really good for my fitness and any races that are coming up, but those spin off effects are just secondary goals. I train hard because I love it. I love the feeling of working hard and here’s the other honest truth: When I am at the track, or in the trails, or on the road working mindfully and gracefully through discomfort and intensity, I am so totally in my element that I am completely happy. It’s what I know and it’s who I am. It’s like being intensely uncomfortable in my comfort zone, if such a thing exists.
When I run fast, although I might 15-20 seconds per mile slower than I was at 30, I feel just as youthful, empowered and strong. I have a freedom and a sense of peace with running that I couldn’t even imagine at 30. At 30 I had to be intense, selfish, focussed and afraid of getting beaten. The irony is that I couldn’t have the freedom to be what I am now if I hadn’t been there first. This has nothing to do with age though. It has everything to do with accepting what I love and not fighting it.
The satisfaction at the end of workouts like this is almost indescribable. A lot of athletes get this. As a coach, I am always trying to get to the nitty gritty of this question with my athletes. When the moment comes, do they embrace the pain or run away from it. Do they fight it or willingly let it in. Do they call it ‘interesting feeling’ or ‘deep dark place’. In every hard workout and in every race, there is the moment where you cross the line from comfort to discomfort. How well are you prepared for that moment and when it happens how you respond? I welcome it like an old friend, I give it a great big hug and I use it to get the best of myself. It’s not pain, it’s joy. It’s just a sensation; it transcends fear and calms the unquiet mind.
It’s my happy place. My home.
Run for Joy!
I have several recurring conversations with parents about kids and sport and one looks like this:
“My kid loves to run: what should I do to support her?”
I also talk a lot about kids and anxiety in sport, kids and development and kids and pressure, all wonderful topics worth exploring. But it’s Elementary Cross Country season here in Saanich, so here is what you can think about as you watch your runner participate!
Over the last 8 years I have coached a few hundred runners in the elementary school system. Some of the most rewarding experiences have included the kids who simply show up, for every practice with a smile on their face. Running is perhaps the one sport they can do and feel good about, in a world of competitive sports that requires superior athleticism and hand eye coordination and ball and stick skills. In running, they are in sole command of the skills and the perseverance to get through a 10 minute race.
If your kid loves to run, all you have to do is support her! She doesn’t need extra training at this level, but needs to show up to practices and be a good sport to her teammates. Your job is make sure she has some flexible running shoes to run in, and get her to the races and back home again. If you can make it to the races, your job is to watch her race with a smile on your face and be there at the finish line to watch her finish.
If your child is in Grade 3, which is when they can start, he is only 8 years old and running should be simply fun. If your son is in Grade 5, he is only 10 or 11 and running races should still be more about fun than anything. Developmentally, children are all over the place with their physical bodies, and emotionally are unable to think or be like high performance athletes, so focussing on winning or placing is not a great idea and the pressure can turn kids off running for good. The kid in jeans with the longest legs can well win all the races in one year. The kid who plays hockey might win them all in Grade 5. These kids may or may not ever run competitively past Grade 8. The small kids who come well back in the 30’s might develop into middle distance track stars or Olympic marathoners for all we know, so please try and downplay winning and race outcome at this age.
Running is an individual sport, with a pretty straightforward pathway from start to finish line, only one kid can win and someone has to come last, but at the development level, running is a really about being a part of a school sport, testing yourself and running as fast and as well as your body can go. The Finish line does not exist to showcase the winning runner, but as a way for every child to find some personal success along the path.
When I am coaching kids, I focus on Fun, Skill, and Personal power. My goal is that every child has fun, and finds a skill or skills to work on, and comes away with a new literacy around running that lasts for their whole life. In a nutshell, in four short weeks we work on:
· Positive thinking
· Seeing yourself succeed
· Dealing with discomfort
After races, and at the end of the season, I always try to get kids to reflect on their personal experience: what they learned, what they found fun, what skills they would like to improve. These statements are probably more enlightening (and rewarding for me to read) than anything else, as to the experience of kids in sport. Often we, as adults, coaches and parents, put our own expectations on our kids and they are so way off base. We want them to have fun, but fail to listen to what is fun. We underestimate the power that sport experience has on small beings, and that for those that dare to toe the line (and I think it takes a huge amount of courage to toe the line in Cross Country) how they grow for taking that chance. As you read these statement below (all real, recorded by the runners at Sidney School at the end of the season), take note of the effort, the personal sense of agency (power to act), and the exhilaration around the experience. One of these kids might be your child:
I loved how many races there were and how it was on trail grass and road
I liked the middle of the races and how I had to try there
I liked running as a team
I fell down and got back up
Getting faster with every race and feeling that I was fast
I liked training
I appreciated that I could try over three races
I loved the sprinting parts
I like the big hill and how hard it was and how you had to try really hard there
I got healthier
I got faster at running
I liked watching my scores and placing ribbons
I liked participating in the training and he racing
I liked that I improved
I liked the feeling of running, especially the wind in my hair
I loved the feeling of being so tired at the end of the race you want to fall over.
What can you do to support your young runner? Let them run free and happy. Ask them what they like about running and racing, run with them and at the end of the day simply say:
I love watching you run!
Run For Joy!
March 4, 2016
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.