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!
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.