You know that phrase, “She never wavered”? This is often said about someone who experiences a period of trial and remains steadfast through it all. “She was a beacon of strength! She never doubted herself!” people say to describe this person. They extol her non-wavering virtues until you can almost see her clenched fist powering through the clouds, Superman style. “She never once wavered!”
And then there’s me. I’m a super waver-er.
Don’t get me wrong; wavering isn’t the same as quitting. I’ll hang in there with the best of them. It’s just that I have my doubts along the way. Like a duck pass from the arm of Peyton Manning, I usually make it to my destination. It’s just not always pretty.
Lately, I’ve been particularly waver-y. In March, April, and July, I was supposed to run three big-ish races: a half, a full, and another half, respectively.
I wasn’t feeling awesomely confident leading up to the first half marathon, but I ran hard and it went okay.
I was considerably less confident before the full. I pulled my name from the lineup four days before the race and never made the trip.
Then I had a few good workouts. Then I had a few rough workouts.
By the time July rolled around, I was enthusiastically doubting my ability.
I ran hard and wound up with a giant meh of a race. I knew I could do better. So I got mad. I signed up for Rock ‘n’ Roll St. Louis in October. I was determined to be faster. I began running workouts focused on speed.
I had a few good workouts. I had a few rough workouts.
And now I have no idea if I’m gonna run well in October or not.
In the throes of my misgivings, I called my dear friend Jackie, who also happens to be an elite runner. Jackie never fails to encourage me—not with cheerleader antics or canned encouragement, but because she—a 2:42 marathoner—says things like this:
“I’m doubting myself right now.”
“Am I doing the right workouts? Am I doing the right recovery to be prepared?”
“Am I going to be able to keep doing this? I can’t keep doing this. It’s too hard.”
A conversation with Jackie is like that section in Us Weekly- you know the one- “Stars! They’re Just Like Us!” (Don't act like you've never read Us Weekly on an airplane or two.) It’s simply pictures and captions of celebrities doing everyday things, like walking their dogs (“They walk their dogs!”), going to lunch, (“They go to lunch!”), and using the same Dolce and Gabbana handbag more than once (“They use the same Dolce and Gabbana handbag more than once!”).
Jackie! She’s just like us!
“Okay,” I said over the phone, “you’re obviously an elite runner, but I know you’ve talked about getting nervous before workouts and races. What kind of doubts do you have, and how do you deal with those doubts?”
“Whew,” she took a deep breath, “that’s a loaded question.”
She talked about an injury-plagued spring, juggling a new job that started last month, and being the mother of two daughters—while training for the Olympic marathon trials in January.
“It’s a constant battle,” she continued. “Honestly, I’ve had great workouts the last three months. It doesn’t sound right that I’d be doubting myself. But there’s that anxiety before a workout on the calendar—a key workout—because I know I have to hit it because it is the workout that will give me the confidence that I’ll be ready for the race.”
So how does she handle her anxiety before a hard workout?
“What you are trying to do is always overwhelming. For me, it’s just hanging on and knowing that it’s going to get better. It always does. I just do the first mile and do what I can. And then I do the next mile. And the next. I take it one mile at a time. And then I’ll blow the workout out of the water. But still, I’m constantly like, ‘I can’t do this workout. No freaking way.’
“I think it just comes down to, ‘Are you going to do this or not?’” she says of the internal dialogue that takes place during her workouts. “'If your body can’t really do it, then you won’t do it. Your legs won’t do it. But if you can, then you’re just scared of suffering.’ And I’m scared of suffering.
“We don’t want to be uncomfortable. But that’s what we do. Whenever I do those workouts I’m nervous about or races I’m scared of, they always help me grow. Afterwards, I feel so good—which is part of the reason I run. It’s like I can do anything, even though I totally didn’t think I could.”
Then she put another spin on pre-race anxiety. For every runner, the start line presents a choice.
“I put myself in that really scary situation—” she is speaking of the beginning of a race—“and I have to ask myself, ‘Do you want it or don’t you? Because no one is making you run. No one is making you wake up in the morning and get on the treadmill or go out on the trail. But you did it.'
“Every workout I’m scared. Tomorrow I have a workout, and I’m scared. But I know that I’m going to bring my best that day, and if it’s not what I expected," she pauses, "then that’s what my body is going to give that day. I’m never going to give less. And how can you be mad at yourself if that is your motto? The only time I’m mad after a bad workout is if I cheated myself and didn’t do my best because I was scared.”
What about when you doubt yourself in a marathon?
“Something that helps me get through all of my runs is knowing that this [the pain] is going to pass. I think, ‘Oh, my god! I feel miserable and I still have this much to go!’ It’s a natural thing to ask yourself. But my response is to train my brain to say, ‘This isn’t gonna last.’ And I get better as I move forward.
“Everyone has rough patches. It always passes, so if you can just hold on, it’s gonna be over soon. Our bodies can do so much more than our minds limit us to, if we just allow it and embrace what’s happening and say, ‘You're okay. You’re not gonna die.' You’re long distance running. It’s not supposed to be comfortable. And it will get fun again.”
I hung up the phone, encouraged and comforted. And the next day, Jackie ran her workout, the one she said scared her.
She nailed it.
3 miles at 7:15s followed by 9 miles at 6:25s followed by 6 miles at 6:10s followed by 5 miles at 5:52s with 10 half-mile repeats built in at 3-6% incline for a total of 23 miles.
Elite runners! They’re just like us!
Only really, really, really fast.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story. Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.