Actually, it was a terrible idea from the start. It was noon. It was 100 degrees. And for the past forty-eight hours, I had been sick. It was also my birthday, which didn’t so much compound the terribleness as simply add a touch of irrelevant sentimentality.
But the track was calling. Specifically, a 3-mile warm-up, 4 x mile at 5K pace, and then a 3-mile cool down was calling.
I was scheduled to run the workout two days before, but an unfortunate fling with the flu shelved such aspirations.
Well, I’ll be better tomorrow since tomorrow’s my birthday! I’ll wake up early, hit the track while the sun is still cresting the bleachers, and then have the rest of the day to feel delighted with myself (because that’s how I feel after a tough track workout or long run), I thought as I lay on the couch next to a bucket lined with a plastic bag. I imagined myself sitting on the back porch, drinking post-workout coffee, enjoying the fleeting breeze of a summer morning.
And then I wrenched in gastrointestinal agony.
As it turned out, I did wake up the next morning—which is always a plus—but it wasn’t early nor was it necessarily “better,” at least not in the context I had anticipated. I wanted “better” as in the definitive sense of “fully recovered.” What I got was “better” in the comparative, as in, “Yesterday, I wanted to die, and today I don’t want to die as much.”
Not quite the same.
Nevertheless, after sitting on the couch for a couple of hours and attempting to drink a little water, I came to the crackpot conclusion that I was healed (“It’s a Christmas miracle!”) and pulled on my running clothes, finally changing out of the pajamas I had been wearing for the past forty-eight hours. I checked the outside temperature. The high for the day was 101. It was already nearing the century mark.
Why is it so hot already? I exclaimed with contempt at the obviously erroneous reading on Weather.com. I looked at the clock. 11:58. It was almost noon. Oh. That’s why.
And then I grabbed my stuff and headed to the nearest high school track.
I should have known the workout was doomed when I decided to shorten my 3-mile warm-up to a 1-mile jog. I felt tired. And nauseated.
You just need to get your legs under you, I told myself as I continued in one of the stupidest endeavors I’ve ever undertaken. And not throw up. Don’t throw up.
I was approximately a half mile into the first mile repeat when I reluctantly admitted the workout wasn’t going to happen that day. I wasn’t even close to being on pace. I thought I was going to puke. Or faint. Or both. And it was so horribly, horribly hot.
Okay, no repeats today. Finally, I had come to my senses. Why don’t you just run around the track and try to get another 4 or 5 miles in? (Okay, so not quite…)
I plodded around the track, assuring myself I wasn’t going to throw up because it was my birthday. One mile later, I called it a day. A really, really awful 2.5-mile day.
I didn’t do another workout on that track for almost 3 years.
Now, make no mistake. I did track workouts during those three years. Lots of them. Zillions of them. (At least it felt like zillions.) But not on that track. Instead, I drove far and wide to run on any high school or middle school track except that one. Because I had been traumatized. It was as though I had suffered the worst case of mental food poisoning, and that track was the last thing I had eaten before falling into the toilet.
But then, one day, I returned. There was no panoply or fanfare. There was no resolve or intention to make amends. I never said to myself, “It’s time to conquer your demons! It’s time to take back the track!” In fact, I didn’t think about it at all. I simply showed up, ran my workout (successfully, I might add), and then went home. It wasn’t until after I had showered and enjoyed a hearty plate of Mexican leftovers that I realized I had hopped on that particular track for the first time in three years.
How did something that once seemed so nightmarish suddenly dissipate to a non-issue?
It’s a bit counterintuitive, but sometimes the best way to conquer a fear is not through a direct attack, but a siege. Sometimes in order to overcome an obstacle in one area, we must build up our courage and confidence in others. Sometimes victory comes in a roundabout way.
The mental nemesis preventing me from running on the dreaded track was not insignificant. Every association I had was negative: the heat, the fatigue, the nausea, the failed repeats. But simply telling myself, “Don’t throw up” was about as effective a motivator as cheering on a favorite sports team by yelling, “Hey! Don’t lose!”
Doesn’t have a lot of inspirational ring to it.
At the same time, I didn’t have the mental strength to waltz up to the start line, throw my gear on the bleachers, and nail a workout. Instead, I had to take a more circuitous route. Instead, I had to build up my confidence, courage, and experience somewhere else. I didn’t know it at the time, but the zillions of workouts and races at other locations gave me a strength and assuredness that made the fears of the old track obsolete.
Now, I know. Some obstacles demand an all-out blitz. However, when we focus our energy on targeting the negative, it’s easy to neglect the positive altogether. Zeroed in on the mission at hand, we see only the fear we’re trying to defeat instead of the strengths at our disposal. But sometimes we don’t need a spectacular showdown. Sometimes victory comes much more quietly.
Sometimes we simply need to enlist the services of our strengths to make our weaknesses surrender.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.