The limp started at mile 19. What I practiced became ugly, my stride a parody of itself from just moments before. My left hamstring didn’t care that seven miles remained in the Chicago Marathon. That it never recovered from a strain three weeks prior was now painfully obvious; I hobbled and slowed with every stride. My leg’s priority was self-preservation. No amount of manual override or positive self-talk was going to heal it spontaneously. My goal of a personal record was dead for the day.
Still, I jogged; I walked; I occasionally skipped spastically when my brain fired down an electric memo through the sciatic nerve that this was a bad idea. Sitting for a brief spell at mile 23 calmed it a touch, but resuming normal speed remained out of the question. Several blown-out runners, their legs desiccated by one mistake or another, offered me support, even company. The rest blew by; their eyes focused down the road and finish line a mere 5K away.
After almost an hour of agony, I mustered a weak sprint as I crossed the line, a show of pride and frustration. My eyes were wide, disappointed. Volunteers offered water, Mylar blankets, finisher’s medals and photo ops. I shook them off. I wanted to be alone in a sea of 40,000 people. I wanted to start over. A thousand miles training in the swampy South summer for this result? This? I kicked the ground in disgust. I’d put all my emotional energy into this one day and failed.
I brooded. I pouted. I was generally no fun to be around for the next week.
A month later, I signed up to run Chicago again.
Everyone knows the cliché, “It’s all about the journey, not the destination.” Many of us share this wisdom without taking the time to appreciate the meaning behind it fully. On some base level, we know it has to do with finding things we’re excited about, working hard to get the best out of ourselves and staying in the moment. At the same time, those ideas are often in conflict with the larger message in our outcome-oriented society.
Consider the NBA, where the No. One seed Toronto Raptors were recently swept out of the playoffs by the rival Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite winning a franchise-record 59 games and energizing an entire country, star point guard Kyle Lowry described the season as a resounding failure. “For me, it was championship or bust, that’s what I feel,” he said after the series. “That’s what I always feel, so a wasted year for me.”
It might sound incredulous that a year could be “wasted” because of four bad games at the hands of a talented opponent (and we will, for the moment, omit the fact that Lowry is being paid upwards of $30 million per year to play this game) until we realize Lowry is just following our cultural narrative. Success is viewed from the standpoint of expectation versus outcome, with the outcome determining everything. In this light, it’s not so surprising that Toronto fired their coach after the series, mere days after he was voted Coach of the Year by his peers.
Fortunately, we as runners are in a privileged position. We’ve chosen this sport and stuck with it because we love it. This is known in the psychology world as harmonious passion. It is a self-chosen passion, one that we enable and direct ourselves. In the case of running, we put in the miles because it’s inherently enjoyable. Whether you enjoy feeling your body strain to its upper limits during an interval session or prefer leisurely strolls in the woods, you are the one deciding to step out the door every morning.
This type of passion is healthy and ideally leads to a mastery orientation. Unlike a performance orientation, where self-judgment bases your performance in comparison to others, a mastery orientation is predicated by continually learning and honing your skills. The idea isn’t necessarily to be better than a competitor but to be the best version of you.
In the academic world, Carol Dweck (1986) found that students who favor mastery orientation test equally well, retain information longer, and seem to enjoy the learning process more than those with a performance orientation. These lifelong students are similar to lifelong runners who perform as well as their externally-motivated competitors but are more apt to enjoy the experience while it’s happening and be capable of seeing “failures” as teachable moments.
That was certainly the case for me when reflecting upon Chicago. Pissed as I was, I couldn’t escape the fact that I’d loved the build-up. It wasn’t just the extra miles in the woods or the fitness levels that approached my lifetime peak. There was something more elemental, something primal.
Then it hit me. In this world where our phones are real-time atlases and satellites allow us to explore every nook and cranny of the universe from the comfort of our living rooms, I had taken a journey into the unknown. I could run a thousand miles, pour gallon upon gallon of sweat into this endeavor and, in the end, there would be no guarantee of finding what I was looking for.
It was not unlike a film director who, after months of shooting footage, never watches the finished product. The beauty was in creating, not the creation.
If I were to adopt the mastery orientation fully, I would have to accept responsibility for what occurred in Chicago and figure out how to remedy it. That would necessitate some deep dives into my personal shortcomings. The hamstring strain was a cause, not the cause. It slowed me to a crawl, but it was also emblematic of larger personal defects. I had neglected strength-training exercises that could have prevented it. I had been too cheap to get it treated when the injury did occur. And I had been too stubborn to accept those limitations and adjust my race plan accordingly.
The result of Chicago—finishing 20 minutes slower than my goal—was humbling and depressing. It was not the destination I craved. But it also charted a path for a new journey with a better version of me. It’s a journey I’m eager to begin.
By Philip Latter. Latter is a former senior writer at Running Times and co-author of Running Flow and Faster Road Racing. His work has also appeared in Runner's World, runnersworld.com, and ESPN.com. He currently coaches athletes at The Running Syndicate, in addition to his day job coaching high school runners at Brevard High School (NC).