I notice it most with running. Wanting to push beyond the limit of what I can normally expect from my body and from my mind. But the problem with pushing limits is the bar is then being constantly reset, and the definition of what is normal is redefined.
While three years ago I spent three months training for a half marathon that left my body aching for three weeks after the race and me cursing that I will never run that far again, now I am running farther than that race every weekend, at a faster pace, and with barely any fatigue the next day. Running is addictive. Sure, it’s a pain in the ass to be running down a path and have to concentrate on suppressing the nay-saying thoughts of your own mind as well as keeping your legs moving, but the thrill of excitement each time you realize you have passed the number of miles you ran the previous week and are still going strong, can still run farther, is more than worth it.
Yesterday I went on a hike with a couple of friends up Mt. Pilatus in Luzern, which was absolutely stunning. It just so happened that the end of the “Mountain Man” half-marathon, marathon and ultra marathon races were ending at the summit of Mt. Pilatus, and we had to share a series of very steep switchbacks with these people who had just run an insane distance up and down mountains.
They all looked like they wanted to keel over and die, except for a few. The main characteristic of the people who didn’t look like they wanted to die? As I stepped aside to let them pass, these people looked me in the eye and returned my smile. Their other distinguishing characteristic? They were all women. The men all trudged up the hill like they were approaching the executioner, but every single one of the women smiled. There were only five of them, but still.*
I firmly believe the key to finishing these long runs, to keeping your mental focus, to keeping these nagging poisonous broken records of self doubt in your mind from taking over, is to smile. Even when no one else is watching. No joke. Empathy and positivity are the hallmarks of successful runners. It makes a huge difference.
Not long after our trails merged and we started seeing participants push their way up, my mind automatically and unconsciously snapped into race mode, and I started walking faster, focusing on my pacing, breathing rhythmically, eyes ahead like some kind of hunting dog. I was no longer looking around (well to be honest the scenery was very stark and bare), but focusing on the path ahead of me. A couple minutes later and I realized the two friends I was with were maybe 50 meters behind me. It was totally bizarre. Just like muscle memory, but for a combination of thoughts and actions. Freaked me out. As I stopped to wait so we could all resume our hike TOGETHER I realized what had happened. And wondered how much I do this in other parts of my life.
Have a job with a great organization in a field I love? Not enough. Need a Master’s degree. Have a Master’s degree and am getting job offers back in DC? Not enough. Need a PhD. Getting a PhD and can start to apply for these research-focused jobs? Not enough. Need to apply for ridiculously competitive leadership fellowships. Maybe I need to, you know, chill out, man. I’ve always needed to actively work at balance. It doesn’t come naturally. But I can’t help it. If I can, without burning out, push myself do do things that are special, are beyond the status quo, that seem to hold the promise of greatness, why shouldn’t I try?
I guess I’ll ponder that question on my 15 mile run this evening…
*Side note feminist rant: Fuck that race. It’s called the Mountain Man race (um, hello, women participate too), and they even give women different colored hats as the finisher’s prize – men got black, women got white. I’ve never see that before. Usually everyone who finishes gets the same giveaway. Why the gender segmentation? UGH.