I often wonder where the expectations we place upon ourselves come from. Is it the people we choose to surround ourselves with? The subliminal influence of society as a whole? Or is it something even more deeply rooted, something we are born with?
Certainly many of our self imposed expectations are formed as young children, when we are taught right from wrong. And they are further instilled as we learn what is required from us as individuals in order to coexist in any given environment, whether that be with family, peers at school, or society as a whole.
I’m clearly not an expert in human behavior, so I’ll get right to the point: during today’s long run, I had a fascinating conversation with myself (as one does, during long runs) about my personal running and fitness expectations.
Today was my first long run of my Long Haul 100 training cycle. A whopping six miles. I constantly remind myself and others to never say “only” when referring to a distance, as all mileage should be celebrated. What may be easy for one runner, may be difficult for another. Hell, what was once easy for you may become difficult for you in the future. What matters is that you got out there and ran. So we should celebrate every step, whether it’s 20 or 20,000.
But I digress.
Today’s long run was 6 (six) miles. During the peak training weeks of Country Mile 100 earlier this year, my weekday “short” runs were upwards of 12 miles, with my back to back long runs maxing out at 30 & 20- that’s fifty full miles run over the weekend. Back then, six miles was a distance I wouldn’t even necessarily think twice about. It was simple. And when you’re in the middle of peak training, it’s easy to imagine there will never again be a time in your life where six miles is something you would ever consider difficult.
But here we are: it’s July, it’s stifling hot and suffocatingly humid, I honestly haven’t been running much, and suddenly, 6 miles was indeed very difficult.
There was a time in my life – quite recently, if we’re being honest – where struggling through 6 miles would have pissed me right off. I would have dove head first into a sea of negative thoughts, the self inflicted condemnation over the fact that I “let my fitness go” so thick and heavy it would make me choke on my already labored breathing. Each step of the run I would choose to suffer – physically and emotionally.
“That’s what you get for not being disciplined.”
“I can’t believe you let yourself get here. How many times have you done this before? Will you ever learn?”
“No wonder no one ever takes you seriously, you don’t even take your own running seriously.”
You get the idea. The unrealistic expectation I had set for myself as a runner and an educated professional in the fitness world is that I should never not be in tip top shape. Sure, there will be training macrocycles that dictate at certain points in the year I’m in better shape than others, but I should never struggle.
I should never find myself here.
I’m not exactly sure where these expectations came from. Perhaps it’s from spending the majority of my adult life in gyms, where I witnessed firsthand that to the outsider, education doesn’t matter nearly as much as how fit you look, how much you can lift, or how fast you can run. Maybe it was from my early days in the running world, when I was laughed at and met with eye rolls every time I had to miss a group run due to motherhood – clearly I wasn’t that dedicated to the sport. Or maybe it was from something even more deeply entrenched, something that a mental health professional has to dig up in order for me to have that moment of understanding.
I suppose it doesn’t particularly matter. The point is: this form of self reproach was – is – not a positive nor healthy habit.
“Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack.” – Brandon Sanderson
But moving on, the story I really want to tell brings us to today. And today? My thoughts did not go to that negative, disparaging place. Rather, today my inner dialogue was one surprisingly full of compassion. Of grace.
“Yeah this is hard…but…you’ve spent the last few months enjoying other things! How kick ass is it to have so many activities that bring you joy!”
“How incredible is it that you can take months off from running, and still run 6 miles? Remember last year when you feared you’d never run again? Your body is friggin awesome.”
“You’ve done this before, body, I have no doubt that you can and WILL do this again. Even better than last time!”
Instead of being mad about the running fitness lost, I thought about how amazing it is that I know without a doubt that this body – my body – can go from where a 6 mile run feels difficult to a place where I’m crushing 100 mile weeks and 100 mile races again in the matter of 29 more weeks. I KNOW it can, because it’s done it before.
Instead of dreading the struggle of “getting back there”, I chose to feel excitement about the transformation my body is about to make, again.
Instead of focusing on how hard each step was, I thought about how each difficult step was actually one step closer to that end goal. A penny in the training bank, if you will.
And pennies, my friends, add up.
Further? It feels incredible to start a training cycle on a positive note. For me, that in and of itself is worth so much more than an effortless training run or a speedy finish time.
I’m certain that at this point, I sound like a broken record. But here’s the thing you must remember: running is a lifetime sport. And it’s absolutely unrealistic to think that during your lifetime you’re always going to be at your peak. It’s completely natural to have downtimes. Hell, I’d even argue: it’s good for you. The majority of us are not elite runners, and the world is full of so many other things to do and enjoy.
And I promise you, no matter how many times you have to restart…it doesn’t make you any less of a runner.
So if you choose to take time off, or if you have to take time off, for whatever reason, find peace with your decision.
And when you come back to running? Choose to get excited about the process. Choose to be grateful for the opportunity, even if it means starting from scratch. Choose to see the joy in running – the reason why you fell in love with it in the first place.
You’ll be amazed at where the journey takes you.
196 days to go.