setbacks exist for you to learn from

Originally, this was meant to be a simple post about the things you can learn from injury as a runner. Then the world shifted around us as a pandemic affected every aspect of modern society, and it has become a little more than that.

I’m not going to ignore what’s going on, because there is something going on and it’s pretty major. It would be inconsiderate to pretend otherwise, and my heart goes out to those who are sick, losing loved ones, losing work… My heart goes out to everyone who has been affected negatively in these crazy times.

However.

This is for the runners, because if I can help one group of people, runners are it.

If, like so many of us, you’ve had a race cancelled or are needing to change the way you’re training under quarantine… well, it sucks, but shit happens. There are lessons to be learned here, same as happens when you get injured. Life doesn’t always go according to plan. I guarantee you, there is no trouble you may run into that you cannot learn something from. You might have to take a light and peer around in the darkness for a while to find the thing, but it’s there.

Here are a handful of the things I’ve found to be true over the years.

1. Give your best every time- but don’t wrap all your emotions into one race, one effort.

This one is tricky, because on one hand I want to encourage you to put your heart out on the line every time you compete. Give it all you have, because why are you in this sport otherwise? And as we’ve all learned over the course of the last few weeks… there may come a time when you don’t have a race on the calendar, you don’t have that chance at redemption you wanted, that backup plan, that opportunity to prove yourself.

If you’d known earlier the race you’d planned for this spring was going to be canceled or postponed, if you knew the next few months of your career as a runner were going to make it impossible to know when you’ll next toe the line… would you have pushed a little harder another day?

I guess what I’m trying to say is, you never know which race is going to be your last (for a while, or forever). I want you to give every race the best you have. Put your soul on the line every time if this matters to you.

But at the same time… This is on race day. This is day of, all in, the gun’s gone off. If something happens beyond your control leading up to the race… well, that’s when you need to let go.

Along with so many other people, I was excited to run Boston this year. I’ve wanted to ever since my mom did in 2007. She came home with a really cool jacket, and I wanted one. More importantly, I wanted to earn it.

I ran three Boston-qualifying marathon times in 2019. It sucks that I don’t get to run the most renowned marathon in the world in a few weeks. It’s not fun wondering whether it’s worth continuing to train in the hopes that the new date in September still holds, it’s not fun worrying that lockdowns will still be in place long enough to affect that date as well, and it’s frustrating to know I won’t get the same historical Boston experience that to me is associated with April.

But that’s life and you know what? There will be more chances. There will be more races, more opportunities. This is why I believe in planning and hoping for the best, but… whatever race you’re missing isn’t the be-all, end-all. At the end of the day, no matter what the race… it is one race, out of many. One day. And the fact is, you don’t get to run it. Let go. Change your perspective.

Which brings me to my next point.

2. Do what you can.

I should have known at 4 am, when I woke up with a gurgling and bloated stomach, that I wouldn’t be racing well at the New Orleans Rock n Roll half marathon. I should have known when the meager sips of coffee I consumed made me nauseous.

But when the gun went off I was there, pushing anyway. I held on okay until about mile 6, when the wheels just fell off. I’d stepped aside to try and get myself to throw up- I’ll spare you the details, but at that point I felt so sick I just gave up and started walking.

I think often, things happen for a reason. And though my race went poorly, as you can imagine, I don’t regret it, because someone gave me some very good advice.

An old man with a full marathon bib chugged past me as I wobbled along the side of the road.

“Come on, you’ve got this,” he called out. He slowed down as I began to jog and kept pace with me.

“Do what you can,” he said.

“Just do what you can. I know it’s probably not what you wanted, but adjust your goals and just keep moving.”

I nodded, focusing on the bumps and crevices in the pavement, the swaying green of the trees. He ran with me for a few miles and every time I lagged, every time I mumbled to myself, he repeated his wisdom.

“Just do what you can.” While not a revolutionary statement, having a total stranger support me with this message throughout the race made it stick in my skull like nothing else could have. Again- this is a lesson that holds true for injury, cancelled races, and honestly just life in general.

Maybe you’re not allowed outside right now. Maybe you don’t have access to a gym, or a park. You probably aren’t competing soon.

So… what can you do?

Strength training is always an option. Just Google an at-home, no-equipment workout for the specific body part you want to work on. Or look for good “runner” workouts. Seriously, if you have internet access, you have a world of options.

If you live in a studio with obnoxious downstairs neighboors who jab their ceilings with a broom every time you make noise… focus on something else. Stretch. Foam roll. Work on mental strategy, visualization (check out “The Runner’s Brain” for ideas). See how lightly you can do a strength workout. Practice your balance. Learn how to cook healthier meals for fuel. Rework your training plan.

Get creative. You have options, no matter what’s happening. Worst case scenario, learn how to rest and take care of yourself.

3. Stay positive – use your light to inspire others.

This is a time for gratitude. If you have a home, if you are safe, if you have access to food, if you are healthy… this is not everyone’s reality. Whatever you have, be grateful. Stay positive. For yourself, and other people.

It doesn’t help anyone to complain about the things that don’t go your way. Life happens, injuries happen, pandemics happen (hopefully not too often)… Complaining solves absolutely none of those issues. You know what does? Starting with a positive attitude. Which I know sounds like something your parents told you after a time-out when you were six years old, but there’s wisdom there.

When you strive to look for the good, you’re probably going to find the good. That helps you, but it also helps other people. You know when you’re scrolling on Facebook, and you’re confronted with a wall of people bitching about their lives? Does that make you feel good? I doubt it.

Every interaction you have is like that- your words will always have an impact on someone else. So don’t contribute to the whining. Be honest about your struggles, but show up as a strong individual that is struggling… not someone who thinks the world is out to get them. This is especially important right now because everyone’s leaning on social media to connect and engage with each other. When used properly, it’s a great tool- so use it properly. If you can find a light in this tunnel, share it.

It will remind other people to look for that light too.

4. Use this as an opportunity to learn about yourself.

Who are you when the things you identify yourself with are stripped away? Who are you without your run group, your Friday night dinner outings, your cafe excursions and international adventures? Who are you when you’re not in the office?

Who are you when you are not able to identify yourself with doing, only being?

One of the most valuable things we can learn in life is who we are, alone. Even if you live with other people, try and use this time to get to know yourself a little better as a person. What qualities reveal themselves to you? Good or bad, they are worth learning about. Listen to yourself, journal if it helps. Just think, really think, about what makes you, you – outside of the things that you do.

5. Things that are tough make you a better runner.

This is my belief, anyway (so much so that I’ve written about it before).

Running is a mental sport. Your success as an athlete, especially the further you get into an endurance sport, is largely reliant upon the extent to which you’re able to train your mind. You need to be comfortable with the unknown, with being uncomfortable, with being in pain and with your muscles screaming hey now, wouldn’t it be better to stop here?

You need to understand how best to quiet the demons in your head. You need to have experienced some kind of challenge before.

So yeah, right now we’re all having a tough time. No one loves the fact that we’re living in fear of a pandemic, dealing with an economic recession and being asked to stay home all the time.

But you’ve been challenged before, right? In other ways, maybe. Few people I know have experienced anything like this. But you, in your life, have struggled. Whether on a large scale or just getting over some of the fears in your heart… you have that skillset. Now is the time to develop it further.

That way, when the world shifts again – because it won’t go back to the old “normal”, but it will change, and I believe for the better – you’ll be able to carry that into the aspects of your life that matter to you. Of course, I’m talking about running here, but the ability to overcome challenge serves you in other areas of life. Why’d you think so many distance runners are doctors or lawyers, jobs that are tough and require dedication? A common theme among the biographies of ultra runners is that they struggled in some way before they became runners, and were eventually able to apply that grit and perseverance they’d learned throughout their lives to running.

Setbacks exist for you to learn from.

What can you learn from this?

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