My fourth week of training for the St. Jude Memphis Marathon was a success on multiple levels. I pushed my body to levels I haven’t hit in a while, finishing the week with 50 miles in 7 hours, 4 minutes, and 40 seconds of runnings (average of 8:26/mile). On faster tempo runs, I hit my target paces, and I did my long run of 14 miles at an 8:26 pace. The coming week is another high volume week before a slight drop down week for recovery. I am at 140 miles, so far, for August and building the volume to build confidence in my ability to cover the marathon distance.
Rather than focus on the physical successes of this week, of which there are many, I want to think more through the mental aspects, benefits, and risks of this training. This week, of the more than 7 hours I spent running, all but about 2 hours and 20 minutes of that time was spent running alone.
Another thing I think about often is that many of us who get into endurance sports are running from something. If I look back to when I first started running, eighth grade, I think running presented an escape from feelings of not fitting in. Runs offered an escape. But it can be an addictive behavior, too, though certainly preferable to other such behaviors. But if we’re always running from something, then when or where can we stop? At some other point, I’ll link out to some of the literature on the topic of how running is good for anxiety or depression. I do recommend this piece from Brad Stulberg from last week: “Athletes Share their Mental Health Coping Strategies.”
Increasingly, I wonder: what am I running toward? It is in that time spent alone, putting in the effort and work when nobody is watching, when I feel most vulnerable and most honest. What I might value most about the physical endurance challenge is that we’re forced to confront our true selves. I can take stock of my life and of what’s missing. Spending so many miles and hours alone–when I am only with the sound of feet, my breathing, and my thoughts–lends itself to introspection. Sometimes I can run miles without really thinking at all (I think all runners have those “Wait, how did I get across that intersection?” moments, when we’re so into it that getting from point A to point B is a blur). More often, however, I find runs to be a deeply philosophical moment. I might be surprised with a thought that comes up or might spend time thinking through something that has been on my mind. Sometimes I feel like I am running from demons or running from a sense of emptiness.
Rather than run from those voids, I need to run toward something, toward being a better person and being a better person outside of my career, where so often success is measured by what I am doing or offering but very little by what am I getting out of it in terms of meaning and fulfillment. In pushing myself to the physical limits and finding that pace of exhaustion, I can prioritize everything that matters. The popular musical film The Greatest Showman highlight fictionalizes the life of P.T. Barnum in problematic ways, but there’s something in the lyrics to “From Now On” that resonates with me:
I drank champagne with kings and queens. The politicians praised my name. But those were someone else’s dreams, the pitfalls of the man I became. For years and years, I chased their cheers, the crazy speed of always needing more. But when I stop and see you here, I remember who all this was for.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “From Now On”
So much of my life, I think, has shifted in balance toward a professional identity. I like what I do, but in my time as a department chair, I think so much comes out of what my value is to others or, even worse, what do I need to do to keep climbing and make myself useful. It is through running, which I understand may be as addictive a habit as overworking, I can strip away those layers of having to perform for others and find that core of myself and have a conversation with myself.
This weekend, I watched #Ironmind, an imperfect series from London Real host Brian Rose that follows his preparation for a half Ironman triathlon, I was stuck by the following idea from Gabor Maté.
By the standards of a materialistic world, success looks a certain way. The more positive feedback you get, the more you get sucked into it. But as for your success and my success, there’s a subtext. Do they really want me? Or is it what I’m doing for them that they want? So this is where the hunger comes from because you never get enough. Because by doing, you’re never satisfied when your hunger is about being and not having been accepted just for being.
Gabor Maté in #Ironmind – Episode 8 (embedded below)
Going forward, I have to figure out how work toward the sort of success that is satisfying–the sort of success that fills the voids rather than sending me running from it. If I said I knew what that success looked like or felt like, I’d be lying. The journey, always, is about coming a little closer to understanding this tomorrow than I do today.
And I have to remember that even when I have my best weeks, someone is working harder and doing better. When I’m lucky, it’s my younger brother, and we’re pushing each other. And the best part of a journey like this is that it’s both shared and individual.
As I prepare for the St. Jude Memphis Marathon, I am also fundraising with the St. Jude Heroes program. In 2017, the Memphis Marathon Weekend raised over $10.3 million for the care and research activities of the hospital. You can support my fundraising efforts here.