Excerpted from The Inner Runner
I used to coach a recent college graduate who commented on the fact that many of the best college distance running teams in the U.S. are based in cold climates. He believed this was more than coincidence because he thought that running in cold, icy, snowy weather makes runners tougher. Anyone can run when the weather is nice, after all. But it takes a warrior to brave the elements and run outside in cold climates. I’m not sure if I agree that running in the cold makes you a better runner, but it certainly demands something of you that more temperate climates don’t. Successful runners have a certain toughness about them, a willingness to be uncomfortable, to train despite less than ideal climatic conditions. While that toughness, like certain physiological traits, is largely genetic, you can acquire toughness through training, as you become more capable of tolerating high degrees of physical discomfort. While running easy every day is easy, don’t shy away from difficult workouts, even in the rain or the cold, as they will help you develop the toughness you need to become a better runner and handle life’s difficulties.
At a recent track meet, I was talking to a fellow runner in his fifties before the start of our race. He told me, “After all these years, I still get nervous before every race.” I smiled and responded, “That’s because you know it’s going to be uncomfortable.” To which he responded, “That’s a big part of it.”
Runners do something very unique—we seek out discomfort. Yet we get nervous and anxious about it. Every interval workout and every race is physically and even emotionally uncomfortable. After you get past a certain point, whether with your total running experience or with your specific workout on Tuesday, that’s all there really is. Runners deal in discomfort. It’s our currency. The million-dollar question is why do we do this? Why do we put ourselves in a position in which we’re going to be physically uncomfortable, especially when we know the anxiousness and nervousness and physical symptoms it causes? Most people go through every day of their lives never experiencing what that feels like.
The answer, at least for me, is quite long and difficult for non-runners to understand. Sometimes, it is even difficult for me to understand. I am reminded of what Friedrich Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” The self-exploration, the complete and utter freedom of all-out physical effort is my why. It makes me feel alive. The anxiousness that preempts the discomfort keeps me on that razor’s edge—just enough to make me aware of my thoughts and feelings, to know that I am human, yet not so much that it incapacitates my ability to perform.
We learn about ourselves when we’re uncomfortable. One of the things I learned very early in my running life is that running forces you to learn about yourself in ways that you just can’t get in the rest of your life. During those moments in every race, in every interval workout, when it’s physically uncomfortable, we are presented with a question: Do we back off from the discomfort of the pace to make it hurt less, or do we meet that discomfort with all of the courage we have and push through it to achieve the result we want to achieve and to learn about ourselves in a very unique and extraordinary way? We are asked in no uncertain terms, “What are you going to do right now?” Few other times in our lives are we asked such a decisive question at such a decisive moment. It’s very revealing. Sometimes, we find out things about ourselves we can be immensely proud of. We are proud of ourselves for dealing with the discomfort in a positive way, to rise above something uncomfortable to find something extraordinary. Other times, we find out things about ourselves that are less desirable, things we would rather not admit, things we don’t really want to know. It is in those revealing moments that we learn about how we handle difficult situations. For better and for worse, we get to know who we are. If we fail or disappoint ourselves, we can make a pact with ourselves to handle those situations better next time. When I’m in the middle of a workout, I often think about how I’m going to feel after it’s over, that sense of calm and pride that washes over me in the moments afterward, when I get to bask in the glow of what I have just completed, when I can take a look back at the track as I leave the stadium and say, “I defeated you today.” But that is not enough. I must earn the calm and the pride. As it is written in the book of Romans (5:3-5): “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…”
Running gives us the opportunity to seek out discomfort so that we may learn to deal with it, rise above it, and become hopeful about our future. And that’s very much like life. Just like in running, there are moments in life that are difficult and test our resolve. When we are faced with problems, when we are faced with an enormous amount of stress, do we back off and hide under the bed sheets, or do we meet that problem or that challenge head on?
The trick to running, if there is a trick, is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. How do you do that? By subjecting your body to the training. By running more miles, by running more miles faster, by pushing yourself just a little harder in the last two miles of your long run, by trying just a little harder on the next-to-last rep of the interval workout rather than waiting for the last rep. Runners accept that the race will hurt, and look at it as a challenge to become the courageous people they want to be. Be courageous with your running. The encounter with discomfort is purifying. It allows us to test the strength of our will by providing an obstacle, and we learn to what extent we are in control of ourselves.
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