Remember those old books where the reader could choose what the characters would do? If the reader wanted a happy ending, she could flip to page 62. If she wanted a wild detour, she was directed to page 54. There was tremendous power in these stories, because not only were we transported to fictional adventure, but we, as mere readers, could choose a different path every time we picked up the book.
I remember that my brother loved to choose his own adventures. While I understood the charm of these books, they also kind of stressed me out. I hemmed and hawed; what if I chose wrong? What if I read the happy ending, and it was so unsatisfying a contrivance that I could not conceive of reading the book again for the sad ending. I worried that any choice I made would ruin the book, or the series for me. What if I chose wrong?
Of course, the whole point of the books was that there was no wrong choice. And maybe that’s what stressed me out. I always did like clearly defined Good in one pearly white column and Bad in the nefarious, dark and dastardly column. That works for children’s books, but it’s rarely so cleanly hewn in real life.
About four weeks or so into a 16-week training program for my fifth marathon, the coach emailed me. She had the results of my most recent 5k time trial, and felt that my current level of fitness meant that I could push myself a little bit more. She wanted me to consider shaving ten minutes off my goal time.
I was new to this program, and quite frankly still figuring out that one lap around a standard track is 400 meters, and so her information made me a little queasy. I wondered what qualifications she had to be suggesting such audacious goals. Didn’t she know that in four marathons, I had yet to break my first time goal? Didn’t she understand that my goal seemed so utterly inconceivable that I felt I was already pushing myself to heroic lengths? Was she crazy?*
I worded my reply carefully, making sure it was realistic with just an essence of whiny. She needed to know exactly what kind of crazy her crazy was butting up against. I explained in measured words that I had had trouble in the past hitting my goal. You see, I told her, I struggled to find the mental toughness to get through The Middle, that awful middle land that I have likened to Transition in childbirth. I wrote that I was working on my mental attitude every time I ran, and while I thought she was right, because numbers don’t lie and to be fair, the workouts to that point had not been strenuous at all for me, I wasn’t sure if I could do it.
I pressed the SEND button and felt unburdened. She would see my weakness and back off, and my goal would remain intact and I would just keep my eyes on that prize.
But as the email skittered through the unknown interweavings, I reconsidered. What if she was right? What if my workouts and my paces and my distances had exhibited something that suggested a few little minutes were possible to erase. And after all, wasn’t she like some expert or whatever?
I don’t know what I expected back. Perhaps I thought she would reply that it was up to me and I knew my body and no big deal. Maybe I thought she would poke at me until I caved to her ten-minute request. I know I didn’t expect what she eventually sent, the gist of which was:
You’re either strong or you’re not. You decide.
For about four seconds, I huffed. Just who in the world did this lady think she was? But then, I saw her answer for what it was. The truth.
She didn’t meant that if I didn’t choose to alter my goal I was weak, nor did she mean to suggest that people who don’t run marathons are lazy. She merely meant to push back against the negative talk that had already, before I even hit the race, snaked its way into my beliefs. I had assumed that those thoughts were permanent residents, because that’s how it had always been. My brain was their house and my self doubt was their garden. But when she replied in that short and no-nonsense way, I knew she was right.
I could choose to believe the junk, or I could evict the hooligans and find some new occupants.
Last week, this same coach shared her packing tips for traveling to marathons. She wrote something that made me smile.
Stop thinking negative thoughts.
As if it’s just that easy. You just stop. Duh. Easy as breathing.
Maybe in theory, we know it’s true. We can choose our own ending. Maybe we understand that if we run x number of miles at y pace per mile, we will finish that distance in z time. But maybe we’re also afraid of that icky middle, or we believe the hype against us, or we’re too lazy or tired to do the work of kicking out the nonsense, or we forget. Maybe we worry that in choosing to be strong, we’re getting uppity and arrogant, that choosing the happy ending is self-serving and selfish.
But I think she’s right. I think I can choose to be strong and to hit my goal. I just turn to page 43, follow my plan, trust my training, and make up my mind. And so I will.
I run the Garmin Marathon on Saturday.