“Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.” – Vince Lombardi
“All I do is win, win, win, no matter what” – D-J Khalid
“What do you do when things go sideways?” I remember being asked this question last year, around this time, by a lovely young lady running her first marathon and gritting her teeth from the pain of a twisted ankle. I was shuffling along beside her with somewhat muted pain from the beginning pangs of a kidney stone. My answer at the time, was suck it up, readjust, do what you need to do to move forward without doing damage. I had hoped for a PR that day. Instead, I struggled just to make a mediocre performance. I found myself asking this same question last week during the Skopje Marathon when things were not going my way. I realized, the answer was not so simple and some days it takes a roundabout route to get where we need to go. This year, I have not been having as much success with the marathon and I need to do some real reassessment.
Quite frankly, I hate talking about failure. Part of me believes we don’t truly fail until we’re dead, but the fact of the matter is that I have a ton of failures on my resume and talking about one seems to dredge up whiffs of former crapfests. Most of the time I am able to muddle through and keep moving forward and friends always seem amazed at how I do that. I thought I would try to break this down as best I could. To synopsize, I will utilize my recent experience in Macedonia with the 5 Stages of Dealing with Death as laid out by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I have found that those 5 stages seem to cover the gambit of emotions and recovery.
Stage 1 – Denial
The day started much nicer than expected. The forecast had said rain but the sun was bright and powerful as I headed out the door for the start line. I decided to walk the 3 kilometers to the start line to limber up and stretch the legs. I could have taken a taxi, they were dirt cheap in Skopj (I would have gotten change back from a Euro on that fare). Even then things weren’t quite right. Although it was mostly downhill to the start line, there were some occasional hills and stairs when my knees took turns aching. It was also then I noticed that despite the lack of clouds, it was extremely humid even though it was still early in the morning. I’d dismissed these early warning signs. The whole reason I’d walked was to iron out such little kinks. The race would be better.
At the start line, I couldn’t find running friends from Serbia or Macedonia I had made while running the previous week in Dubrovnik, but I made some new acquaintances at the start line, a Norwegian and a young man teaching English in Macedonia from Beloit, Wisconsin. He couldn’t believe I had been to his home town. I lined up at the start and expected to take off. Except I didn’t.
I’m never a huge fan of the first three miles of a marathon, but I do usually have a lot of energy. Most days I need to hold myself back. Not this day. From the start line by the Alexander the Great statue, over the first beautiful bridge, buy all the fancy new government buildings, over the budge of lions, I was straining to move my legs. There was a part of me that began questioning if I was above a certain altitude (I wasn’t). I just convinced myself it was a little boredom at the beginning of the race and that my legs would continue to warm to the task. I was definitely in denial.
Stage 2 – Anger
In the stages of death, anger usually manifests outwardly. For me and failure, it seems to attack internally. I get angry at myself. Why did I sign up for the marathon? I only ran twice this week. I should have trained a little more, done a little more speed work. Why must I push myself to do these races one after another? To a certain extent, I hope that the anger might carry me a little further along. I’ve run on anger before and it feels powerful and strong and vicious and comes with its own spikes in adrenaline and pheromones. Unfortunately anger is like a white sugar spike, good for a quick hit but poor for sustaining a continued power source. By its nature, anger at oneself is self defeating. At a certain point you are going to hear what you are saying to yourself and feel resentful (like anger but not nearly as powerful) or depressed, another stage that really isn’t helpful at this point. Unfortunately, I am still only around mile 5 or 6. For me, the anger quite naturally leads to…
Stage 3 – Bargaining
Quite frankly, sometimes this works. A good bargain, a little slight of hand, some smoke and mirrors, all of a sudden, you’re distracted long enough they somehow sneak an elephant on the stage. It worked for me in Milan. Unfortunately, this starts way too early in Skopje. I feel a little bit better on the first out and back in the city. I always get a little inspiration from the people in front of me and it picks up my spirits to cheer for those who are behind me. So with this infusion of energy, I start investing in some heavy duty bargaining. Another mile and I get my runners high and I’ll feel alright, I just need to find and angel and run with them for a little while, get back in stride, if I fall back on my training, start nailing my intervals, my body will just fall in line with old habits. It could have worked. But unfortunately, each little ploy had it’s tell. I couldn’t seem to consistently run with anybody. The runner’s high really never came (it did, but too little, too late). Even intervals failed me, as even my shortest interval seemed to last forever. As each of these games came to an end, I would get little hits of frustration and anger, but when I felt the tip of my injured toe rip again and start feeling the sticky slick feel of blood in my shoe, I moved it the next category.
Stage 4 – Fear
What if I’m doing real damage to my foot? What if it keeps me from running? What kind of example am I setting to my friends? There are guys out here who are running without a foot and I can’t handle a cut on my toe?!? I’m such a loser! Ok, fear seems to lead to a little depression and I’m usually well protected from wallowing in this too much mentally, but my body has a mind of its own. I start to slow down. My feet lose their bounce. It seems like forever to make that slightest forward movement. Between, miles 7-9, I start running for a little while with a young American who is over in Macedonia with the Peace Corp. it’s his first long distance race. He is carrying his broken race bag on his back, because there was no bag drop off at this marathon. He looks a little ragged around the edges but he’s got that awesome look of someone who just now is realizing he is even stronger than he thought. He perked me up a little bit and I dodged a little bit back into bargaining territory (I can keep up with this kid. I can finish the race) but of course his major was psychology and so my defeatist attitude was leaking out of my cautiously constructed Trojan Horse, and he called me on my shit. Yeah, well, back into the depression, because of course, he’s twenty two so he gets his second wind, and I start bouncing through these three middle stages like a pinball at the top of the machine.
Stage 5 – Acceptance
At a certain point, time passing make the acceptance a little easier. The race has a 5:30 time limit and no matter how you slice the minutes, there comes a time to recognize that if you are not hitting specific time marks, you are not finishing in that time frame. A constant training phase that I have heard from the best of the best is that of you are not winning, you are learning. In its own way, that’s is a win, right? It still sucks, but mentally you are a little stronger and a little more wise. I could have finished the marathon, but I had nothing to prove that day to myself or anyone else. I have races to run in the next couple weeks and beating myself up mentally or physically will not help me meet my goals in those races. The goal is lifetime beautiful running and there were a few beautiful moments on the course that day. I did get a couple weak runner highs late in the game. I spent the last three miles singing through the pain and not only did I get cheers from the local spectators, I had a young gentleman slow down just to tell me how much he appreciated my positive energy and my singing, that it had helped him get over his hump and finish strong (he then took off). This is really how I love to run, so of course that’s a win. I had the pleasure of talking to another member of the Peace Corp who was dealing with a bad knee and watching her give her all in that last mile was pretty inspiring. As I came down the final stretch of the race towards the finish line through the little Macedonian L’Arch De Triumph, I saw some of my Serbian friends from the race in Dubrovnik cheering me on. As the sky opened up and started to rain, I had no problem making the choice to finish the race at the half marathon point. I got to see the city of Skopje on my feet, I had made some new friends, and I had kept moving forward towards that goal of lifetime running. Onward and upward.
What are your thoughts? Is this just training plan for failure or healthy acceptance of the cards as dealt that day? I want to know your real thoughts.