Friday, July 08, 2011
Life is an Endurance Sport (and other lessons learned from running)
My marathon training is going well so far. My long run last week was a great 16-mile loop that took me up the foothills of my town, where I startled several deer. Being out in the cool morning hours and watching the sun rise are some of the joys of running.
Running has taught me a lot about myself and also some important insights on life and motherhood. Here are a few of the lessons I've learned through this process:
* Most people are capable of much more than they think they are. Since I started running, I've had so many people say to me, "Wow, I could never do that, " or "I can't imagine running ten miles (or twelve or fifteen)." Which makes me laugh because they seem so similar to the comments I've gotten over the years about the size of my family -- "Wow, eight kids! I couldn't do that," "You must be amazing to be able to handle that!" or "I can barely handle my three."
But the truth is, most of us have within us the capacity to run long distances. There might be some few who really are physically incapable, but for the rest of us, given enough time to build up gradually and consistently, the abilities are within us, waiting to be discovered. Those who say, "I couldn't," may not be able to run at that level right now or next week or even next year, but if it was important enough for them to pursue, they could eventually do it. They might not do it as fast or as gracefully or easily as another, but they could do it. After all, look at me! Two years ago I would have said I could never run 1 mile, much less 10, and I've run much further than that now.
Similarly, for years, I've battled the idea that I must be some super-woman just because I have a lot of kids. I didn't decide that since I was naturally gifted with so much patience and mothering skills, I should have a lot of kids. Nope, what patience I have has been built up gradually over time and often through being stretched further than I would have wished. Back when I had three kids, that's about all I could handle, too. But add one (or two kids) at a time, and the skills come, along with the patience and endurance necessary to handle it.
Just like most of us could run if we really wanted to, most women, I believe, have the capacity to do a lot more than they think possible. They may not be able to do it as easily as someone with different natural talents or abilities, but given enough time to build up the skills and habits needed gradually and consistently, it is within our capacities as women to do amazing things. Most of our ancestors raised much larger families than we do today, and they did it with a lot more work involved, too. Those traits are within us, if only we are willing to work to discover them.
Not every woman is able to have a lot of kids, and I understand that circumstances, health considerations, and different answers to prayers mean different choices for other families, but I reject the idea that there are some women who can manage a large family and some who just plain can't.
* Endurance is built one mile and one run at a time. Most people who say "I could never run a marathon" are right about their body's condition at the time they speak. Most of us are struggling just to handle whatever our life's current challenges are.
It's interesting to look at a training schedule for long distances. None of them throw runners, even experienced runners, into running long distances right up front. Instead, they build up mileage gradually over time, and all have a weekly "long run" as the main component. Every week, or every other week, you run a little further than you did the week before.
Similarly, in life, we are stretched a little bit further every time we experience a trial or challenge. Building up strength usually means that the troubles we encounter are a bit harder than the ones we've dealt with in the past and they make us grow in new ways.
*Every run longer than you've done before stretches you to your limit. And that's true whether it's your first two mile run or your first fifteen miler. It can be tough to get through that last mile. It's hard to maintain any kind of smoothness or grace and it's often painful. Similarly, the challenges we are given that stretch us in life can be painful and difficult to work through, and whatever is new challenges us. We struggle to maintain form, we slow down, and we painfully wonder how much longer we can manage.
Many people have heard that "after three kids, it's all the same anyway," and have asked me if that's true. Sorry, folks, as comforting as that thought is, it's not true. It IS true, that after three kids, you start to realize that just as you stretched and grew as you added each one of them, you can probably continue to do it. But still, every baby adds a new element and a new challenge. You are once again sleep-deprived and stretched and wondering how to manage it all.
* It is through stress, breakdown, and then a recovery period that the body strengthens itself. Of all the concepts that running has taught me, this one has intrigued me the most. It felt at times during my long runs that my body was breaking down. That worried me -- wasn't I supposed to be getting stronger? Then I read about the Stress-Recovery principle of running. Each long run actually stresses the muscles to the point of breaking. It feels like your body is breaking down because that is, in fact, what is happening. It's a necessary part of the process. The muscles have to break so they can be rebuilt stronger for the next time.
It is during the rest periods between the long runs that the body adapts to the stress. The muscle fibers rebuild in new ways, stronger than they were before. Both the long runs and the recovery period afterwards are essential to a distance runner's endurance.
I've thought about that a lot as I've considered on the periods in my life when I've encountered trials. Oftentimes, I wonder how this is supposed to help me when I am breaking down! I can't handle the trial with the grace and poise I want, and I wonder how on earth such a thing can be good for me.
But I've wondered since I've started running if I was thinking only of the first component of a trial and not the whole experience. Just as a long run is followed by a period of healing and recovery, I've found that most of my trials are also followed by periods of rest, healing, and joy. The happiness I feel in those restful times is made more poignant because they follow the hard times, and I wonder if our spiritual and emotional muscles aren't rebuilt stronger in those times. I certainly feel more ready to face a challenge when I've had a period of time in which to feel that life is going smoothly, that I'm handling things well, and that I've had sufficient extra time to rest and heal from the last challenge.
* It can be overwhelming to think of the end goal when you're just starting out. When just a few miles is a struggle, it's scary to look at a training schedule and see that in a few short weeks, you'll be running seven miles. Every long run stretches you to your limit and it could be paralyzing to have to think about how many more miles you'll be adding later. My first seven mile run was tough. My legs felt sore and wobbly at the end, and I could barely move for the next few days. To think of adding six more miles to that run to get to the full half-marathon distance at that point seemed impossible.
Usually, it's best to just have faith in the training schedule and just worry about what you have to do today. Worrying about how much further you have to go can keep you from getting the strength to get out for today's run. It reminds me of this talk about the need to pray and focus daily on our "daily bread."
When I had my first three kids in three years, I got a lot of comments from people wondering if I had planned that, if I planned more kids, and in general, "What was I thinking?" I remember one conversation with a curious friend. After assuring her that, yes, I really DID enjoy having kids close in age and yes, I WAS planning on more, she asked me incredulously, "So how many kids do you want?"
"As many as come. Probably more than ten, but if they keep coming this fast, I could have as many as fifteen."
"Wow," she said, "Do you really think you could handle fifteen kids?"
I thought a bit about it and the answer I gave surprised me, "No, I really couldn't. Not with my current talents and abilities. I would go crazy if I was suddenly given fifteen kids tomorrow and expected to handle it. But I do have faith that I will grow in capacity and ability and that by the time all my kids arrive, I'll be able to handle it."
I've thought a lot about it over the years because I look back at my inexperienced self and marvel at how wise I was. It has been more challenging than I ever imagined to grow our family. There have been times when I've wondered if I will ever be enough for what I'm given to do. But I've also seen that like adding on a mile to the long run one week at a time, my back has been strengthened each time the load has seemed a little too much to handle. I find myself lacking and I have to work to figure out solutions. I read and study and work and find myself able to handle that challenge, only to face another one a little later.
And I've found that instead of facing pregnancy, for instance, with the thought of how many more times I'm going to feel this rotten and struggle this much, it's much better to just worry about getting through it THIS time. Similarly, on challenging days, it's easy to think things like, "How in the world am I supposed to teach all these kids responsibility when I can't even get them to clean their room?" It's best not to worry about the global implications of all of today's problems, though it's not always easy to do.
* You learn how to run by running. There's no way of getting around it. If you don't run regularly, you won't build up the endurance and strength needed for running. You can read about running, do lots of swimming or cycling or walking, but if you're not running, you're not strengthening those running muscles. Cross-training might help your heart, but in almost every book I read, it stated that cross-training won't help you run better. The only thing that helps you run better is, well, running. Lance Armstrong decided to run a marathon after retiring from cycling. Despite all those great cycling muscles, it still took a lot of training for him to run his first marathon. He did it in just shy of three hours, but it was so hard that he then said, "Never again." (He's since changed his mind and run more) He was quoted afterwards as saying, "I think I bit off more than I could chew, I thought the marathon would be easier."
You learn to run by running. It's a pretty obvious thing to say, but I think it's true of many things in life. How many of us thought we were prepared for motherhood because we babysat a lot or worked in a preschool? I thought I knew it all because I'd been a popular babysitter, graduated in Family Science, and taught special education. Despite all that, nothing prepared me for the day-in-day-out-never-ending-ness of motherhood. I certainly wasn't prepared for the late nights, the exhaustion, and the frustrations. I somehow thought that because I was going to be a perfect mother, my kids would also be perfect. I'd studied child development so of course, my kids would never throw tantrums in the grocery store, scream, hit me, or leave bite marks up and down their brother's back. Nope, not my kids. They'd be sweet little angels, ready to be molded into amazing individuals. Little did I know who was going to be the one molded!
Luckily, I have learned a lot over the years about motherhood. I know quite a lot about comforting infants, recognizing the difference between a hungry or tired cry, handling tantrums (it's best not to get worked up), and even dealing with biting. I know a lot about the struggles of learning to read, and I have multitudes of tricks for encouraging kids to do things they don't want to do.
I'm even pretty skilled at folding socks. Last year at a baby shower, there was a sock-matching and folding contest and I won it. What a victory!
(One thing I still haven't figured out how to do well is potty-training. Some of mine have been so easy I could take all the credit and write a book. Others still don't seem to get it. Next week, we're working with Harmony. Wish me luck.)
* The longer you train, the more faith you have in your training plan. You start to understand that whoever designed that thing really does know what he's doing. You gain confidence that the plan has been designed to bring you to the point of stress, not past that to the point of injury. You gain confidence that you'll be able to handle the next long run because of how well you did on the last one. You start to see the benefits you are gaining from those long runs, and you begin to see that your final goal will eventually be within reach if you are able to follow the plan to the end.
* A successful marathon or half-marathon is really just a culmination of lots and lots of runs over a period of months. We celebrate the end achievement, but rarely consider all the work it took to build up to that point. Similarly, we often celebrate the talent of a great musician at a recital or the achievement of a valedictorian, but we don't really think about the many hours of practice that went into that talent or the many papers, assignments, and late-night study sessions that went into all those A's.
* Your only competitor is yourself. After I passed my cute cheering section on the half-marathon, my kids asked my husband if mommy was going to win. He pointed out to them that very few people run long distances to win. Most of them are running just to finish, and that finishing IS winning in a race like that.
There are some few runners who are genetically gifted and combine that with enough training to really be the fastest in the world. The rest of us work in the real world, where there will always be someone faster than us. So what's the point of running if you're not out there to beat someone? Well, you can always work to be better than you were before. You can work to run further, or faster, or more gracefully. Or you can work to develop the strength for more hilly routes. Or you can run for pleasure, for fitness or for the friendship with other runners.
I will probably never be fast, but I am much faster than when I began. And that's enough for me, for now. But if I let it bother me and tried to run faster just because I think I should be as good as my neighbor or someone else, then I've lost sight of what's most important: my own growth and development, compared with my own abilities and talents.
I love the parable of the talents in the New Testament. To one was given five talents, another two, and the third just a single talent by their master. A talent at that time was actually a large sum of money, so even the one given just a single talent would be considered rich. When the master returned, the first had taken his five, and added five more to it. The second had added two more to his two talents. The last had decided to simply hide his talent in the earth.
It wasn't whether a servant had more or less talents than another that counted; it was what he did with them. I may not have the natural running talent of someone else, or the unlimited patience or the discipline skills of another, but I'm not judged compared to someone else. I'm judged based on what I did with what I've been given. That's a comforting thought.
* Similarly, the race doesn't go to the swift or the strong, but to those who endure to the end.
* You can't run faster than you have strength. You can try, and you might even succeed for a short period of time, but inevitably, you'll crash and burn.
* It is important to pace yourself, especially for a long run. Anyone can sprint for a few hundred yards, but if you try to run too fast in the beginning of a long run, it makes the rest of the run much, much harder. Many injuries in long runs have been attributed to running too fast at the beginning. An experienced runner tries to find a pace that would result in negative splits, where the second half of a run is slightly faster than the first half. Most world records in long distances are set that way, and most races are won with negative splits.
I once made the mistake of trying to keep up with my daughter for the first mile of a run together, with the result that I hated the rest of the run. I was huffing and puffing and I couldn't even maintain my regular pace because I'd used up too much energy at the beginning.
In life, I've learned this lesson the hard way. Often, when I'm trying to improve, I choose too many areas of my life at once and then feel like a failure when I can't keep up with it all. But I'm learning to pace myself, to choose just a few habits at a time to work on.
Another aspect of this is the area of scheduling and trying to do too much. It's much better to do the most important things well than to take on too much and feel too stretched to do anything well. It's easy to say "yes" to every opportunity, but it takes maturity and wisdom to understand what pace you can handle and for how long.
And sometimes it changes. There have been a few changes in my life right now that have meant I've had to slow my pace and cut back on extra things. Other times, I have more abundant time and energy to do more. Understanding what season you are in and what is a reasonable pace for you comes with experience, thoughtfulness and prayer.
* No one can run your race for you. Encouragement, praise, helpful advice and even running alongside you can do much to make your running easier, but the only miles that benefit you are the ones you run yourself. Knowing that a friend has run a marathon and hearing their experience can encourage you in your doubts, but you have to do your own training.
Similarly, we all carry burdens and troubles and while others can encourage, advise, and do much to help us carry that burden, the act of carrying it still belongs to us.
* It is easy to lose your ability to run. All you have to do is stop running for several weeks. One study showed that after three weeks of no running, the athletes they studied lost up to 50% of their fitness. I experienced some of this in February. I was training for a 10K in March and was up to running five miles at a time when my treadmill broke. It was a month before it was fixed and when I ran again, I found even two miles was a struggle. I felt so frustrated, because I didn't understand that I could lose what I'd gained so quickly.
I think this applies to our spiritual fitness as well. It doesn't take many weeks without prayer or scripture study to lose faith and spiritual strength. It's the constant, daily striving that keep up our fitness for life. Without that, we quickly lose our way.
* On the other hand, it takes work, but you can build your strength back up. I had to start where I was at, but once my treadmill was fixed, I was able to begin training again. It took about five weeks before I felt like I was back to where I was when it broke. You can lose fitness, but you can also gain it back. The body is forgiving and something that may seem lost (such as the ability to run you may have had in high school) can be found again, if you are willing to start where you are at and build slowly.
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Have you learned life lessons in unexpected places? If you are a runner, what lessons have you learned from the sport? Any ideas to add to the ones I've given here?