In the past two months, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with two incredible athletes who have shared their stories with me as age group triathletes. Throughout our discussions, I’ve learned not only about their personal ups and downs in the sport, but I’ve been challenged to reflect on my own story. In particular, Vince and Katrina both spoke of their struggles with running, and it’s one that has also been a bump in the road for me.
I’ve been fairly candid in the past about my relationship with running and my fight to morph that into a healthy, loving relationship. For as long as I can remember, running has been hard, whether I’m on a casual run or running a race. It’s hard on my heart, my lungs, and my joints. It burns, it’s tiring, and it hurts. And to top it all off, I’m slow as molasses. I’m constantly at the back of the pack. No matter how hard I push, or try, the faster kids just keep getting faster and I feel like I’m moving in slow motion. The fact of the matter is, for most people, building your speed in endurance running takes time and patience – something which I have worked on building over the years, but still lack.
In my first year of training, I barely had a handful of 10K’s under my feet, and with the increase in mileage and intense training load, my body rebelled and I spent the majority of the season trying to combat shin splints. It wasn’t really much more than an extremely painful nuisance, but it made it incredibly difficult to develop as a runner when it felt like someone was stabbing a screwdriver into my shin with every step. I couldn’t break an hour for 10K, or 30 minutes for 5K. I was not a good runner. At first I started to come up with excuses – I don’t have the right build, or my quads are too big. Now while those things may be true, looking back on it, those excuses affected my performance. I didn’t believe in myself. Physically able or not, I was creating a mental disadvantage.
After a year of training, I started to see some improvements. The shin splints eventually disappeared as my body adjusted to the training and with time, I started to break through with some personal best times. But with a torn MCL just a few short months into the season, everything came to a grinding halt, and all the progress was put on hold. After missing more than two months of running, I would never realize my full potential for that year.
In December 2015, I started year number three of training. I vowed this would be the year of redemption for all the ups and downs, side tracks, health issues and injuries. This was the year for focus. I remember walking into my coach’s office on a cold December night, right before our first long-run of the year, and he looked me right in the eye, and said, “You’re running with the big girls this year. We are going to make you into a good runner.” I was terrified. The “big girls” were fast. Their long-run pace was almost on par with my race pace. I remember last year, I would look at their long-run distances to see how much ground they covered, and I was always in awe. Since day one, I have looked up to them and longed for a time when I could hang with them. I often wondered what it would be like to join them on long-run Monday – What did they talk about? Where did they go? What did they do? The world seemed so uncharted, but here was my moment, staring me straight in the face. So, I looked right back at my coach, and said, ok.
It wasn’t easy. For the first few weeks, my heart rate was higher than it probably should have been, and after a certain distance, I would start to get tired and slow, and I feared I was holding them back. But, I soon found my belonging. I learned that their long-runs weren’t much different than mine, and that we all had our own quirks, and pains and tired moments. I knew that once it came down to tempo running or speed work they would leave me in their dust, but for the time being I cherished the moments on long-run Mondays when I got to hang with the “big girls.”
Over the winter, my long-run pace dropped by 20-30 seconds per kilometre from the previous year, my heart rate slowed down, and I was hitting personal best times every week. And once we kicked things up a notch with tempo runs, my times continued to drop. Since I first started training with my coach three years ago, I’ve taken seven minutes off my 10K and more than five minutes off my 5K. While, the pain, the hurt, and the burning never went away, I was quicker and stronger, and at the end of every run, I was smiling bigger than I ever had before.
Looking back on my running journey, I don’t see a physical transformation. Yes, I am stronger, and I have more miles beneath my feet, but at the end of the day it became mental for me. All I needed was for someone to believe in me, and on that cold December night, my coach did. It forced me to stop over thinking, stop over critiquing and just do it. As Vince Cavaliere said, “stop running scared.” I will be forever grateful to my coach for believing in me, and to my “big girl” training partners, including Vince, for spending all winter long running mile after mile with me, pushing me to be better and to just “stop thinking about it.” Pushing me out of my comfort zone, pushed me to become a better runner.
More often than not, it’s the mental breakthrough that will push our physical limitations to a place we never thought we could reach. Nowadays, my relationship with running is stronger and healthier. Yes, there are times when it hurts, but there are many more times when it feels freeing, empowering and simply, amazing. I may not be at the front of the pack, but I’m inching my way up and I’m teaching myself a lot of patience and happy thoughts along the way.