fear, failure, execution

I've been reading a lot lately about the mental aspect of training lately, just about everything I can get my grubby little hands on.  I used to think, "oh, I don't need mental training, I don't have problems motivating," but as it turns out, that's a bunch of crap.  A lot of it is about fear and pressure.  Failure.  Why we reach out and grab onto anything we can that takes that fear away.  And it's made me think about where I feel it, what I'm actually afraid of, and face some pretty uncomfortable truths.  I don't really want to write about it.  I don't even really want to THINK about it, it's awkward and I really hate awkward.  But I've been having a hard time lately, especially with what's going on in my head and with some of my training-partners-turned-friends-turned-training-partners.  So bear with me.

Even before I was an endurance athlete, I had things in my life to go after, and I would go after them like a wild woman, grip and shake them between my teeth.  I'm sure that most of my teachers and professors (and later, coaches) would agree.  Being willing to work hard is not a skill I lack.  I don't need motivation.  I don't need someone to trick me into getting out of bed, I don't need to reward myself for completing workouts.  I'm one of those mules that will just keep on walking, head down, pulling the stupid cart until he falls over dead.  I have a really clear memory of my 106-year-old horn teacher in graduate school telling me that he told a panel, "I've never had a student that works harder than Katie."  I also have a really strong sense of fairness.  I work really hard - a lot harder, sometimes, than people around me - so why do they hit the jackpot and win the audition/pass the test/cross the finish line before me?  Why does that person get a perfect day and I blow up when our training would predict the exact opposite?  But life doesn't work that way.  Life doesn't always reward the hard workers and drop eggs and rocks on the slackers and the cheaters, and that really pisses me off.  So there's one piece of the problem with my mental puzzle, of figuring this out.  Check.

I started thinking about my past two years as an athlete, as a hard-working, racing, invested athlete.  And what I've come up with is complex.  In workouts, I never have a problem going into that place where it hurts.  I can go there, I can pitch a tent and make cups of tea and be perfectly happy there.  If the piece of paper, if the blue box says "go easy here and hard here," then I bust my tail to make it happen.  Even when I don't like what it says, even when I'd much rather go and ride hills for four hours than sit on the couch and be crabby rest, I still do it.  Execution as a whole, in general, is something that I can say, firmly, I do this well.

But racing, well, race day is a whole different game.

And that's where having a blog makes it all very uncomfortable.  I went back and read through every race report I've ever written.  I only really did two or three races (none actually what I would define as racing) before I started the blog, so it's nice to have that history.  But the pattern that starts to emerge is that I can't execute on race day.  Every single race that has mattered, I've blown up somehow.  It's never a true physical blow up - although many researchers will argue that most of athlete blow-ups are mental - but sometimes it seems like one.  For example, the 5K I ran last February.  I was coming off a fall surgery and bouncing back into my spring racing season.  I had a friend pacing me - a friend whose opinion on my training I trusted completely, who knew exactly what I wanted and exactly how to get me there.  I let her wear the watch so that I wouldn't flip out and lose my mind because of the scary-low splits.  I drowned myself in music at the starting line so I wouldn't feel stressed by other people around me.  But when we ran by the 1-mile marker, there was a clock.  It said 7:41, and that scared the shit out of me.  It made me feel like we were running too fast (we weren't), like I was going to blow up, and that's where I started to break down.  When my brain manufactured a physical problem - a big twinge in my piriformis - soon after mile 2, I let it suck me in.  I stopped, I walked, I stretched, and then I started running again.  But as soon as it was okay for me to stop and walk, my race was over.  My mind - not my body - had failed me.  And when I went back and looked at my workouts leading up to that race, I was angry, because in workouts, I can go into that place where it hurts.  Why can't I face that on race day?

The same thing happened in my fall 70.3.  Going into that race, I was so nervous.  I had a solid training cycle, and I had a rough idea about what I should have been able to execute on race day, but I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to do it.  I have a lot of much faster friends scattered throughout the country, and I felt like every eye was upon me that morning, waiting, quietly watching to see what I would do.  I crashed my bike early in the bike course, and as soon as I decided that I wasn't going to hit my goals, I deflated.  I backed off on the bike and totally fell apart on the run.  My brain decided that if I wasn't going to hit my goals, I didn't even want to try.  Why is it okay, in my mind, for me to miss the goal by a huge stretch but not by a slim margin?  

My coach at the time - and many, many friends along the way - said that finishing anyway was a testament to mental strength.  He told me that the ability to get up and keep going would be what got me through ironman.  I've talked before about how the "I get knocked down but I get up again" lyrics so closely mirror my life.  And I just need to say, fuck that.  My brain knows what to do, it knows how to get back up, and I am sick and tired of that being my line.  I even talked about it in my recap of the 70.3 day - that I'm tired of the universe handing me these situations where I have to overcome something to finish my day.  But I'm starting to think that it's not the universe, it's me.  It's my brain, and good God my brain is a tricky bitch.  My mind knows how to do this, how to spin it into my journey, so that's what I do.  But what if I never got knocked down in the first place?  Do I even know how to do that?

For me, I think I've finally dug up enough dirt to see the root.  And I'm angry and worn out and don't want to face this.  I am afraid of the best that I can do.  I am afraid that my best is not good enough.  By letting other events derail my day, I don't have to face up to the fact that those numbers are a true reflection of me.  Instead I can say, "Well, sure, if I hadn't crashed my bike, if it hadn't been 104º out, maybe I would have done x."  That's a pretty safe place for an athlete, especially a young inexperienced age-grouper like myself, to live.  ESPECIALLY when all of my friends and training partners are so much faster, stronger, and more experienced that I am.  

And that's the last piece of the puzzle, I think.  It makes me feel hopeless, sometimes, to know that I will probably never be able to do what many of the people surrounding me do.  And I don't want to take anything away from my friends, I don't want to steal their glory and deep down inside, there's no anger at them.  It's all directed back at me and wow, is that doing a lot of damage.  It's the little-girl-left-behind feeling I get when I show up for a long run and within a half-mile, the entire pack has left me.  It's the exact feeling I get on race day, when I realize that I'm surrounded by friends who are all going to be showered and changed and have their cars packed up before I get over the finish line.  That pressure all comes from me, I know that, but the best way I can describe how it makes me feel is: worthless.

So it's uncomfortable.  It's furious and ugly and I'd much rather just keep stomping all over my trainer rides than face it.  It's a giant mess of feeling like what I am - right now - is not enough.  But I have to figure out how to fix it.