The Race That Wasn’t

This is a picture of my car.

If it is true that you ‘get back what you put out there’ and the power of positive thinking can bring us Oprah-esque levels of success if we just try really hard to think Secret-style happy thoughts, if all that is true, then it is also true that Sunday morning I broke the car with my mind.

Once in high school on the way to a weekend speech tournament (for which you had to get up ungodly early and do your make-up and hair and put on a power suit — probably explaining my predilection now for sweats and forgetting to shower), I was laying half-asleep in the bus seat thinking about how I really didn’t want to do this and if only something would happen so we didn’t have to go to another high school cafeteria and make passionate speeches about recent world news. And, then, the bus broke down. After 15 minutes on the side of a freeway somewhere in Illinois, I decided actually I’d like to compete afterall and we should get a move on it, and magically — upon that thought — the bus started working again. I point to this and that one time I swear I locked the door by thinking hard at it as proof of my Jedi-like abilities.

I did not want to race Tri for Real on Sunday. I’d been going back and forth all week, until Saturday I signed up because I needed to snap out of this shit. Of course, then, Saturday night I was awake all night freaking out some more. When my alarm went off after 2 hours of sleep, I did not want to drive 100 miles to race. I dragged myself around the house. I took my temperature, hoping maybe I had a fever and shouldn’t race. I stood in the hallway and worried about going all the way there just to have a repeat of that episode in San Jose when I laid down on the side of the road in the middle of a race and started to cry. (In retrospect, that actually happened at two separate races in San Jose. The city, itself, may prompt spontaneous crying.) Finally, 20 minutes late, I snapped out of it and got ready to go. Because you can’t fall into the trap of not racing just because you don’t feel super excited at 4:45 a.m. on race morning; otherwise, you’d talk yourself out of 90% of races.

I made it an hour, with another 50 minutes to drive, when the red car battery light came on. I’m pretty sure that’s one of those serious lights you need to pull over for, so I got off the highway and found the car booklet thing. Apparently, a red battery light means ‘Proceed immediately to the nearest Volkswagen dealership.’ Of course, it was 6:45 a.m. on a Sunday, so even if I could make it to a dealership, it’d really just be a place to sleep in my car until Monday morning when it opened. I did some phone Googling and trying to look under the hood and calling the Volkswagen hotline just to find out what I should do and getting disconnected and calling back and having some guy tell me that ‘Oh yes, Darren is going to call you right back after he finishes putting in your order.’ YOU ARE LYING, I didn’t say. THERE IS NO ORDER. YOU ARE LYING TO ME. Of course, he never called back. Eventually, it was decided I would drive to Autozone 25 minutes away, or longer when you’re going 40 mph in the far right lane of the freeway in case the car battery suddenly dies.

In case you can’t tell from the photo above, the hood of our car is sort of smashed a bit. It’s all just (incredibly expensive) bodywork, not anything seriously wrong. But, we hadn’t been able to get the hood open recently. The guys at our car shop said you just have to “pull really hard.” It turns out that means REALLY hard. Like stupid hard. So, when I got to Autozone just after it opened, I was trying to pull the hood up, standing on the bumper and yanking, the whole car moving up and down. And, the guy came out to ask if I need help. Actually, yes, but not with this; this actually how you do this.

I am now a fan of Autozone, fyi. They spent over an hour helping me figure out what was wrong, charging my battery, testing it, pulling it out and putting it on the super charging machine, testing the alternator — all for free. It was determined the alternator needed to be replaced and the battery was rapidly losing power (information I had to then pay another $100 to the auto shop for Monday morning). With the battery charged 100%, though, I could make it home. Carefully.

It turns out that at least 67% of the tired shittiness you feel after a race is simply from getting up at 4:45 a.m., getting ready and pumping yourself up, driving far, and dealing with things. I felt at least almost as messed up as I would have if I had actually raced and I only eventually made it home about 45 minutes earlier than if I’d gotten all the way there and done the race. I had to take a nap.

But, I’m half-convinced the world was saving me from myself by not letting me race. The power of negative thinking.


The Power of Belief

Yesterday, I nailed my first hard workout totally on my own in months. No coaches telling me what to do, no training partner with me. Just what I had put down on my plan and then me, by myself, executing it.

I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. Actually, I was sure it wasn’t going to happen. I pretty much knew for a fact that somewhere between the tempo miles and the descending 800s I simply wasn’t going to make the times. I 100% convinced myself that the last two 800s would be impossible. I was just going to do the best I could, but there was no way. No way.

Yet, I did. I even ran faster than that. Instead of the 3:04 I was aiming for, I ran a 2:59. So there.

Partially, there was no way it was going to be as bad as I was expecting it to be, so that made it easy to succeed. But, that’s a fine line to walk. Because, if you talk yourself too much down a hole then it’s hard to climb out of it. If you think it’s going to be impossible, then you might just quit before even trying. But, if you think it’ll be easy, if you’re sure you’ll nail it, then it’s also impossible to meet those expectations and you might just quit when it’s harder than you thought.

Before I headed out, I saw Mario had tweeted this and I was thinking about it some while I was running (particularly because I was doing a Mario workout from this time last year):


And yes, that is true. There is no one right answer. But, man, there are a lot of really wrong answers.

If you’re not a moron (and there are some people who like, yeah, you are definitely doing it all wrong), then the fear isn’t that you’ll mess everything up on any one given day. If you have a general basic concept of training down, then the worry isn’t that you aren’t doing the exact right thing this minute. That’s not how things go wrong. Things go wrong in slow, small, creeping steps until you get to the end and don’t know if it all adds up anymore.

That’s what erodes belief.

I don’t know how you believe. It would be great to just go around believing, believing in the face of overwhelming evidence and doubt. Wouldn’t that be awesome? But, I don’t know if that would work out for me well either. If I believed beyond question I was going to nail that workout yesterday, then when I started gasping and struggling I would have wondered what was wrong with me. I would have questioned why it was so hard. I might have bailed and then I would have added that to the list of workouts I have not succeeded in completely. I needed a little doubt in order to cement my belief.

Rejection, Self-Confidence, and Positive Thinking

Edit: I realized after posting this that to some people it might sound like I’m fishing for compliments. I’m not. Really.

Here is a fun story: I have been rejected from a lot of stuff, like, no really, A LOT. (What does this have to do with running or sports? Wait for it, I’ll get there.)

In junior high, I tried out for the school soccer team, basketball team, the school play, show choir, the talent show, and, I dunno, some other stuff — each year. And, I made none of it. Not a single thing my entire 7th and 8th grade years. The thing was, though, that I just kept coming back. Didn’t make the soccer team? Try out again next year. So, by the time we moved on to high school, I had wracked up nine or ten times that a list of names had been posted on the wall without mine on it. Eventually, you start to think, maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m just not very good.

I did make the select regional soccer team, but that wasn’t connected to school and I only barely made it. I was wait-listed to the B squad and given a trial period. And, that was pretty much just because they liked my “gumption.” But, the real kicker was that I so lacked confidence — felt intimidated by the suburban girls after years in the city and couldn’t see without my glasses during games — that I was terrible, just awful. After playing soccer since I was five, I briefly forgot how.

When it came time to apply for college, I again batted close to zero. I got pretty good grades in high school, great test scores, was a four-year All-Conference runner, state champion in speech and a bunch of other shit — (I was bad at picking and specializing, ok) — so I thought I belonged in an Ivy League school. Everyone more or less agreed with me. The school counselor even told me: well, you never know with these schools, you’ll get into some and rejected from others, but you’ll definitely get into some. I got into none of the Ivies. I was rejected from eight schools and I got into Cal, which I had only applied to last minute on a whim. I went to Cal. And, I spent a whole lot of time wondering if maybe I was wrong, maybe I just didn’t belong anywhere “better.”

There have been other things in there, of course, other long lists of things I went for and didn’t get. Of course, obviously, there have been some I did. But, really, trust me, I do better when the competition is not subjective. I stick with running and triathlon because they’re quantitative – which was probably why I also long considered a future in physics/math. You can’t reject my answer if it’s objectively right.

Last year, when I was flailing about trying to decide how to leave a job I didn’t want anymore, I applied to business school. Again, I thought I belonged at a top school, because why wouldn’t I? Again, I got into none. I applied to a few journalism and writing and TV fellowships. I got into none. I applied to different jobs (even a few I didn’t really want at all); I reached out to people I knew at places I wanted to work and threw myself into networking opportunities. Nothing came of any of it.

[And, I can recognize now that was probably for the best, that things will work out. I wouldn’t be able to take the job I really want if I had taken one of the ones I didn’t even want at all.]

At that point, though, if you’re a reasonable and rational person, you have to think: maybe I’m just not as good as I think I am.

I mean, I’m not being a downer. I just don’t lie to myself. I’m incapable of it. So, it’s impossible not to look around at the evidence and think: OK, there’s a reason I keep getting rejected. Maybe it’s just my resume; maybe it’s something else. But, either way, you have to self-evaluate. Sure, perseverance is good, but no one wants to be that girl on American Idol who just CAN’T sing and won’t listen to everyone telling her so.

Now, the problem is that that kind of self-evaluation and reflection and honesty really has no place during a race.

You know what works in a race: delusional self-confidence. When you’re hauling ass, you want to have no thought in your mind other than: I am amazing, I am a beast, I own this.

For two years, I raced “pro” in triathlon and I was never as good as my training indicated I should be. Partially, that was a result of nutritional issues after moving up in distance and a few injury problems. But, mostly, it was because I suddenly lacked self-confidence. After a set number of races struggling to be in the mix, you have to rationally and reasonably wonder: maybe I’m just not good enough. You can only be rejected so many times before you have to self-reflect.

I never would have phrased it that way, because I fully understand the value of positive thinking in sports, but I can’t lie to myself. I went into every race knowing exactly who was better than me and by how much. It was impossible to unknow those things. I wasn’t capable of lining up and not knowing how I stacked up.

Yet, at the same time, we KNOW how valuable positive thinking is in athletic performance. You can read study after study about the impacts of positive self-talk on athletic performance. Summary: the impact is big and it is good. The best athletes know how to remain positive in the face of adversity and challenges. The very best athletes know how not to put any limits on their expectations.

But, I don’t know how they force it. When I’m struggling and I know I’m struggling, telling myself I’m not feels like a lie. When I try to cover up the honest voice in the back of my mind saying maybe this is as good as you can do, I know I’m covering up the rational analytical voice that says, that swim was pretty weak and maybe if you bike really well you might be able to catch two girls, but realistically you can’t catch enough of them.

It’s like when I made that regional select soccer team back in junior high on a test trial basis. I knew, KNEW my lack of self-confidence was hurting my ability to commit to plays and manage the game. But knowing that didn’t make me more self-confident, it made me less — because I knew I was sucking.

So, here’s the question I come back to over and over and over: If you know and rationally understand the power of positive thinking and self-confidence, how do you make it happen when rationally, logically forcing it has the opposite effect? How can you know what you’re capable of without putting limits on what you’re capable of? How do you keep the perseverance and the never-say-die attitude without becoming that girl on American Idol who CAN’T sing but won’t listen to all the people who tell her so? How do you never wonder if you are that girl?

How do you stay self-confident and positive in the face of logic?