You Are Doing a Great Job

Photo credit: Swim Bike Run Photo, 2017 EX2 Blue Crab Bolt 10k

I am in the taper weeks of training for my second ultramarathon attempt (the first was the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k in DC last year), which means I'm spending far less time running and far more time thinking.

People talk of "taper madness," and it's a real thing: runners (and other event athletes, I suppose, but I don't do other events) claim that in the weeks before a race, every little muscle twinge feels like the portent of a major injury, every day feels long and stretchy with elasticized time, every short run leaves your legs feeling like they are pulsing with energy, ready to go further, go faster, go harder.

Taper madness is a real thing. But what it fails to account for is the opportunity inherent in tapering. This is the time to think about what we are doing, and why. Why would anyone want to run more than a marathon? (Why would anyone want to run a marathon, for that?)

I don't have an easy answer to that question. There are lots of things I could say; like Catriona Menzies-Pike says in her incredible book, The Long Run, I want to "to run for long enough that being still would be a consolation." I want to "run for a long time and to be soothed by the incomprehensible emotional shifts this produced." I try to explain the difference between running on the roads, which I don't really do, and running for distance on windy, rooty, rocky mountain paths, which I do do. I wax poetic about the peacefulness of time in the woods, the camaraderie of long runs with friends, the sheer number of cookies and potatoes I get to eat while in the midst of a 6-hour haul.

Those are all true things. But there's more to it than that.

I also want to see what I am capable of, on a very literal, physical level, in hopes that maybe, it will let me see what I am capable of on another, more philosophical one. Last year, the mere thought of running 31+ miles was an impossible goal. A stretch. Now, having done it once, the goal has shifted; I know I could do it, but do I have the stamina and endurance and discipline to do it again? Knowing what lies ahead, can I push myself to power through the shitty weeks on the trails, to push through the little voice in my head that mimics the voices of my family and friends who say, "Why would you even want to do this?" 

I recently read Alex Hutchinson's book Endure (which I highly recommend), and took a lot out of it. At the risk of grossly over-simplifying some of his research, one of the things he talks about is the idea of self-talk: by simply telling themselves they were doing well, athletes could improve their physical endurance in running and cycling.

I took the lesson to heart. On my next long run, with my legs beyond tired and my brain slipping not only into "You cannot do this" repeats, but "You should not do this," I changed the narrative. "You are doing a great job," I told myself. "You are doing a great job. You are doing a great job. You are doing a great job."

It became a kind of sing-song, tapped out in my head--and sometimes out loud--in time to the cadence of my faltering steps. "You" (right foot, left foot), "are doing" (right foot, left foot), "a great" (right foot, left foot), "job" (right foot, left foot). It worked. I kept going. I don't know that I consciously believed I was doing a great job, but I kept saying it until I saw the glint of the sun on the windshield of my car in the distance. And when I finished, I really did feel like I'd done a great job that day.

The sing-song has no melody, and yet it is catchy. When I stumble through my overly-full to-do list on work days and start to berate myself for not finishing more each day, I find myself muttering, "You. Are doing. A great. Job." When I am frustrated by Mount Laundry, the not-so-affectionate name I have given the heap of clean, unfolded clothes spilling out of baskets in front of the dryer, I hum, "You. Are doing. A great. Job." When I sit in a committee meeting and bring up a somewhat controversial idea that sparks a polite, yet heated, debate about how to proceed, I wonder why I've even been invited to this table, and then I remind myself, "You. Are doing. A great. Job."

So I find I have a new answer to the unending questions about why I've taken up this somewhat insane sport: I do it because it teaches me to appreciate what I can do. To recognize that sometimes the barest minimum--simply putting one foot in front of another--is doing a great job. In two weeks, I'll have roughly 68,000 steps to tell myself repeatedly about the great job I'm doing. Or maybe I'll only make it 34,000 steps. Or 10,000. Maybe I won't even make it to the starting line. Regardless of what's to come, I'm starting to get comfortable with the idea that just getting to here and now counts as doing a great job. Just being, persisting, pushing forward. I. Am doing. A great. Job.

And this:

You are doing a great job.

You, wherever you are, whatever you are doing.

You are doing a great fucking job.

Reading Joyce for "Fun"

I had a dentist appointment a few weeks ago, and the doctor saw me a full 45 minutes late. I had rushed out of a meeting to get to the appointment on time, and forgotten my phone, and realized I left my wallet at home, so had 45 minutes of time to sit and steam a bit. But actually, I didn't steam. Because even though I'd forgotten essentials like phone and wallet, I'd managed to grab my current book, Dubliners. So I had 45 uninterrupted, unreachable moments to sit and read Joyce's short stories. What a gift.

When the doctor did finally come in, she apologized briefly for "running a bit behind," and struck up the requisite small talk when one has a book in her lap: Oh, what are you reading?


Are you a student?


Why would anyone read Joyce if it wasn't for school?

Book Review: Endure, by Alex Hutchinson

Ever wondered why you find yourself able to sprint the last hundred meters of a 5k race, when you spent most of the third mile feeling like you couldn’t possibly take one more step? Or why crowd support makes you run better? Or why people tend to collapse after they cross the finish line of a marathon, rather than before?

Alex Hutchinson, columnist for Outside and Runner’s World, tackles these questions and more in his new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Hutchinson organizes his research into the limits of human performance into three buckets: Mind & Muscle (with chapters on how the brain interacts with our muscle capacity), Limits (pain, muscles, oxygen, heat, thirst, and fuel), and Limit Breakers (the science of training the brain to go beyond what we think we can do).