5 things Deena Kastor's 'Let Your Mind Run' teaches about how our minds work

Plus in-person and virtual races in Florida, West Virginia, California, Oregon and across the U.S.A.

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

— Henry David Thoreau

Have you ever read a book — or seen a movie, or heard a song — that tugs at your sleeve no matter how long it’s been since you read it, saw it, or listened to it?

The past several weeks, I haven’t been able to get Deena Kastor’s Let Your Mind Run out of my mind.

Published just over two years ago, the book tells the story of a woman who became an Olympic medalist and world record-holding runner, but who also struggled with self-doubt throughout her long career in running.

Early on, she shares something I found stunning for someone who would go on to achieve the success she did — that she struggled with belief in her own abilities right from the start:

“I’d always considered myself a happy, mostly cheerful person,” she writes. “But when I started paying attention to my thoughts, I was surprised to find there was a lot of negativity in my head.”

This is something I've struggled with too. For the longest time, however, I saw negative thoughts as something I simply had to endure. It never dawned on me that I could have control over them or re-frame them, that I could see them in another way and take away some of their power.

1. There’s no need to fear negative thoughts

What Kastor helped me see was the lens she saw herself through wasn’t necessarily reality, (or at least it wasn’t the only reality):

“Every aspect of a run, from the pain it produced to the weather conditions, offered me a choice,” she recalls about her early running days. “Is this a thought that will slow me down? Or can I find a perspective that will speed me up?”

The past few weeks and months have given all of us plenty of fodder for negative thoughts, there’s no doubt about that. And I’d by lying if I said I haven’t fallen victim to plenty of negative thinking of my own lately.

Sometimes those thoughts are incredibly persuasive, like they're the only reality that exists.

After she learned how to put positive thinking into practice in her own running and her life, she says the effects began to snowball:

“I thought I had discovered the secret to success — because I had. By identifying a thought that was holding me back and replacing it with a new one to help me forward, I undid years of self-destructive thinking patterns that had left me unhappy and injury prone. And I built better mental habits that not only propelled my success but also prepared me to handle setbacks and challenges.”

2. Nurture matters as much (or more) than nature

When Kastor experienced early breakout success as a runner in youth track and cross country growing up in Agoura Hills, Calif., she realized how good she was. But she believed natural talent was the only thing that propelled her to victory.

The way to keep winning, she told herself, was just to run harder than everyone else. But as she went through high school, she found it harder and harder to handle the losses every competitor inevitably experiences:

“I was confused. I didn’t understand why I’d lost, and not understanding pained me... Where were you? I whispered, suddenly feeling as if my ability had betrayed me, strung me along, only to stand me up when I needed it most. Can I trust you? Will you be there next time?

Kastor thought she lost because her competitors possessed more natural talent. Because there’s nothing you can do to change what God gives you, she thought, that meant she was left playing for second.

I’d bet most of us experience something akin to what Kastor describes — e.g., because we don’t look like the sleek, toned runners we see in Nike ads, we think we can’t possibly do what they do. We take ourselves out of the game before we even play it.

But as Kastor learned, natural talent is a fire that burns brightly, yes; but only for a while. Once we’ve found its limits, we have to learn to cultivate it.

3. The power of ‘thought, attitude, and perspective’

Early in the book, Kastor describes her decision to try professional running after leaving the University of Arkansas, where she’d starred as a collegiate runner.

When she arrives in Alamosa, Colo., to begin training under the legendary running coach Joe Vigil, he asks what her “philosophy” is:

Philosophy? I probably looked a little dumbstruck as I waited for more explanation, but he didn’t elaborate. I tried coming up with a connection between running and philosophy and, finding none, said, ‘My philosophy is that I want to make the Olympic team.’

“Shhhiiit,” Coach Vigil said, amused. “That’s a goal,” he explained. “I want to know the backbone of what makes you operate, the values you bounce your decision off.”

The question set Kastor on a journey to find out. She plunged into self-help books with gusto, reading everything from The Celestine Prophecy and Power vs. Force to The Way of the Peaceful WarriorThe Closing of the American Mind and The Power of Positive Thinking.

Together, they all point to the same thing, she notes: “the power of thought, attitude, and perspective.”

From her first day at training camp, Vigil urged Kastor to “bring a good attitude.” Whenever she laced up her shoes — her training team ran every morning and afternoon, often up brutally difficult hills in the mountains around Alamosa — he repeated the mantra.

It took time to learn what he meant. (Which wasn’t simply to ignore your emotions and show a happy face to the world.)

4. The negative is part of the positive

In 1996, Kastor traveled to California to compete in the national cross-country championships. She’d made huge strides training under Vigil and was eager to test herself against the best in the world.

But instead of victory, she experienced a crushing defeat. Vigil tried bucking her up, telling her how proud he was of her effort. But it was to no avail. Noticing this, he didn’t try to wave away her disappointment; in fact, he told her he was glad she was so disappointed.

Why? “It shows you’re invested,” he told her. “It shows you care.”

Kastor added:

“I’d always thought negative emotions were a sign of weakness and I’d linked them to failure and self-judgement. Coach’s comment, though, showed me negative feelings could have a positive reasoning: My disappointment was rooted in a desire to be better. My place wasn’t what mattered to Coach. What mattered was my commitment.”

I love this line because so often, we get the message that negative emotions and thoughts are things that, when they enter our minds, should be quickly pushed away.

But we need to live with these feelings and understand they’re a part of who we are. In fact, without them we likely couldn’t achieve the things we do.

What I learn from Kastor here is that those feelings and thoughts are perfectly natural — that I shouldn’t see them as an aberration, and in fact they’re part of the process of getting better.

5. Gratitude can unlock ‘a whole new channel of energy’

It’s not lost on me how easy it is to tell someone to “just be grateful.”

But for Kastor, shifting her mindset to have gratitude for everything happening in her life — defeats and disappointments, as well as the thrill of training among some of the best runners in the world — helped her develop a lightness she hadn’t felt before.

“My world exploded and expanded after that. Nothing around me changed, only I did,” Kastor says, adding:

“I ran on and noticed an undercurrent of energy pumping through my body, coming from an unknown source, a well inside I’d never noticed before. It was such a stark contrast to the fatigue at the start of the run that it clicked: practicing gratitude had opened a whole new channel of energy within me.”

For a runner like me, who looks to achieve somewhat less-than-superhuman things (!) than Kastor, what I learn is to remind myself that I am lucky to be able to do this:

To spend time with the friends I’ve made through running when we get together for what my group calls “renegade runs,” huffing and puffing our way through Atlanta’s heat and humidity, even though sometimes it’s hard as hell.

To experience the contented, calm, peaceful hum my body and mind feel when I’ve just finished a run.

To move my body at all, at a time when hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens are struggling through disease and millions more are fighting the legacy of systemic racism.

Those are the things I try to remind myself of — I (still) lose sight of them, though. All the time. But that just gives me another opportunity to see them anew, right?

Your friend,

— Terrell

Leave a comment

Races (real and virtual) you might love running

Florida Virtual Challenge

June 1 - October 31, 2020

Run 100 miles, 500K, or 1000K from the northernmost patch of sand on Florida's East Coast all the way south to Key West, 621 miles down the shore. Along the way, you’ll run (virtually) through some of Florida’s most historic beach towns — at a pace of just under 5 miles per day, if you sign up now. The 500K (or 310 miles) from Vero Beach to Key West, asks for 2 1/2 miles per day, while the 100-miler is 3 miles per day.

$50 and up | Sign up here

Race to Equality Virtual Half Marathon, 10K & 5K

July 26, 2020

Planned as a race to “bring awareness to racial inequality while raising funds to support scholarships to the African American community,” this event allows you to run your miles anytime between now and Sunday, July 26. Proceeds from the race will be donated to Portland (Ore.) chapter of The Links, a 74-year-old volunteer organization made up of civic-minded African-American women in more than 40 states.

$55 and up | Sign up here

America’s Finest City Virtual Half

San Diego, Calif. | Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020

While the in-person event for this long-running San Diego race — which takes runners from the historic Cabrillo National Monument overlooking the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay to the green, expansive meadows of Balboa Park — has been cancelled due to COVID-19, you can still run its virtual half anytime between now and the first day of September.

$99 and up | Sign up here

Streaker Series Challenges

August 1 - 31, 2020

Earn badges and prizes when you join up with one of these running challenges throughout the year from Run The Edge, including August’s Back to School challenge — exercise at least 20 minutes per day, or run at least 1 mile per day, to keep your streak alive.

$10 and up | Sign up here

Blackwater Canyon Half Marathon

Parsons, W.V. | Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020

A beautiful point-to-point run that unfolds along West Virginia’s Blackwater Canyon and Allegheny Highlands Trails, which will descend by about 1,400 feet between the small towns of Thomas and Parsons, W.V. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the race is limited to 100 entrants, so sign up soon if you’re interested!

$60 and up | Sign up here

Great running reads

🏃‍♂️ Yes, it is safe (for now) to run outside, and running alone is your best way to reduce your risk — as long as you’re not already sick. Much more in this Runner’s World story on how to run safely amid Coronavirus concerns.

🤣 These are pretty funny: 11 ways you can tell quarantine has made you a runner.

🏔️ Here’s an interesting approach to virtual racing: pre-set courses around a city that runners sign up for, knowing they’ll all run the same course even if not at the same time.

👍 Did you know that belly breaths and getting a little rhythm can make running feel easier?

🚴‍♀️ What runners can learn about rest days and taking care of themselves from cyclists in the Tour de France.

A song to run to today

Outta My Head” from the album Free Spirit by Khalid (with John Mayer)

Photo by Dulcey Lima on Unsplash.