Repetition is the mother of learning (or so I'm learning)

Plus 21 iconic college town half marathons

“The universe is change. Our life is what our thoughts make it.” — Marcus Aurelius

You might remember from last week’s newsletter that I’ve been entranced with the latest book by Olympic medalist and world record-holder Deena Kastor, “Let Your Mind Run.”

One of the episodes that has struck me the most is one Kastor recounts from her earliest days as a professional runner, after she graduated from the University of Arkansas and moved to Alamosa, Colo., to train under the tutelage of the now-legendary running coach Joe Vigil.

After Kastor had made the move to Colorado, she spoke with Vigil about her dreams and goals, as well as her potential and possibilities as a runner. The coach was honest and direct with her about the level of commitment it would take to achieve those things — and then he said this:

“Repetitio mater studiorum est,” he replied, leaning forward in his char and pronouncing each syllable with precision. “That’s Latin for ‘repetition is the mother of learning,’ You’ll see it applies to every aspect of training.’”

When I read that, my mind instantly travels backward in time to when I trained for my first marathon. I remember well the sights and sounds of running along the winding streets of Bermuda, the gorgeous blue sky and the crystal-clear blue water in the ocean just below our feet as we ran.

But I remember too the weeks and weeks of training that led up to the race. How when I began, I’d never run further than a 10K, roughly a quarter of the distance of a full marathon. Why I thought I could do it, I still have no idea.

I was part of a training team of more than 20 people, of all ages and backgrounds, who were running to raise money for the Arthritis Foundation. If you raised $2,500 for friends and family, they’d pay for your airfare, hotel and race registration in the Bermuda Marathon. (And I really wanted to go to Bermuda!)

Repeating those miles, week after week, changed me. On our weekly long runs, we ran with coaches who would sidle up beside us individually and give us encouragement and advice. It changed me physically and it changed me mentally, how I looked at myself and the world around me.

I think it was because, rather than getting that insight once, we came back to it day after day, week after week. The training worked not only because we put our bodies through those paces 4-5 days a week — though that’s a huge part of it — but also because we got regular encouragement for our hearts and minds, from our coaches and from each other.

What keeps striking me as I read Kastor’s book is her twin focus on her body and her mind. Talent may have been responsible for her early success as a youth track and cross-country runner, but learning to manage her thoughts — to notice and accept what drifted into her mind without judging any of it, and to use all of it as motivation — has fueled her professional career, and really her life as an adult.

This has been something I’ve struggled to learn myself. Whether it’s kicking myself for laying off training runs — as Katharine Switzer has said, “even the most advanced runners [know] that getting your shoes on is the hardest part of any workout” — to not trying hard enough on the later miles of a weekend run, I know what it’s like to judge yourself.

Come to think of it, we may need a good part of a lifetime to learn not to do this. Having a 13-year-old in our house is reminding me of the ways we learn to knock ourselves down when we’re young; it takes our whole adulthood to un-learn those things, doesn’t it?

That’s a big part of what I’m loving about “Let Your Mind Run.” Kastor dispenses with the physical, outward aspects of running — even when she was a young pro runner training with Vigil in Colorado, she says she “wasn’t interested in reading about training, gear or injuries.”

She adds:

“Feeling the positive energy that came with approaching practice with a good attitude had given me a window into the power of the mind. Coach’s lesson in resilience had popped it wide open. I trusted that Coach Vigil would guide my physical training, but my mind was my own. It felt young, undiscovered, and I sensed there was potential within it to unlock. So I asked Coach for self-help books, the only term for mental training I knew at the time.”

I would wager that’s the case for most of us, no matter what the birthdate says on our driver’s license. The beautiful thing about running is that we don’t have to be intimidated by the outward parts of it — all the gear, the technology, the different ways to train.

They’re wonderful as accessories, but they’re not the heart of it. You, your mind, and your two feet are. And that’s something you can keep discovering anew every time you lace up your shoes.

Hope your week has been a wonderful one so far — let me know how things are in your world, and keep in touch!

Your friend,

— Terrell


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