Week 4: I think I can
Lessons from Deena Kastor's 'Let Your Mind Run'
Over the New Year’s weekend, my family and I traveled to St. Simon’s Island, a little island along Georgia’s coastline. The weather was beautiful — spectacular, actually, with sunny days and unseasonably warm temperatures in the 60s and 70s — so we spent most of our time outside.
We walked, we ran, we swam. We even went on the beach — a little; even when the air was mild, the water was freezing cold the two times we tried! And because St. Simon’s is almost perfectly flat, we also rented bikes for the four of us as a family.
For me, my wife and my stepdaughter, this was a no-brainer. But for my son, our youngest, riding a bike wasn’t on his bingo card. Not because he can’t — he’d learned how, before Covid — but because it was something he hadn’t done in a long time.
And so, even though his body was capable of moving his legs and arms to ride it with ease, his mind had forgotten.
We took our bikes to a small park with a loop road around it, shaded by a canopy of trees just like the ones in the photo above. It was flat with almost no car traffic, so it was safe.
My son got on his bike and put his feet on the pedals, but his mind rebelled.
“I can’t,” he told me.
“You can,” I replied, adding that he’d done it before.
“But I can’t, Daddy.”
He got his bike going a few times. But because he didn’t think he could actually ride, he let it slow down too much. The front wheel would then wobble and turn, and he’d end up in bushes on the side of the street.
We went through that a few times; and yes, there were a few tears. In the past, I’d let those tears dissuade me from giving him the gentle — but firm — push he needed. But this time, it became clear that today was the day. The mountain was in front of us, and we needed to finally climb it. He needed to discover he really could do it, even when his mind told him he couldn’t.
He brought his bike up beside mine, and I leaned over to him.
“We’re going to ride down this street together,” I said as we looked down at my wife and stepdaughter at the other end. “You’ll get those legs moving, and before you know it, you’re going to be riding for real. And you’ll say to yourself, ‘this was a lot easier than I thought.”
I started riding in front of him, so he could be assured there were no cars between us. We moved forward, slowly at first. Then I picked up the pace a little. And then a little more.
I kept looking back at him, to see how he was doing. At first he had a worried look on his face, but then it changed. We kept moving forward and his legs kept pumping, and I could see the worry on his face fade away. He was doing it, he was really riding on his own. It was smooth, and I saw a tiny little smile creep across his face.
We took a ride around the entire park. He made his turns, he sped up and figured out how to brake, so he could slow down when he wanted. When we got around to the other side of the park, where we’d started, he turned to me, still with that sly smile:
“Daddy, that was easier than I thought it would be.”
Those were magical words. As much as I wanted him to be able to ride a bike, what I really wanted was for him to see that he can do things his conscious mind doesn’t know are possible. That he’s capable of more than he knows.
With running, I’ve learned we can experience exactly the same thing.
The first time I trained to run a marathon, I was in the same mental place that my son was when we first put him on the bike. Because I’d never run farther than a few miles, when I looked at the training plan I used at the time, I didn’t honestly believe I could do it. I was sure I’d drop out at some point.
But each run showed me I could go a little farther. Not a lot farther — I trained with a group, and we didn’t add more than a single mile to our long runs each week. Each additional mile, though, was enough to expand my sense of what was possible. Week by week, little by little.
What’s interesting is that the belief didn’t precede the accomplishment. Instead, belief came from working toward the accomplishment — in our case, 26.2 miles. It was only by doing it that I proved to myself that I could, in fact, do it.
Let Your Mind Run, published a few years ago by the legendary American runner Deena Kastor, an Olympian and (until a couple of weeks ago) the record-holder in the women’s marathon, is a book I keep coming back to when I think about all of this.
Throughout, Kastor is open about her own struggles with doubt and negativity. A star runner in high school, she discovered when she turned professional that her mind often fought against her, in practice and competition.
In the book’s sixth chapter — titled “What Are You Thinking?” — she begins with this quotation, one that always makes me pause and consider when I hear it:
“Be careful how you are talking to yourself, because you are listening.”
She describes training with Coach Joe Vigil in Alamosa, Colo., a place that, at more than 7,500 feet above sea level, offered challenging altitude and weather conditions year-round. So his runners constantly encountered wind, cold, and fatigue — obstacles they had to learn how to overcome.
Through conversation, recommended readings, and the process of practice — Vigil was fond of the Latin saying, “repetitio mater studiorum est,” or “repetition is the mother of learning” — Kastor learned how to change her mental habits, and view even negative experiences as useful.
Near the end of the chapter, she explains it this way:
“Even when changing my thinking didn’t drastically transform my mood, it kept me from spiraling into a negative space. I hated running in the wind, and no matter how often I told myself the added resistance would make me stronger, or that air currents were joyrides for birds, I still despised the wind. But I no longer let frustration take over the workout. I thought about lunch, an upcoming race, or a quiet afternoon of reading ahead. By controlling these thoughts, the wind became a simple fact of the run rather than its principal opponent.
In one of my final workouts before the trials, winter delivered one of its coldest days to date. The temperature had dipped below zero and the wind was brutal. We had an 8-mile tempo run to the barn and back, and the minute Coach sent us off, gusts took my breath away and nearly made me trip over myself. Just adjust. Prepare for the gusts. We turned right and wind smacked my face and belted my quads. I focused on slowing my breathing to give my mouth and nose time to warm the air before it entered my lungs, and I imagined my lungs happier for the effort.
I ran on, turning away from thoughts that the run would leave me half-frozen by being glad I’d worn soft gloves, better for the constant wiping of snot. I thought it’d be better after the turnaround, when the wind was at our backs. But the wind must’ve been coming from the side all along because we took its punishment the whole way back. Its driving force numbed my quads. Numb is good; numb is not feeling. My mind became a mediator between the wind and the wrath it was inflicting on my body. Mile after mile I stayed focused on the positive things I could do to keep going, one warm breath, one snot wipe at a time. What could have ended in massive irritation concluded as an accumulation of successes — countless moments of resilience throughout the run — that made me feel tough. After that, I knew I could handle any and all race conditions.”
I’ve bolded that last sentence because it holds so much meaning for me. Kastor isn’t being a pollyanna; she’s not denying that the wind and the cold are painful. But she’s deciding to use that pain to help her push forward, rather than allow it to hold her back.
Through doing the work, Kastor learned what she was capable of — just like my son did on the bike a few weekends ago in St. Simon’s, and just like I did all those years ago when I trained for my first marathon. We don’t know we can do these things until we experience ourselves in the act of doing them. (It’s strange how our minds work, isn’t it?)
I say that because I know each of us will experience moments of doubt as we scale up our mileage on these training runs. We’ll ask ourselves, “can I really do this?” Ironically, we don’t know the answer until we actually do it.
Here’s our training schedule for the week ahead:
Thursday, Jan. 27 — 4 miles
Saturday, Jan. 29 — 5 miles
Sunday, Jan. 30 — 3 miles
Tuesday, Feb. 1 — 5 miles
How is it going? How are you feeling with the miles we’re running? And, if you’re pursuing a different goal, how is your running going?
I always love hearing what’s happening with you all — keep in touch!
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