Mind over Mediocrity

Over the past few months I’ve had a solid training experience, with what I expect to be enduring results. The two main factors bringing this about were hiring out my training program and building a meditation practice.

As I handed out water at the Houston Marathon in January, I found myself craving a new goal race to train for, but not feeling enthused to run a lot of long, slow miles, so I ruled out the marathon and the half. My 10k experience was lacking and efforts sporadic. My PR according to my Garmin was nested in the last portion of a half marathon in 2017. Imagining myself training for a 10k, I felt intimidated, then inspired to commit to the 6.2.

Buying into Accountability and Win #1: Embracing the Tempo Run

I outsourced my running program for this training cycle, as I had decided the 10k would be a good challenge for myself mentally and physically, but I was inexperienced with the approach. I had started following the Strength Running Podcast, hosted by Jason Fitzgerald, with the enthusiasm of a fanatic. One of the things I like the most about the content of the podcast was the approach and depth to which the psychology of running, especially longer distance running, is addressed. Neither the guests nor the host left grit to mystery. Whether holding on through hard miles or repetitive ones, there was consensus that if you tended to show up consistently, no matter how the individual workouts went, you would trend towards success.  

Tempo runs have been gnarly to me in adulthood. Conceptually, I know I can do these faster, longer runs at threshold pace because even at 3-4 miles they are slower than even my moderate 5ks. In putting money down on this program, I was in part buying a compulsion to do the tempo runs.

Going back to what I wrote earlier, the trend is what’s important, not the individual workouts. There was one workout I did end early. I did not feel good about it but I spent about a mile and a half of the tempo-pace portion trying to get up to speed, but I couldn’t run any faster. Then I almost couldn’t run at all. I had tried to put the run midday and I was both sluggish and stressed from work and it just wasn’t happening. However, I didn’t let that deter me, and my next tempo workout was perfectly on pace. As I kept going with the tempo runs, they became easier to approach, and I actually found myself having fun with them, using them to practice holding my focus on my running rather than trying to distract from it- enter meditation.

Meditation and Staying with My Run

Research and anecdotal evidence support practicing meditation, but I have struggled to get on board for years. Meditation was introduced to me in rehab, and I hated it. It was guided by a counselor, and I didn’t like sitting still and I really didn’t like being told what to think about. When it was time to meditate, usually in the morning, I would just let myself doze. I tried the Calm App a few years ago, and doing sessions on my own worked better for me than group meditations, but I couldn’t make a regular habit of it for very long, and eventually I gave up on that one as well.

This spring, I found out about the 50-day Waking Up meditation course, in an app created by Sam Harris. I wanted to give the whole mediation thing another go. I completed the entire 50-day course, although it took me longer than 50 days (maybe 60). It was just simple enough to stick with it, though at times it was pretty hard to stay with the guidance. Sam says enraging things like “Consciousness is not inside your head, your head is inside consciousness”, and suddenly a lobotomy sounds cool. Still, I’m totally on board with meditation now, as I felt changes in even that short a time span. I have kept up with daily meditations in the app as much as I can.

As for what meditation brought to my running, there really was a general “mellowing out” of my physical, mental, and emotional state while running and racing. When running is painful, boring, or intimidating, as in a race, I am practicing just observing the internal and external situation, without trying to close in or get further away from it. I emphasize “practice” because of course I don’t do it perfectly and I will lapse into murky emotional spots. I find that I can be in a great mood or a stinky mood about the run, and still execute on my workout or race plan, and I approach obstacles to doing so with more self-compassion. I am more accepting of what I am bringing to my runs, and what they are bringing to me.

One of the reasons I was able to maintain consistency this time around because each session was an emotionally blank slate. Going back to the Strength Running podcast, I am drawn to it partly because of how often and with what depth the psychological components of racing and training are discussed. It often feels like I feel and express more self-doubt than self-confidence in my running career. Synthesizing the accounts of other runners with my own experience, and observing how my self-talk trends through meditation, allowed the space for sucky runs to just be sucky runs, and move on to the next workout or life-thing with a little more grace, and curiosity instead of apprehension.

Dude Where’s my Time?

The really gnarly part is that those metrics given by the timing system- of time and place- were so important because they would be how I explained my performance to everyone besides myself.

The finish line was over half a mile closer than what my watch and the description had given. Ok, fine. The woman ahead of me was in my age group and I might have caught her on a kick, but I didn’t feel that tore up about it. The race was a success in my mind for reasons I’ll go over later. After changing out of my wet running gear into dry clothes, I checked my phone and the live results link, only to find out the electronic timing system had not picked up my bib. I became pretty agitated once I realized that. Even though the race director assured me that his computer had clocked my finish time, I spent about half an hour skulking around the finish line and compulsively refreshing the results site, until I realized I was acting a little psycho and made myself leave the park. I knew my time, and more importantly what I did well and what I needed to work on. I was now doubling down on being hard on myself because I was letting rational thinking get overshadowed by my emotional response- that the lack of public statistical evidence invalidated the fact that I had run the race. The really gnarly part is that those metrics given by the timing system- of time and place- were so important because they would be how I explained my performance to everyone besides myself.

I wanted to come back to focusing on the outcomes I had set out to measure my race to. If you run competitively at any level, you will have goal places if you are a front runner, or if you are not, you’ll look to paces and times to measure your performance.  I didn’t really have aspirations towards either of those for this race. I hadn’t known much about the course, and trail is always tricky to assign pace to anyways, if not damn near impossible when weather hits extremes. I had placed well in shorter trail races a few years ago, but this one was eleven miles and that was long enough for me to become uncertain. My off-road training in the past few months consisted of one pitiful 30-minute jog on the anthills near my home. It wasn’t even a conditioning run, I just wanted to assure myself I still knew how to pick my feet up and not trip over technical terrain. For all these reasons, I decided I needed different kinds of goals to target in the race to keep me present in it even if I was dead last.

The week leading up to the race in Tyler, Texas, I created a three-point race plan. Forming the backdrop behind this list are two my weakest qualities when it comes to running: patience and grit.

  • I would go easy the first four miles, even if I felt good or nervous about being passed I would just hold a steady pace.
  • I would not stop running the entire time- I had checked the elevation on the course map and didn’t believe I should have to walk IF I paced myself ok in the first part of the race.

This last one is capitalized because I think it is a huge opportunity for me. I get grouchy even before anything actually goes wrong. I start cursing race directors, the person in front of me, the person behind me, my own idiocy for picking this stupid sport (running sucks) this stupid race (should have waited to compete) this stupid distance (if I signed up for the shorter race I’d be done by now…) and on and on. It’s not like this every race, but I’d like to just not go there at all if I can help it- and I was curious to seeif I could help it.

Spoiler alert- if the they gave out medals for those three things, I would have swept the race. I didn’t risk expending energy chasing someone in the first 4 four miles. I didn’t walk. I turned away from negative thoughts and was able to really enjoy that this race. That morning the conditions were ones I would have avoided leaving the house in let alone running in. I am a wimp in cold and it was in the 40’s. That event consisted of 5 races happening concurrently, going in both directions on the out and back course. There were clumps and strands of runners and walkers to dodge around or let pass at every turn. I did a really good job of keeping myself focused on what I could do, and realized all the other factors were just circumstances out of my control but within my capabilities. At the very least it was a great two hour trail run, which I really missed since moving from Southern California.  If I hadn’t imagined myself holding a positive mental space before the race, I don’t know that I would have even thought to attempt it once I was out there.

A slower time or lower place does not mean I ran a good race, and by “good”, I mean a race where I grow. A faster time and higher place does not mean I ran my best- and that is what I am after this year. Eventually results from the race were posted, and I’m not going to go give them here. Finish times and the varying levels of placing tell only part of the story of a race, but they aren’t even the most important aspects unless you get paid to run (and if you are reading this blog I’m assuming you don’t!) Ideally, I see my performance stats not as a badge but as part of a bigger picture of how I can improve all around. Competitive racing is one of if not the hardest trials I put myself through. The opportunity to strengthen my ability to align my actions to my thoughts, with intention, under duress, is a growth process that I can take into more endeavors than just running.

Some other non-statistical goals that come to mind for me are things like-

On the course:

  1. Repeat a mantra
  2. Go faster, even for a little bit, when you feel like slowing down
  3. Smile at random (I’ve heard it helps release feel-good hormones/chems)

Off the course:

  1. Shake the hands of the people that pushed you, even (especially) if they beat you.
  2. Help a stranger
  3. Check out others’ gear/shoes/tech and find out more about it


Let me know in the comments if you have any ideas about this or the topic of multi-goal racing!

Next Chapter

For me, one of the biggest reasons to run is to explore- both places and my limits.

Do you ever take a moment to examine where you are, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and wonder how you got there? I’ve done it all my life. Sometimes it’s in a appreciative way, something like

“Man! How did I get here? Am I really here? This is so great- I am so lucky!” I was running around the Blue Mountains in Australia last week, having that thought often.

I’ve been through life at the other end of the spectrum though, where I find myself fearfully asking,

“Wait- why am I here? What am I doing? What are they doing? This doesn’t feel good or even ok…how do I get out this?” That sort of question happened far too often in my past. I’d be scraping myself out of one undesirable situation only to land in another where I felt equally uncomfortable, never stopping to take a breath and decide where I actually wanted to go, instead of just ruling out where I didn’t want to be.

As an adult, I was diagnosed with major depression, though I had probably had it since I was a teenager. For me, depression is what settles in to that void between where I am and where I want to be. I had gotten so far from the kind of life I dreamed of when I was young that I barely remembered what that was. I wanted to be on my own, seeing the world, learning as much as I could, and hopefully piecing back together to a whole person that had an altogether confusing childhood.

In contrast, what I was doing was going to college, getting married, settling down, working for bosses I couldn’t stand, trying to hit external marks of progress to give answers to who I was while ignoring my inner voice that said

“Holly, you don’t care about any of this.” I would answer myself with

“There will be time for all of it- I can find myself here in this place, even though it feels wrong right now.” I would eventually drown the voice completely with alcohol, choosing to numb out the resistance I felt to what I was doing. In this time, I talked myself into walking down a wedding aisle when I should have been hustling through an airport.

Eventually I scrambled out. Out of the marriage, out of the traditional image of work,, and most importantly out of alcohol abuse, something I got taken up with when I no longer cared what happened with my life. That took outside help, which I’ll work up the courage to write about in more detail some other time. It has not been a pretty process, but it has been worth every fear and tear. I now find myself on a middle road most of the time, far from despair. I am content with my life, and even occassionally blissful! I no longer ignore dreams or sideline goals, with  permission to make mistakes to get where I am going. The irony is that now, just as before, I have no idea what I am doing- but I since this time I am designing the course, I can rearrange it however I want.

Although in life I feel directionally challenged sometimes- I always know this one cue: “Further”. Further from comfort, further from what is known towards what is unknown. I was like this as a kid, and it’s good to be back here again.

I started this blog more than two years ago as a way to practice writing, using easily accessible subject matterrunning. While I want to share my running travels and process, the overarching goal is to use those experiences to develop as an author, and move towards some day being able to write about my broader life and deeper throughts. I have stories outside of running that are wild, somber, joyful and sad, and through it all I relentlessly engage in new experiences so that I keep recovering hope and cultivating wonder. I want to be more consistent about writing here, and to expand on what I cover, with the hope that I will continue to make more connections with people and ideas about life.

%d bloggers like this: