Finding Mental Toughness

When I was a distance runner in high school, I had a secret weapon. I was far from the fastest person on the team — when I was at my best, I might have been the fifth-fastest person out of seven on the team. But I had something else: a kick.

With a half-mile or less to go in a race, if there was someone in front of me, I could sprint. Even after running a few miles, I still had enough left in the tank that I could sprint and pass that person in front of me.

It didn’t work every time; there were a few people who also had enough left in the tank to sprint alongside me, and sometimes I passed them, and sometimes I didn’t.

I still have that kick hard-wired today — I can see someone right in front of me and sprint.

The working world doesn’t really work that way. There aren’t real sprints. There’s the illusion of a sprint: the idea that we have to get a project done by some deadline, and then there’s another project we have to sprint through, and all the while, we’re also supposed to do our actual jobs. You’re kind of jogging and sprinting at the same time.

A few days ago, when I was especially stuck in a rut, Catter and I made a sacred fist-bump promise. We promised that we’d each take turns working out in the morning while the other one watched Rypp. We had fallen into this pattern where we’d both lie in bed with him for an hour or so while he watched TV in the morning, and neither of us had done any real, sustained exercise in about two and a half years.

I started on Monday with a short run to town and back; town is about three-quarters of a mile away, and I ended up running about 2.7 miles. On Wednesday, I did a long loop around some of the local farms, and ran about 4.7 miles. Both of those runs were hard physically, but not so much mentally.

Today, I decided to try my hand at the hill just outside of town. It goes about 200 feet straight up over the course of a half-mile. It’s one of those hills that you see and you think to yourself, “I never want to drive this in the snow.”

I made it up the hill — slowly — by just putting one foot in front of the other and refusing to let myself stop. I knew that this hill was going to be hard for me, but I also knew that, once I got to the top, I’d have a nice, long downhill to recover.

What I failed to remember, though, was that on the way back home, there was another hill. Not nearly as big as the one I conquered earlier in the run, but, still, about 50–60 feet tall and unwelcome. I saw it, and I almost stopped dead in my tracks.

This is what mental toughness actually is. It’s not completing that giant hill, or that giant goal. It’s continuing on after you’ve reached that first goal.

I made it up that second hill (barely). And then I realized something else. My willpower was shot. Every single little bump in the road — even speedbumps and clumps of grass — made me want to stop and walk.

I know how I feel if I stop running in the middle. I feel like crap for a week, because I’m constantly second-guessing myself and wondering why I didn’t just power through that extra little bit.

I also understand that every single workout expert in the world would tell me that pushing myself too hard, too early is the way to get injured and stop working out entirely.

I’ve been injured before. It’s nowhere near as bad as the feeling I get when I stop.

Over the last twenty years, I’ve gotten really lazy about my runs. I’ve lost that kick I used to have, and I’ve let myself stop more times than I can count.

Every single one of those times, a little part of me felt like a loser because I stopped. Even if I was pushing myself and trying to run ten or fifteen miles and I took a five minute break, I felt like a loser.

And, for years, I tried to tell myself,

“You’re not a loser! You just ran six miles!”

I never believed it. There’s probably a way to change that, but I don’t think that’s a battle I want to fight.

A big part of me wants to feel like a loser when I stop running. Because, sometimes, that’s the only thing that will actually motivate me to keep running.

I used to think to myself that, if I didn’t run at a certain speed, it was a waste of time.

I’m finally starting to understand that my pace in the middle of a run doesn’t matter all that much. It only matters where I am at the end.

I’m looking at parts of my career, and I realize that I never tried to get to the end a lot of the time. I just stayed in the middle, sprinting through some projects and being too burnt out to do the rest. There are only a few instances I can look back on and say, “Yeah, I finished that, and I’m proud of that.”

For me, this is so hard to internalize. I’m so used to thinking about work in terms of sprints instead of baby steps. I want everything to be just one or two sprints away.

The truth is that it’s farther away than that.

The only thing you can do to get from here to there is just put one foot in front of the other and go. Mental toughness is knowing that you have to do that, and then actually doing it. Sometimes, you have a kick that can help you finish a project, but there are a thousand steps before you can use that kick.

I lost that over the years. I let myself stop, and I chose things that were easy to do, which is a way of making me feel like I’d accomplished something when, really, I hadn’t. I did it while running, and I’ve done it professionally.

I kept going on today’s run, reminding myself that I just needed to put one foot in front of another. And I finished — this time, a 4.2 mile run.

Next week, I’m going to run that hill again.