At the end of last year, I asked my running coach for a week off. To be honest I was burned out. I had trained intensely all year to run three marathons. Mentally, I just wanted to check out for a bit and not be driven by a training schedule. It seemed as if my life revolved around training runs and cross training days. I had one rest day a week and it never seemed like enough. I longed for a day when I could curl up with a book and doze off. The irony of the situation is on my 2017 vision board I had the goal to “improve physical and emotional balance.” Well, that sure didn’t happen.
Coach Jenny blocked off a week – we called it the “Chill Week” – where I was expected to do nothing. No running, no cross training, nothing. Funny thing was I couldn’t do it. I took a Pilates class. I ran a couple of days. I even ran a 5K race. I guess that is what happens when a Type A amateur athlete takes a break.
It was then I realized my life had become very one-dimensional. My entire life revolved around training to run races, planning race trips, running races, and recovering from running races. Hmmm. Doesn’t sound too balanced. It sounds boring.
I am not alone. It is a challenge for all athletes (professional, collegiate, amateur) – how to balance their commitment to their sport with other aspects of their lives – family, friends, work to name a few. I have heard stories about football players who are so dedicated to being the best they can be on the field that every waking moment is devoted to their sport. They have intense workouts to build up their strength. They watch films of games to glean lessons learned from wins and losses. They follow carefully regimented diet protocols. They probably dream football plays. But there is more to life than football, just like there is more to life than running.
I decided to fix the balance in my life. On my 2018 vision board I put a few goals that have nothing to do with running, marathons, or training for a marathon. One goal is to become more connected with my Airedale, Alex. I want to work with him and train him to compete in several different dog sporting events. Alex is very engaging and wants to have a job. We can work together to develop our teamwork to compete in things like Obedience, Rally, and Nosework. Alex is happy to have more time with me. Our first few times in competition weren’t as successful as I would have liked. Okay, so I can’t control the outcome every time I do something. Lesson learned. I know if I continue to work with him, he will master anything we try. In the process, Alex will become an even better companion.
My other goal is to read more books. I love to read as evidenced by my bookshelves that are spilling books out onto the floor. I want to clear out some of my books but I need to read them first. During my Chill Week, I organized my books and started reading them. In one week, I finished three books – a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. There was something energizing about reading. The books entertained me, informed me, and inspired me. I bored a few people as I excitedly explained things I discovered in those books. (Just my advice – avoid getting bit by sand flies.)
I read “The Double Helix” by James D. Watson about his Nobel Prize winning work on the discovery of the structure of DNA. It was fascinating to learn about the people who did the scientific research into one of the most important biological discoveries, a discovery critical to understanding genetics. I was surprised by how competitive scientific research can be. Winning a Nobel Prize is like winning the Super Bowl for a football player. Although Watson worked long hours on his research, he also understood the importance of having time to do things outside the lab. Playing tennis, spending time with friends, taking in a cultural event. He felt he needed to do other things “to avoid narrow-mindedness and dullness.” Good advice from a Nobel Laureate. That is exactly what I want to avoid.
During a recent race, I found myself thinking about another book, “When Breath Becomes Air.” The author, Paul Kalanithi, was a neurosurgeon who at the age of 36 was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. In addition to medicine, Paul was very interested in the philosophy of science. His book is about his life and his death. In the book he tries to answer the question what is it that makes a life meaningful? He faced many challenges following his diagnosis as he tried to make sense of his life. Paul quoted a line from Samuel Beckett’s novel “The Unnamable”, a quote he kept repeating to himself: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Sadly, Paul died before he could complete the book. His wife, also a doctor, finished it for him.
That quote popped into my head during a recent local race when I questioned whether I would be able to finish. Okay, I was whining. The reality is my race was nothing compared to what Paul went through during his final days. But it made me adjust my thinking. In running, particularly endurance running, the mental aspect is just as important than the physical aspect. If I am struggling during a run, I think of that quote and Paul. Whenever I think I can’t go on, I know I can and I will.
As I looked back on the last couple months where I have worked on rebalancing my life, I had an A-ha! moment. I realized my non-running activities were teaching me lessons that helped improve my training and running. I might have initially thought I was wasting time. Instead of strength training, I was reading books about science and philosophy, and teaching Alex to do a recall. How could those things make me a better runner? But they were. The lessons I was learning can be applied to my running.
A good example of this is Shalane Flanagan. She suffered a back injury a year ago that prevented her from running for two and half months and kept her from the start line of the 2017 Boston Marathon. Shalane had been running competitively for over 10 years. Her injury put her on the sidelines but it enabled her to do things she never would have been able to do if she was in heavy-duty training mode. She co-authored a best-selling cookbook. She took a vacation with her family. When she came back to training, she came back strong. (I bet those recipes for good food in her cookbook helped too.) We all know what happened next. Boom! She won the New York City Marathon.
To improve a skill, we sometimes have to step away and do something totally different for a bit. When we come back, we are refreshed and have a different frame of mind. It will be reflected in an improved performance. I have seen how it has helped me. I’d say it helped Shalane, too.