“This is hard,” my sister pants as we round the corner of our last cul-de-sac. “Running is a mental game,” I say back to her, each word hitting a beat of a breath so as not to exert too much energy talking. It dawns on me in that moment, however, that what I have just said is inaccurate. Running isn’t solely a mental game; it’s an emotional and tactile one as well.
What Sara doesn’t understand yet is that yes, you can talk and run at the same time and not get completely winded. She doesn’t know yet that at some point breathing while running and pacing her running will eventually occur involuntarily. Why is this? Because right now, for my sister, as soon as she takes her first stride down her driveway, she is thinking about her run. And there’s my epiphany. She hasn’t yet learned how to feel the run.
I’ve been running for over 10 years. I don’t just think while I’m running, I think and feel. I feel where my feet are hitting the road or trail, but I look ahead and think about if there is anything I need to change or avoid. I haven’t thought about how to breathe in years until my sister pointed out, “I don’t hear you; you’re not breathing.” I assured her I was, but I was a little surprised by how natural my running-breathing has become since I can clearly recall panicking when I first started to run all those years ago. “Oh my God, I can’t breathe!” Now I just feel it.
I feel the way my arms swing at my sides, and think about how balanced I feel. I feel the sweat dripping down my knees and then I know it is a good run. I think about how it’s just pain or it’s just fatigue, but then I feel that it doesn’t matter because in the end the pain and the fatigue aren’t going to kill me; they actually make me feel more alive. I feel so tired that I want to stop, but then I think about how victorious I will feel after I’ve finished. I think about how tough I am for running that extra mile, and I feel proud of myself once I’ve come to my cool-down jog. I think back on my run as I slow to a walk and feel my muscles burning.
Yes, running is a mental game in regards to the fact that many athletes feel they can overcome physical limitations with mind power and drive. If you tell yourself you’ll finish the race, you will finish the race. But let’s be real here. At some point the body will feel that it is too tired to go on, and that is not something that should be ignored. A balance between what a runner thinks and feels must be struck in order to truly be successful in this sport. Challenging ourselves to think beyond our limitations but still knowing what they are is not a weakness; it’s our ultimate superpower. We should push ourselves past our comfort zones in order to achieve our goals, but we should also take time to think about what we need to help improve and recover while feeling the glory of how far we’ve come.