When the Runner’s Mind Balks: Failure as “Temporary Unsuccess”

“The pain is the reality but your mind can inspire you past it. I look to the countryside, music, and art, to help inspire me.” (Yannis Kouros, “On the Trail with Yannis Kouros,” Running Times)

“Fail, it’s not in my dictionary. I’ve got a good dictionary up there and the words ‘fail’ and ‘failure’ have been ruled out for years. I don’t know what people are talking about who use that word. All I do know is temporary non-success, even if I’ve got to wait another 20 years for what I’m after, and I try to put that into people, no matter what their object in life.” (Percy Cerutty, qtd in “Herb Elliot on Percy Cerutty,” interview on Radio National, 5 Jan 2001)

The weather has turned hot, already. I missed the best of the late spring cool weather that always seems to surprise those of us who live in South IMG_0865Texas. Every year, March offers South – Central Texas runners cooler, more comfortable running weather than November does. Without exception, the San Antonio Rock and Roll Marathon, held mid-November, is a hot, uncomfortable race to run, even to the point where the announcer warns participants pre-race that it’s not a day for a PR. Runners, while waiting in their corrals, are warned to hydrate well and pace accordingly in the humidity and heat. Race volunteers stand just inside the finisher’s area, handing out cold, wet towels to over-heated race finishers. Yet every year, March ushers in cool, breezy weather so much more pleasant that of November that my runner friends and I wonder (repeatedly) why that big race cannot be moved to March.

March in San Antonio / Austin is a lovely month, and the temperate weather usually holds out until mid-May, with only a day here or there to remind us of the brutal summer conditions that lay ahead. This year I was rehabbing my calf tear during the temperate months. I made my slow, deliberate return to running in May, but at that point my running was still rather restricted. The increasingly warm, muggy weather wasn’t an issue until this week, when my longer distance runs coincided with our first temperatures in the mid to upper nineties.

The uncomfortable weather combined with my still slow pace discourages me. I managed an eight miler at a sub-ten pace last week, but other than that run, my pace seems stuck between an eleven and twelve minute pace. Yesterday, I achieved my longest distance yet since my injury: nine miles. The run wasn’t pretty, however, and I ended up willing myself to actually run, rather than walk, that ninth mile. Today my goal was six miles. I stopped at five. My problem today, in addition to the heat, is that I ran in the neighborhood and lost my focus. I stopped to talk to a neighbor at less than mile into the run, then I got hot standing in the full sun, ran home for a second to refresh, then started again but the sun was hotter and the heat more intense. I’ve run in worse heat before, but my mind by this time was already on to the chores that lay ahead of me so my discomfort just made stopping a mile short of my goal easier to do.

As I chided myself for my failure to complete my goal, I thought about the way this small goal – running six miles today, June 3rd, 2013, is part of my long-term goal to run a hundred mile ultra someday. I recently read about Yannis Kouros again when I sent a couple of links about him to my young cousin who is a talented runner on the track team at Antonian here in San Antonio. Anyone who has run a race of a half-marathon distance or more knows that the mental aspect of running is perhaps the most important factor in one’s success or failure at reaching a running goal. Given a number of variables in a training run or a race, a runner’s mind often quits before the body is ready to when things start to go wrong. Successful distance runners succeed because they learn what Kouros learned about the mind’s ability to inspire one’s body its urgent need for relief from intense physical strength. They train their minds to lead their bodies through the worst of physical discomfort and complaints. They develop mental discipline and strength.

Kouros, in the same interview from which the quote above is taken, states that his body often tells his mind to “stop,” or “give me something to eat,” or “take me to the hospital” (this last body message Kouros sends to his mind is my personal favorite). This man’s body might have more reason to send his mind such messages, since it sends those messages while he’s engaged in multi-day races such as the Spartathlon! Today, I experienced the opposite problem. My body felt fine. My mind gave up. It told my body to stop and get on with the day in more comfortable surroundings. If I’m honest with myself I know that my body, though responding accordingly to the heat, could have kept going. It wasn’t suffering that much. A meter reader for the gas company called out to me as he crossed from one yard to another, to ask if my bare feet weren’t burning on the asphalt. I answered him honestly: no. My feet felt fine on the hot asphalt. No, I quit my run and failed my goal simply because my mind led my body astray.

This morning’s run was a failure, but I have to remind myself that it was a single failure of a single running goal. It’s doesn’t mean permanent failure. If I am to continue toward my ultimate goal of being the best, most tough runner I can be, I have to borrow a phrase from coach and runner Percy Cerutty, to rename my failures as “temporary non-success.” He points out that something may take twenty years to achieve, but one has to keep working toward her specific or particular goals without quitting every time some step toward her goal doesn’t work out just right. Right now I’m fifty-two years old. Twenty years from now (God willing) I will be 72 years old. I read race results from ultras that include people in their seventies. It’s possible to be that age and to run an ultra! Some people can jump right into new activities and immediately achieve success (I’m thinking here of a middle-aged woman I know of from a local training group, who qualified for Boston the first time she ever ran a marathon). Other people have to methodically work toward their goals, with starts and stops along the way. Apparently I am of the latter group. But even late bloomers achieve success, which is why they’re considered as having bloomed at all!

Tonight I went back out, but this time on my bicycle for cross-training. Phillip bought a new bicycle yesterday, so I accompanied him to take it on its maiden voyage along the Leon Creek greenway. The weather was hot and humid, but much easier to handle while cycling. We didn’t worry too much about pace; we just enjoyed the evening. Debris from last week’s deluge still covers the ground: uprooted trees, fallen branches, and trash carried by the rapidly flowing flood waters. We saw evidence of the raw power of rain when it falls ten inches within a couple of hours.

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But we also saw the life common to the greenway. We saw deer grazing near the creek bed, and cotton-tailed bunnies sprinting IMG_0864across the trails. We saw hundreds of fireflies darting among the darkening woods and fields. This morning’s run was miserable. I’ll have a more successful run tomorrow. My mind will be stronger. Tonight’s cross-training ride, however, was wonderful, and life is good.

Morning run: 5 miles @ 11:13 pace

Evening biking: 12.23 miles @ 5:32 pace

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