Are You Sabotaging PRs? I Was.
I expected to like Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor. I like reading books about running, and I love reading self-help books and articles about improving my mindset and personal transformation.
However, I did not expect to be dog-earing pages and, finally, making a list of topics I wanted to revisit a second or third time. Even though I’m a writer and a book editor, I tend to keep what I’m reading to myself. I’m happy to recommend a good read when someone asks, but I’m not usually a pusher.
Despite this, I’ve become a crazy evangelist for Let Your Mind Run. Reading this book was -- and is -- transformative. There’s so much I want to say about Deena’s book, but I’d like to start by discussing identity and perception.
When we say, “I am…”, whatever comes after that is a belief tied to our identity.
I am a 11-minute miler.
I am slow.
I am running this half-marathon just for fun.
These are all thoughts and statements I’ve made. Repeatedly. Intellectually I know that any belief tied to our identity is hard to change because it’s perceived as an attack. Logically, I know that these statements are limiting at best, and false at worse. And emotionally, I know undercutting myself makes me feel safe and like crap simultaneously. But, until I read Deena’s book I really did believe that I had to come to terms with the fact that I might never get back to a 9:45 mile. And that I definitely might never be as fast as my friends who can easily run 8 minute miles; friends for whom a BQ is just one PR away.
And then I read a conversation Deena had with a coach in college about what she would do after graduation. Deena was ready to quit running, and the coach suggested she was afraid of success. “I told him I feared continued failure,” she writes in the book.
Then Milan Donley, the coach, asks her “Have you given running everything?”
He continues, “Have you really given it everything you have?”
I teared up when I read that, and I’m crying again right now while I writing this, because I know that I haven’t. I did, in 2015 when running was a comfort in a new city and a goodbye to a home that I loved. I did, in 2016 when a 20-minute-PR at the previous year’s marathon convinced me that I could go for whatever fucking goal I wanted. But then a series of bad experiences and overtraining soured running for me. I’ve written about a lot of this before.
Yet I can’t blame a missed race or a toxic running club for me not giving running my full attention. I am responsible for giving up on myself and limiting what I can do physically. No one else believes that bullshit but me. Not my friends, who have always cheered me on; not my husband, who is convinced that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to; and not the personal trainers I’ve worked with who have seen my work ethic and potential pay off.
At a surface level, I understand that I stopped trying, in part, because I thought trying to get faster would mean setting myself up for disappointment. I was doing exactly what that scientific study reported: I saw these goals as a threat. And that makes sense, because it would hurt emotionally to fail. I don’t know if a 9:45 pace in a half marathon is possible anymore because I don’t really want to try. The prospect of not making that happen is too scary, so I’ve played it safe and resigned myself - by definition - to being an 11-minute miler.
Understanding that, I dug deeper. What other things do I say about and to myself that support this same story? (By the way, I owe so much of this knowledge to Ali Shapiro and Melody Wilding, clients in my book business that have taught me a ton about limiting beliefs and the stories we tell ourselves. Before I worked with these ladies, I thought I had identified my stories and eliminated my limiting beliefs. I was wrong.)
As a kid, I was uncoordinated and diagnosed with low postural tone. I was tested for, but didn’t have, scoliosis. (Knowing what I know now, I suspect I had anterior pelvic tilt.) Though I wasn’t actively discouraged from sports, I was really bad at everything other kids were good at. I was terrible at dance, awful at gymnastics, and I hated soccer. I couldn’t pass any Presidential Fitness Test to the point where, after fourth grade, my PE teachers wouldn’t bother to test me on activities like the sit and reach or the rope climb.
I allowed these experiences to define me. In middle school, I could (and would) climb any fence. In high school, I biked to town - 13 miles - and back home. I was barely sore the next day. In college, I would rollerblade twenty miles and feel fine. In my twenties, I started walking to lose weight and got up to twelve miles before deciding to try running. I didn’t attribute any of that to a natural ability for endurance. Instead, I chose to believe that I was still the kid who was so bad at sports and fitness that no one, including myself, should even bother to see what I could achieve.
After running four marathons, ten half marathons, three Ragnars, and hundreds of miles, I started calling myself an athlete. But deep down, I didn’t really believe that I could do any better than what I thought my best was.
And that belief, not my body, is what kept me at an eleven minute mile.
Eleven minute miles had become my safe place. When I ran the Twin Cities Marathon, Scott remarked how steady I was. “You were so consistent, right around 11-minutes every time. Way to go, babe.”
Looking back, I know why I didn’t PR at that marathon. It’s because I didn’t want to break myself out of my safe place. I didn’t give running everything I had. I was afraid, but not of getting injured, not of bonking, not of a DNF, not of undermining my authority as coach, even though I would have told you all these things at the time. Instead, I was afraid to question who I was as a person. In my mind, I had no business hanging out with what I thought of as “fast” runners.
If I became fast, who would I be?
If I was really good at a sport, or endurance in general, who would I be?
If my body was physically “normal”, who would I be?
If I gave running everything, I would be defying my identity. When I really dug deep, I realized I felt like I would be betraying an earlier me: the girl who suffered so much humiliation. From the gym teacher, who told me I could skip the fitness tests because it was clear I wasn’t going to pass and I could hurt my school’s score. The dance teacher, who told my mom not to waste her money. The gymnastics coach, who suggested that I drop out when we started doing cartwheels and handstands.
The expectation was clear: I wasn’t good enough to even try.
I talked myself out of these disappointments by defining myself another way: the girl who couldn’t help but be uncoordinated, who couldn’t do a plank if it saved her life, the girl who had issues with her spine and that’s why she walked funny and everyone made fun of her.
But guess what? That’s not true anymore. As this cool video from NPR’s Skunk Bear explains, what in controls my coordination and athletic ability - namely my skeletal muscles, bones, and brain - simply aren’t the same. I started working out more seriously in 2005, so my bone cells only know life as an active person. The same could be said for my skeletal muscles, though I’m guessing that I’ll really benefit in 2025 when my muscles will have had a personal trainer for their entire life. And coordination can be taught and improved, too.
What I realized, reading one paragraph on page 49 of Let Your Mind Run, was that I was the only one holding myself back. The beliefs I had about my identity were influencing the perception I had of my ability as a runner. For the past few years, I’ve believed in Shalane Flanagan’s mantra - “I want to see what I can do” - but I have lived the opposite.
Deena also let her natural talent define her, and that almost cost her a professional career. She describes it this way: “I saw that these feelings had always been at the whim of my talent, an immovable trait, out of my control, and I had let it define me.”
I read that sentence and knew in my heart that I had also let my past define me. The experiences I had with my running club brought up a lot of unresolved pain of being bullied and forcibly left out. I had moved past these beliefs before to run a 2:08 half (9:45 pace) in 2016.
Up until that moment, I blamed my slower paces in 2018 on my weight. But that wasn’t the truth. I was slower because I was carrying tons of negative shit from the past.
When Deena let her talent go, she said “I felt potential fill the large space within me.” And to be honest, that’s how I feel now. I acknowledge that I have been trying to protect myself - from real hurt, real bullies, and real disappointment.
But I need to acknowledge what’s true now.
I am strong.
I went from lifting 65 pounds in the deadlift to 135 pounds in two months.
I am committed.
I’m the only one of my trainer’s clients to complete their workouts over Christmas.
I am running at a pace consistent with my goals.
I can run a 10:45 mile fairly easily, which sets me up to PR in March - if I try.
Do your thoughts hold you back?
I’d love to hear what you’re struggling with.
Email me - firstname.lastname@example.org