Numbers can make us feel vulnerable. Some people cringe at the thought of sharing their age or weight or even salary with others. The idea of being measured in such stark terms is often off-putting because we are all more than the numbers that describe us. The number of birthdays you’ve had doesn’t reveal the amount of laughter you’ve shared with your best friends, or all of the wonderful qualities of the kids you’ve raised, or the great conversations you’ve had over the kitchen table with your parents. As Bob Seger wails on his rock anthem “Feel Like a Number”: “I feel like a number, I’m not a number, damn it I’m a (wo)man.”
For me, the number I am struggling with most at the moment is my pace. While training for my first half marathon, I became preoccupied not only with my own pace, but the pace of other people. I became entangled in a cycle of comparison and judgment of myself against other runners, trying to extract so much meaning from one small part of the running puzzle. I was guilty of setting a nonexistent standard for myself and feeling that if I didn’t hit a certain pace, then I was not a “real runner” and not worthy of thinking of myself as an athlete. This, of course, only applies to myself. I would never dream of telling another person that their pace defined them—that if they couldn’t run a time that I or anyone else considered fast, then they weren’t really an athlete. Because I fundamentally don’t believe that is true. “If you are running, then you are a runner” is my mantra. So why, then, was I being so critical of myself about my own pace?
I think part of my hang-up with pace was that the idea of running 13.1 miles alongside thousands of people is kind of scary for me. That’s a lot of miles and a lot of people! I feel overwhelmed at the thought of all that nervous energy and excitement surrounding me as I try to focus and achieve this goal I’ve been working on for months. I think fixating on my pace was one way of avoiding thinking about all of the work that is required to run a long-distance race in a safe and competitive way. It’s a kind of torturous avoidance strategy.
I had the good fortune to meet up with some Olympians from the Mammoth Track Club a few months ago: Deena Kastor, Alexi Pappas and Sarah Attar. We had one of the most profound conversations I’ve ever had, talking about running, gratitude and life, surrounded by the beauty of Mammoth Lakes. It totally changed my perspective on my training. I went from seeing training as a burden to recognizing it for the gift that it is. It’s a chance to learn about myself, to find out what my physical and mental limitations are and push through them. That’s what I learned from those amazing women. That personal growth is a choice, and not an obstacle. Because the truth is training for a half or full marathon is a lot of work. And it’s hard work. It takes a concerted effort to carve out time in your schedule to stick to your training runs, to find the time to go to the supermarket and prepare quality food to fuel your body, and to do cross-training and stretching exercises regularly to keep your body from sustaining an injury. It’s one thing to know that training will take up a lot of your time, but it’s another thing entirely to be living that reality. When I took a step back from my preoccupation with pace, I realized that I needed to get out of my own way and fully embrace this experience, including all of the parts that are uncomfortable and challenging. That’s where transformations take place.
So, I decided to focus on one number for the remainder of my training: 13.1. Because that’s the only number that matters. I’m training to complete a half marathon, not to race against anyone else’s pace or expectations. No matter what my pace, and whatever my finish time, it will be my personal best.