At the first meet of my high school track and field career I ran the 400 meter dash. I already knew from practice that I could do it, so I was shocked when I got half way around the lap and the end seemed so far away. My legs were burning, my lungs ached from breathing so deeply, and my heart was nearly exploding out of my chest.
If that wasn’t enough, what was worse were the discouraging thoughts filling my mind and depleting my confidence, “You can’t do it. It doesn’t matter. No one cares. This sucks. You suck. Just stop. It’s just a little rest. That’s all.”
So I stopped. I only walked maybe ten steps. But it was enough time to discover several things very quickly. The taunting voice in my mind said no one cared but my coach cared; as well as my friend Roxanne. Because they immediately started yelling across the field at me “What are you doing? Keep going! Don’t stop! You can do it!”
More importantly, I cared. Those ten steps, intended to be a rest, did not help me feel better. Most of the other runners who had been behind me just seconds before weren’t behind me anymore. They had already passed me and were now way ahead of me. And they already seemed too far ahead to catch up to and pass again. Because if you’re walking when you’re supposed to be sprinting, you’re simply going too slow.
As a result, I felt worse than I had seconds before when I’d been running and felt like dying. Now I felt horrible and embarrassed. And I was mad at myself for quitting in the middle of the race.
And while the last 150 meters that stretched ahead of me, looked like a mile, I was determined to finish. So I gritted my teeth against the pain in my body and started running again.
When I was done, my coach approached me and said, “Good job, Ruth. You were doing great up until the point where you stopped. You have so much potential. Just next time, you can’t stop. You have to keep going.”
“I know,” I panted. “It just felt so hard. I didn’t think I could do it,” I explained while I glanced at the place on the track where I’d run out of steam. I didn’t need a mirror to know if I wasn’t already red from running, I was now from the shame I felt spreading across my face. I looked down at the ground and away from my coach, not wanting to admit that now I was done, I felt so foolish that minutes before the distance had seemed so astronomical and insurmountable, but now from the finish line area it looked like such a laughably short distance.
“Honey,” my coach said kindly, “You hit ‘The Wall.’ It happens to every runner, every athlete. Now that you know what it feels like you have to learn to run through that.”
I eventually moved from the 400 meter dash and settled in with the 800 m and occasionally the mile for track and field. In the fall I ran with the cross country team. I loved running. I loved the feeling of my arms and legs pumping, my the pounding of my steps, the trees flashing by as I sucked in the trail dust kicked up by my other teammates. And I learned to anticipate The Wall. To focus instead on the movement of my arms propelling me forward, or to watch the back of the person in front of me as I tried to inch closer to them, or to recite poetry in my mind that I’d memorized. And these tricks worked. Sometimes.
But I always struggled with a sense of inadequacy; a feeling that I wasn’t good enough. And when I started to get fatigued I would feel my confidence and resolve falter. I would get discouraged that I wasn’t faster, better, good enough.
Maybe, I thought, if my parents weren’t divorcing, if I had a knack for math and had done better on my Algebra test, or if I wasn’t so ugly and scarred from years of acne and more boys liked me, or if even just one liked me and wanted to be my boyfriend, if those problems and others didn’t exist in my life, then everything would be perfect. Then I would have the confidence I needed to be successful and run without such energy-zapping thoughts.
I thought I was the only one fighting these internal feelings. And after the first day when my coach pointed out The Wall I’d hit, I never mentioned or talked about it with anyone again. I didn’t want them to know how weak I really was.
The end of my senior year I desperately wanted to make it to the Regional meet – but my times weren’t good enough. And so my last meet was the JV meet where I was scheduled to run the mile. I was disappointed in myself, discouraged, and felt like a failure to have not made it further. I considered the JV meet to be for people who weren’t very good and it was an unhappy realization that I was one of ‘them.’
The day of the meet I lost a contact, my eye was infected, and without the contact I could barely see. Over the phone where I stood in the nurses office at school my mother said, “Well, I guess you can’t run because you don’t have any peripheral vision.”
My father was sent to pick me up from school. Fully intending to take me to the meet, he sat flabbergasted in the car as I sobbed and told him why I couldn’t run and what mom had said.
“But, Ruth,” he said, “You don’t need peripheral vision to run around a track. You need your legs and there is nothing wrong with them.”
Still listening to the doubt and negativity I had absorbed from my mother like a sponge I insisted on going home. When we pulled up along the curb in front of my father’s house, my dad said “Ok, we’re here.” And then he sat there looking at me without saying another word or moving, as if daring me to get out of the car first, daring me to quit, daring me not to quit.
I sat there looking at the house, collecting my thoughts, my sobs subsiding, fishing around inside myself hoping to find something that was deeper and stronger than the pool of tears and self-pity I was sitting in. At that moment, when I thought I was drowning in emotion and failure, I touched the bed of rock solid determination that lives inside me in my core.
Turning to my dad, I said, “If you’re still willing to take me, I think there might be time to get there before it starts if we leave now.”
That mile race is just as memorable for me as the first 400 m I ran in high school – but for other reasons entirely.
I ran strong. I ran with nothing to lose and nowhere to go with the success, except to take it with me in my heart knowing I’d done it. I was running blind, and it didn’t matter because I had the strength of my arms and legs, the beating of my heart and the expanding and contracting of my lungs inside me. And I had my Dad on the sidelines cheering me on beside my coach.
I focused on the joy of moving my body as swiftly as possible, the wind caressing me as I moved, the sweat trickling down my back, and the blurry blobs of the girls in front of me.
I didn’t win. But I felt like a winner. I fell into my dad’s arms crying this time with relief that I’d decided to show up and run and that I’d gotten my best time ever.
Several years ago I started training and competing in Kettlebell Sport.
My event is the Long Cycle. One repetition is a combination of a clean and a jerk. The set duration is ten minutes. There is one hand switch allowed that typically occurs at the five minute mark.
As you can imagine, it is a combination of strength and endurance. And once again, I have found my biggest challenge is the mental aspect because just like in high school, once I start getting tired my confidence starts to wane and my inner demons come out full force and start taunting me.
The thoughts that go through my mind run the gamut from “I look like a dork in these shorts and everyone watching can see what a fashion flop I am, when will I ever grow up and actually look cool in workout clothes?” “WTF! This is sooooo long. I can’t do this,” “I suck at this, my arm is tired, it doesn’t really matter how I do and ultimately no one really cares, so why don’t I just stop now? I’d rather lie down and cry than keep going.”
The last few competitions I’ve made conquering these demoralizing thoughts my mission. I stopped complaining to my coaches about the workouts and how hard they were (even in jest) and practiced saying in my head and sometimes out loud, “Ok, I can do that.”
Whenever I want to quit during a workout or a run, I keep going. When I’m tired, I keep going. I practice showing up to practice and doing the work no matter how I feel because on the day of the competition any number of things could be going on that make the situation imperfect. And I need to practice doing my best always. I practice saying, This isn’t ideal but I can still do it!
I also started practicing different mantra techniques so that I can get into a rhythm and a meditative state and just keep going no matter what. I’ve found what works for me is to count to three, over and over. One, clean and jerk; two, clean and jerk; three, clean and jerk.
This year, at the last practice before the most recent competition, I swallowed my pride and did something it had never occurred to me to do in high school. I set aside my feeling of “If I say this, they’re going to see how weak I am and will think less of me for not being so strong” and asked for help.
“I really struggle with the mental negativity.” I told my team, “And it usually sets in half way through each arm. Do you think you guys could just yell nice things at me? That would help me a lot.”
During the competition my teammates formed a wall behind the judge so all I could see was them.
I wasn’t doing as well as I wanted and having my team there to cheer me on kept me going more than my counting mantra did.
My thoughts went something like, “One. This sucks. Two. I can do another. Three. I hate this. One. Oh, look! Jason is cheering for me, how cool! Two. I could just put this down if I wanted to and end this right now. Three. Jenn is yelling at me to focus. I should stop thinking about the no reps and just do One.
And then I hit The Wall completely by thinking, “It’s a good thing Joel isn’t here. He’d be so disappointed in me right now.” I felt myself start to spiral downward into a dark pit of lonely, paralyzing despair and then I emotionally stomped hard and put my foot down, “No!” I snarled back at the negative voice in my mind. “He would be proud of you because you’re here and you’re trying.” I glanced at the clock and saw two minutes and thirty seconds to go. Forever. But a manageable forever.
“And he is going to be proud of me because I’m going to finish. It doesn’t matter how many reps I do today any more. What matters now is that I hold on, keep going to the finish. I’m not going to let this stupid negativity hold me back.” And I kicked those thoughts as hard as I could out of my mind, with more mental strength than I had ever kicked back at them in a competition before.
I could hear Ben yelling, “Don’t put it down!” and Charlie shouting “Go, Ruthie!” and Lyndsey saying “One more, Ruth!” and Jenn telling me “Focus! Get out of your mind, Ruth!” and Debbie cheering “Go, Ruthie!” and Jonathan hollering “You’ve got this, Ruth!” And I said to myself, “I do 2 ½ minutes in practice all the time. I can do this.”
And I did.
For over twenty years I’ve thought The Wall was something I needed to overcome and beat. I’ve considered those negative thoughts an enemy I needed to defeat. But recently, I’ve started to see things differently. I think when I meet The Wall I am essentially meeting myself. It is where my strengths and my weaknesses collide. I am stripped bare from exertion and naked to myself. It’s a place of vulnerability. It’s a realness, a rawness that is uncomfortable and awkward.
I know that I wasn’t the best runner in high school. But I was pretty good. What made me good was my willingness to consistently show up to practice, to train on my own, to keep trying, to face The Wall over and over. For over twenty years, I’ve looked back on that last meet and remembered the joy of getting my best time ever but that victory has been clouded with my disappointment at being at the JV meet. I’ve held that disappointment closer than the success of my personal best. Recently, I was going through some papers and found a scrap of notebook paper that I’d written on that day. It said, ‘My goal is to run a six minute mile. Actual time: 6:02.”
Today, I am puzzled why for twenty years I have not celebrated such an awesome mile instead of dwelling on the fact it happened at a JV meet and not a Varsity meet. That is the fastest mile I have ever run or probably ever will run in my life. I wonder why I cannot see my strengths as easily as I can see my perceived failures.
I want that to change. And so my goal as a kettlebell lifter is to focus on having fun, doing my best but enjoying the journey and celebrate the victories no matter how big or small that I or my teammates and friends have. I don’t want to worry about being the best, but focus on being the best me. Showing up to practice keeps me in shape and helps me feel like I am part of my community of kettlebell friends. Showing up to the competitions and facing The Wall consistently can suck and hurt and make me want to scream with feeling so weak and strong at the same time; with feeling so human. But I need that experience because it makes me better every time for having gone there.
Asking for help from my team was my victory at this latest competition. Having the support of my team helped me get past The Wall better than I’ve been able to do on my own before.
It is a strange life lesson to learn to admit we can’t do it all on our own and need others. But somehow making ourselves vulnerable to ask for help makes us stronger. No matter what our personal Wall may be, we cannot face it alone. We need others to help lift us from time to time.
I have a teammate who is fighting Lyme Disease. She is strong and smart and beautiful and courageous and so much more. And she fights Lyme Disease with all the zest and energy and resources she can summon into her life. But she has hit a Financial Wall and so has made herself vulnerable and asked the world, the Universe and her community to help her with the overwhelming costs of her treatment that aren’t covered by insurance.
She’s on the home stretch of her treatment, she can see the end in sight but she needs our help to get her to the finish line. She needs us to cheer for her and help her get past The Wall she is facing. She promises to pay it forward. As her friend and teammate, I know she will. She already does. She has already help me, because she was one of those teammates who cheered for me at our last kettlebell competition, who heard me ask for help and responded, who helped cheer me past my own Wall.
If you can, let us help Lyndsey celebrate the victory of her life and her health. Let us celebrate the victory of community and the awesome result that can come when we pull together to help someone reach their goal. Let us celebrate the strength that comes from Lyndsey being vulnerable and honest about The Wall she is facing.
Please help celebrate by sharing her message with others, by making a contribution no matter how small or large. We cannot live our lives alone, we can try but the joy of life is amplified when we share with others.
Lyndsey’s online fundraiser will end in three days.