A Spark of (Invisible) Potential
“The weird thing about running is how people keep running faster and faster. Take the great example of the four-minute mile. One guy breaks it, then all of a sudden everyone breaks it. And they break it in such a short period of time that it can’t be because they were training harder. It’s purely that it was a psychological barrier and someone had to show them that they could do it. It’s the same thing if you’re a runner and you’re around older runners, you just get a sense of what’s possible. You have no clue, if you’re by yourself, how fast you can run. You have no sense of what your limits are.” - Malcolm Gladwell, September 2013 issue of Runner’s World
I read this earlier in the week, and though the realization Gladwell discusses here–that the runners already had the ability to break four minutes, they just needed to learn that it was indeed possible–wasn’t necessarily new to me, for the first time it got me thinking. This summer brought with it the re-ignition of my desire to truly train again after a year’s run-for-fun hiatus post college. (Hallelujah!) That means I want to go to the gym, I want to do speedwork, I want to log more mileage. And now I want to run fast.
Now it’s not lost on me that I’m still very much a marathon newbie. It’s a distance that just doesn’t mess around. You have to respect it. And since it’s still so new, I’m pulling numbers out of thin air when it comes to goal times and potential race paces. Yes, I have my first four marathons as benchmarks, but I’m learning from experience that those first few cracks at any distance aren’t worth fussing over when it comes to what you can do down the road.
Case in point: My freshman year of college, I decided to try my hand at the steeplechase. I’m (embarrassingly) uncoordinated–this is why I run–but the challenge was exciting and new. (Trust me, when you’ve spent the last six years running in circles, mixing in a few hurdles is a welcome distraction, intimidating as they might be.) I was the lone freshman on a squad of water pit pros who could leap over the water in fluid, powerful bounds. I, on the other hand, was a pencil-diving pro. I remember thinking, Wow, I will absolutely never run as fast as those girls. I know I’ll improve, but I can’t imagine ever touching their times. This was a game of gazelles vs. baby giraffes.
I ran my first steeple (above, laughing because I was soaked head to toe) in 12:08 and dropped it down to 11:45 by the end of the season. My teammates were running in the high 11:20s (that’s them on the left!). Dang they were quick. It might not seem like much, but over a 3K, seconds are like months. It’s tough to shave off time.
Fast forward to my junior year when one of my all-time favorite running moments happened. I won our dual meet and ran 11:23 (below). I dropped it to 11:17 at the league championships. I honestly still can’t really believe it. No, the pencil diving never improved. I don’t remember feeling like I had done anything different to get there. Sure, I had gained experience by then. But it felt more like a miracle rather than months of work paying off. Finally a good race in a sea of crappy ones.
But those magical races were few and far between in college because my head was so far up my own a** (pardon my French) most of the time no thanks to unnecessary nerves and pressure. I know my brain held me back more than I care to admit.
Looking back on those races, I think they were hints at my true potential. But since I didn’t really see them that way, or at least fully believe that I really could run faster, I never did. I was stuck running 11:52s my senior year.
A (ridiculously fast) alum told me then and still tells me now that I could go sub-11 in the steeplechase. That’s like telling me I could run in the 3:0Xs in a marathon. (Which she reminded me of again last weekend). To me, that’s crazy talk.
In fact, one of my coworkers truly believes I have the potential to make it to the Trials if I set my mind to it. Again, say what?
Every time both of them say it without hesitation. They genuinely believe I could do it if I wanted to. She’s watched me pencil dive dozens of times, yet she still thinks I can go sub-11. He’s spent hundreds of miles watching my knees knock together, but he still thinks I can run close to a 3-hour marathon. Their faith in my potential is both unsetting and…inspiring?
I’ve spent my whole running career looking at people that spoke of my potential incredulously, like, Hey, that’s great and all, but let’s come back down to earth. Thanks. So far that mindset hasn’t really gotten me anywhere.
But what I’m starting to realize is that they have the ability to spot those sparks of potential. They have a clear view of them without all of the negative self-talk that fogs it up in my brain. Maybe it’s my year-long hiatus that’s helped me see this, who knows? I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m finally getting a sense of what’s possible. And possibly believing in it, too?
So from now on, here’s why I’m going to do to try to help me reach my potential:
- Keep an eye out for those successful workouts or runs. I remember doing a solo 20-miler in January, and I ran every mile under 8 minutes. I’ll never forget it because when I finished I couldn’t believe I’d done it. I want to remember that run (and the other good ones) when I get to the starting line in October.
- Keep an open mind when it comes to race goals. That means not feeling restricted to a specific time goal or pace. I want to run by feel and go from there. If I feel good, I’ll pick it up. If not, there’s always another race.
- Quit writing off my support group when they’re encouraging me to aim higher. Rather than putting up a barrier, I want to use those opportunities to think about what more I could do to run better.
A 7:30/mile marathon (or 7:00/mile marathon for that matter) seems crazy now. But who knows? It might not seem crazy a year or two from now! I want to leave the doors open for those opportunities rather than locking ‘em shut and waiting for something to seep through the keyhole. I want to listen to the people telling me I can break through my own four-minute barrier, rather than telling them that it’s impossible. I know I can trust them since I bet they’ve been in my shoes in one way or another.
QUOTE OF THE POST: “You have to know your body. It’s part of the beauty of the training process, and once you’ve determined how much your body and mind can take, you can then begin to reach your potential.” - Frank Shorter