If you stand near the finish line of a major marathon, you’ll notice something very peculiar. Grown men and women who are the essence of vitality and the strength of human will cry as they cross the finish line. Why do they do this?
Better runs are emotional runs. The runs that stir something inside of us. The runs that make us aware that we are much more than flesh and biochemistry. When we run, we are raw, vulnerable, outside in the elements with nothing to protect us except our own will and courage.
I once coached a high school runner who got so emotional during interval workouts that she would nearly cry during them. She could hardly jog in between each rep because it’s hard to jog when you’re crying. I would ask her what’s wrong and she would say, “I don’t know.” After the workout, she said she was overwhelmed by how many reps she still had to run. She would get through eight reps and think, “I still have eight more to go.” She let her head get ahead of her and the difficulty and volume of the workout caused her to become emotional about it. So we tried a few tricks. I asked her to think about one rep at a time and not worry about how many were left to run. I asked her to count her steps when she ran each lap of the track and to not think about anything else. I asked her to focus on her arm swing, aggressively swinging her arms back and forth. I asked her to imagine her fiercest competitor running right in front of her and focus on running with her. I asked her to stop thinking about anything at all and just run.
One of the many values of hard workouts is the opportunity to practice emotional control and find the courage to complete them. There will always be a voice inside of us that says, “This is hard,” or “This hurts,” or “I want to stop.” We can either let that voice get the best of us, or we can work on mastering ourselves and our emotions. As runners, we need to harness the power of our emotions and use them to help us work through the discomfort of the moment and become who we want to be. Through experience and training, we learn how to do that.
Hard physical effort taps into something visceral in us. It’s animalistic. It’s powerful. We feel it in a way we don’t feel other things. It’s often easy to get caught up in the moment. When we run with emotion, it can bring us to places we never thought possible. Sometimes when I race, I draw on the deep emotions I have about losing my parents. In those moments, I am in a place where no one knows, where no one can be but me. It is a place made up of anger, fear, emotional distress, love. It is a cathartic experience. I draw on those emotions to fulfill my physical potential. Like the person who lets go and yells in the middle of the forest or in the presence of a passing train, I yell through my physical effort. It is so draining that I can do it only on certain occasions. But on those occasions that I do, they are among the best occasions I have as a runner.
Olympic runner Glenn Cunningham, who held the world mile record in the 1930s, once said, “[The runner’s] adversary lies within him, in his ability, with brain and heart, to master himself and his emotions.” Mastering your emotions is absolutely essential to being the best runner you can be. Next time you run a race, draw on deeper emotions to discover what you can achieve.
Excerpted from The Inner Runner, which will be published in April 2016.