Imagine you are chained to the ground with no power to break free. You are a captive, held in place by an immovable object. How long would you struggle before accepting your fate? I can’t remember the first time I heard the story of elephant training, but I was reminded of it this past week while on a group training run (thanks Ali!). The tale goes like this: baby elephants are staked to the ground and not allowed to move around. Eventually they see their shackles as a part of life. Then, when they are fully grown and have the potential to rip out tens of stakes from the earth, they don’t even try. They have imposed a self limitation based on the only world they’ve every known. A world where one small chain or rope controls them.
I also can’t remember the first time I heard about the glass-ceiling flea experiment. Someone placed a glass lid on a jar of fleas, and after a few minutes, the fleas stopped hitting their heads on the top and instead jumped just millimeters short of the lid. When the lid was removed, the fleas still stayed inside the jar. Again, just a few failures led to self limitation.
I never train elephants, and I rarely go to the circus. I try to avoid fleas at all costs (although my dog Buddy seems intent on introducing them into my life). These stories may have no merit. They could be urban legends and fake news. But, for me, the moral of the tales rings true.
A few weeks ago, I saw a Louisiana friend share a running workout on social media. It was a 10-mile run done at a solid clip. My immediate response in my head was: “wow, that’s so fast, I don’t think I could run that.” The jump happened stream of consciousness. I didn’t process the information and arrive at that conclusion. If I had, I would have realized the average pace for that 10-mile workout was 44 seconds per mile slower than my current PR marathon pace. The run was strong, but it shouldn’t scare me the way it did.
So why did my brain immediately doubt my ability and current fitness level? Why did “I’m not good enough” pop into my head?
As I look back at my training, I can see a pattern of self limitation. The first few times I tried to run faster paces, I failed. I walked in the final miles, and I struggled to finish workouts. For years I fell short of my biggest goals.
But through all of that failure I have kept smashing my head into the glass lid. I may initially wince when I think about doing certain paced workouts or when I see fast times from friends, but my self confidence has skyrocketed lately. I no longer stress about scary individual workouts, because I know how it feels to finish them strong. Failure is also a familiar feeling, but I realize now that defeat is the foundation for a breakthrough.
I searched in my training logs, going back through my old Suunto moves. Apparently the Nike+ sight I used when I first started running is no longer operational. So I couldn’t find the specific workout I was looking for.
But I don’t need to see the data to remember my first real breakthrough. It came courtesy of Katherine Ward.
Our Shreveport running group was doing a normal weeknight run, and she mentioned the workout her coach wanted her to do the next day. I don’t remember the exact paces, but the gist was two miles warmup, three miles or maybe four at a tempo, walking the pace down from 6:50ish, then a cooldown. Without thinking, I said: “have fun, because I could never do that.” I still remember the look on Katherine’s face. She looked straight at me without any hesitation either and said: “of course you can.”
I laughed her off. No way. Those paces were much faster than what I could do. She pushed though. “Not only can you do it, but you’re going to do it tomorrow morning.” I reluctantly agreed to tag along with her on the workout. Nerves kept me from sleeping the night before, and it felt like I was getting ready for a PR race attempt. In my head, I expected to hang on for maybe a mile or two, then fall back and prove my initial reaction true.
Instead, I found a new gear. Katherine talked the entire time. Like nonstop. In the few brief lulls in conversation, I gasped a question. I asked her to tell me about the toughest race she ever ran. Maybe I grunted a few words to make it appear like I was a part of the conversation. But I wasn’t.
I was hanging by a thread the entire time. She was right, however. I could do that workout. My self limitation was completely mental. A year before, and “there’s no way I can do that” would have been 100 percent accurate. But I had become a better runner. Not much better, but capable of pushing past my comfort zone and flirting with the red effort line.
Several months later (this workout was easy to find because I remember the timing), I had another breakthrough. Jonathan Martin was helping coach me, and I was preparing for what would be my first Boston Qualifying time. He wrote me a month-long workout calendar leading up to the 2014 Green Bay Marathon. Most of the training runs were doable in my head. One stood out as nearly impossible: 18 total miles, eight warmup and 10 at slightly faster than GMP (7:04).
My immediate reaction was “no way.” I knew I couldn’t complete the workout. But when it came time, I set out to run it. I failed miserably. After just four miles at goal marathon pace, I cracked. I walked for a few miles and then slowly ran the rest of the time. Completely defeated, I embraced the fact that I wouldn’t be a Boston qualifier for at least another training season. Maybe ever.
But when I started talking to Jonathan about the run after, he lifted me back up. I don’t remember everything he said, but the idea was that I had failed the workout before I even started. So, like a dummy, I decided I would try it again (even though it was far too close to race day).
“How do you expect to run that fast for 26.2 if you are scared to do it for 13.1?” That’s what Jonathan asked me. I didn’t have a serviceable answer.
His next words have stuck with me. “Run at that pace and make it your home. That’s where you live. It’s where you belong.”
I went out redeem myself, fully believing I could run the prescribed paces. The result was completely different from my failed attempt. After eight warmup miles, I ran 7:10, 7:02, 7:00, 6:52, 6:58, 6:56, 6:59, 6:55, 6:57, 6:41.
This is the note I made in my training journal that night: “I found my home. Didn’t feel particularly great for the warm up eight, but as soon as I started the second loop, I found a groove. Kept feeling stronger and stronger. This was an incredible confidence booster. I could have easily kept it going and set a new half PR. No pauses, no dehydration (and it was still about 20 degrees hotter and muggy compared to what should be my race conditions in GB). I’m feeling great.”
Ten days later I ran an 11-minute PR to meet Boston Marathon qualification standards for the very first time ever. I made one note on that run as well: “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM.” And yes, I did use that many Os.
No matter how many giant steps I take, however, I still have that scared voice of futility in the back of my head. “You can’t do that.” My first thoughts and reactions are almost always negative. That’s why I have to keep going back to those incredible breakthrough moments. We should all take time to remember that feeling we had at each significant milestone.
Don’t be an elephant. Don’t let a feeble hindrance hold you down forever.
Keep jumping into the glass ceiling until it vanishes and let’s you free.