The fear of losing your child can be paralyzing. Unless you’re already running.
Just when you think you have pondered every mental aspect of racing, you find a new one. So many sports psychologists have written about motivation and drive, how much you have to want the thing you’re going for. I’ve written before on the desire side of training, the fact that you have to want the work as much as you want the goal. Just wanting a PR or other result isn’t enough. You have to want the hard and painful training, too—the long runs, the high mileage, the track work that leaves you hyperventilating, weak, and on the verge of packing it in. If you don’t want the work, you don’t get the goal.
Last weekend, when I thought I might lose my kid, I discovered that desire isn’t good enough. You have to be motivated by need.
Saturday afternoon, I took Henry to the rail trail for an 8-mile run that he’d bike with me. We decided to park at an ice cream shop, then run/bike an out-and-back on the path. It was hot, over 80, and we were both more interested in the milkshakes than the family fitness fun. I admit it: some days I’m motivated by ice cream, not mother-child bonding over fitness. When I read the proofs of my book, I realized that I mentioned ice cream about 12 times in the manuscript. (Mint chocolate chip rules all, in case you’re curious).
We set off on our run/bike, Henry trailing behind me on his bike. I ran the first mile at an 8:15, which was slightly uncomfortable, but he’d picked up his pace as we got going. We got progressively faster as he started telling me Greek myths to entertain both of us. I learned about the 12 tasks of Hercules, the Golden Fleece, and the tragedy of turning to stone when the love of your life impulsively looks back. Once he’d worn out all his myths, we played 20 Questions. Henry did scissors. I did a candlestick, happy that all the questions were yes or no because I was pushing my aerobic threshold by that point. At the turnaround, we’d done miles from 7:40-7:50. I was pretty well cooked from the heat and needing to slow it down.
Henry wanted to go faster.
Midway through mile 5, I told him I couldn’t run as fast as he was going to bike. And without a word, the kid took off, not thinking to ask about where or when to wait for me. Annoyed, I asked two women on bikes to catch up to him and tell him to wait for his mother. When I got to an intersection between the path and a road, he was there, waiting. “Henry,” I panted. “You can bike ahead but you have to wait at the intersections.” Annoyed, he gave me a “Duh” look. We crossed the street, and he took off again, happily spinning forward for the half-mile to the next intersection.
We went like this for another one or two intersections. When we were about halfway back to the car, I said to him that I wasn’t sure where the next intersection was, but that he should wait by the car if he got there before an intersection. This should be obvious, but Henry can be flighty, especially on a bike, and I could see him cruising past the car on his way to New Hampshire.
Off he went.
A minute or two after he was out of sight, I realized that there would be no other intersection before the car—and that he’d be biking for 2 ½ miles on his own. Commence maternal freak-out.
I cranked like I’ve never cranked before. I could have set a PR in the 2.47-mile event. I was exhausted, hot, thirsty, and I was running like mad, like I’ve never wanted a PR. I remembered my coach at my first track session ever, about 5 years ago. He told me to run sprints like I had to rescue my son from the street. That’s how I ran those miles on Saturday, keeping in mind that if I crashed from sprinting, I’d have to walk. So I finessed the line between sprinting and collapsing. I needed to get to the car. I pictured Henry waiting there, worried—or worse, not waiting there. I pictured him in a pick-up truck on his way to New Hampshire, or crying to a policeman that his mom was gone, or crossing the busy street without looking both ways because suburban children never learn how to cross streets. More likely, he’d be eating a massive banana split outside the ice cream shop, having promised the store I’d cover the bill when I showed up.
I needed to get there with the kind of panic I felt when I lost him at a 5k in 2009.
So this is what I’m getting at: You have to want your goal, but more importantly you have to run like you need it. You have to race like you need it, which is to say you have to run both hard and smart. If I’d sprinted and been forced to walk, it would have taken me much longer to get to the car, where incidentally, Henry was waiting patiently on a rock in the shade. When I got to him, my watch said 7.97 miles, so of course, I had to jog a bit more to hit the 8. (Runner mother, people; I’m a worried mom, but I still want to get my miles in.) Then I doubled over, hands on my knees, hyperventilating. “Are you okay?” I heaved.
“I’m fine. I thought you might be worried,” he said.
“Were you worried? Were you scared?” I asked.
“No, just tired. I biked really fast.”
“Let’s get ice cream, kid.” I said while my heart raced.
I wanted ice cream. I needed ice cream. And tequila.
When it comes to something you want so much it hurts, you need to need it. And so you have to act accordingly. You have to want it so much that more than anything, you need it, and then you must do the tough and exhausting work to get there. In speed as in life. Wanting, needing—these are concepts. So much sports writing and life writing resides in the abstract. Beautiful, but useless as far as real living and acting is concerned. Concepts are empty without action. You might love running, but unless you do running, who cares? Similarly, you might want something badly, but until you need it and follow through by pushing as hard as necessary to see it through… who cares? I might know I need to drink water and want to be better about hydrating, but if I don’t actually drink it, well, I’d shrivel, wouldn’t I?
Same goes for racing. Want. Need. Act. That’s training in 3 words. Maybe living, too. A challenge, but if you dare to race in the first place, it’s not impossible. Determination will get you where you want to go.