This piece continues to document my journey toward the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half-Marathon. All pieces that I write in the lead up to race day will be collected here.
1. Failing Alone
All athletes lead a double life. On the one hand, an athlete is cheered by an adoring public so emotionally invested in their success that an alien observer might think the audience has the same stake in the contest as those actually competing.
I felt the truth of this that night in May of this year when the Toronto Maple Leafs, for the first time in a decade no longer seeming like a living punchline, collapsed in spectacular fashion and in a matter of ten minutes went from being the hope of a city to once again being a punching bag for every Canadian hockey fan outside of Toronto. The pub suddenly went silent. No brawls, no beer flying, no tables flipped. Just a sudden jump from one end of the bipolar spectrum to the other.
In moments of success, the athlete is celebrated, deified, and elevated to the status of hero. The energy that the public exudes is almost tangible and the competitor feeds off of it, at least if we are to believe post-game interviews. They did it for the fans, they share the victory with the fans, they are so grateful for the support of the fans, they are so sorry to disappoint the fans. When an individual athlete or team succeeds, it’s standard protocol that they should be humble enough to acknowledge that “they didn’t do this on their own.”
When the game and with it the Leafs’ season was over, however, the players had no public energy in which to bask. Rather, they had to make their way back to the locker room and somehow move on with their lives and careers. Individually, and as a team, they would have to dissect what went wrong. They would have to continue on with their strict training regiments, perhaps modified, and come back and do it all over again with no guarantee of success.
Most of this would be done out of the public eye. Somehow, without a city cheering them on and without a significant audience, they would have to continue being athletes. The motivation could not and would not be drawn from others. You may succeed with your adoring public, but you fail and rebound almost entirely on your own.
2. The Anatomy of Motivation
This has been my personal experience with motivation and how I’ve come to understand that process. Motivation has two parts, external and internal. The external comes from that adoring public and as silly as it might seem, to hear the cheers of others is an incredible source of motivation. I do not have an “adoring public” or throng of fans to speak of. I am, after all, just one of those idiots running around the neighbourhood every morning who will go unnoticed should I manage to cross the finish line.
My cheering section is real, however. It is limited to friends and family who have encouraged me endlessly and shown genuine excitement at the positive changes that running has fostered for both my physical and mental health. This type of motivation goes an incredibly long way in making small accomplishments feel like massive triumphs. Success that feels shared is just so much sweeter.
Though I do not share their level of public esteem or reap the rewards that they might, what I have in common with any athlete is that constant search for the other half of motivation, that will-power and resilience that pushes you out the door almost every day, something that your adoring public cannot do for you.
This process is incredibly difficult and has acquainted me with an aspect of training that I did not truly expect, or perhaps one that I just tried to ignore when starting out. The ultimate truth is that the time in which you grow and build those vital skills is often incredibly lonely and miserable.
Throughout my training, I’ve found myself living like a monk and directing my focus more and more toward my goal and away from more indulgent pursuits. A goal like running a marathon simply demands that much of you. Twenty-one kilometres is a distance you cannot cover without building your endurance and speed day-in and day-out.
Reaching this distance means running hills to build your endurance; it means sprinting to the point where you are panting and ready to collapse to build your speed; it means constant strength training to develop lower body and core strength so that your form is perfect. It’s not just about covering the miles, but also proper rest, proper hydration, proper diet, proper technique, and proper attitude. The time you spend on the trails is but a fraction of your actual training process.
There is an incredible adrenaline rush like no other, the so-called “runners high,” that comes with running, but my own personal experience, which I’m sure is shared by other runners, is that not every run goes this way. On some days, you’re just struggling to the finish line and are relieved that you’ve finished rather than ecstatic at what you’ve accomplished.
Pain and soreness are constant companions. Despite this, adrenaline makes you constantly want to move. Running is a cruel mistress that messes with both your body and your mind.
3. The Upside of Loneliness
This is where your cheering section no longer matters. While their encouragement may reassure you that your undertaking is a positive one, it is of no consequence to them if you give up or fail to train properly. You run on your own. There are some who are lucky enough to have a running group, but once again the individual runner makes the choice to be out training and if you have it in your mind to quit, no one outside of yourself has the time or means to put you back on track.
What’s more is that despite the popularity of running and the large numbers of participants in big city marathons, those who seriously tackle half and full marathon distances are still but a tiny fraction of the population. Because your pursuits are so abnormal and out of synch with modern life, which makes commitment to running a marathon incredibly difficult, not many are pursuing your goal along with you and this is perfectly understandable.
If this is a goal you’re working toward, chances are that none of your friends or family are doing the same. The result is a significant level of withdrawal from normal social activities that can be afforded only to those who lead normal lives. You will find yourself lacking solidarity from your fellow man. There’s no sense of “we’re all in this together,” but rather a very strong sense of “you’re on your own with this one.” The fact is, to take on something so bizarre cannot but demand a significant time spent on your own and as the only one with your lifestyle.
I say this not as a cry for pity, but simply as an acknowledgement that this journey has at times been incredibly lonely and painful, both physically and mentally, as well as one that has demanded extreme sacrifice. Ultimately, I chose this goal and with it all the downsides that come with the incredible victories and have no intentions of giving it up. For this reason, the loneliness is something that I’ve had to embrace.
That loneliness is your time for growth, literally and figuratively. The rest that repairs your body, the runs that see you exceed your previous personal bests, and the shunning of unhealthy vices that leaves your body ultimately feeling better than ever.
It’s on those long training sessions that you learn the art of visualization, searching your mind for images and words that keep you going. Simply picturing yourself crossing a finish line or getting to the top of the hill trains your brain to make those positive connections, making them into habit and building the mental toughness that is quite honestly well over half the battle. Your mind becomes stronger and grit comes to define your existence more and more in the most wonderful way.
Ultimately, all of this loneliness and sacrifice would mean nothing if I didn’t hunger so powerfully for that finish line. Thanks to that hunger, it’s a pain that’s necessary but meaningful, a series of excruciating milestones on a journey that I know I have to take. Loneliness and pain on their own are meaningless, but along the way to a goal so coveted, they’re signs that you’re slowly but surely making progress.
Like those poor boys in blue, I may wonder what the point is from time to time, but ultimately I go back to that locker room and find myself back at it the next day. If your desire to continue is stronger than the pain, then you know you’re on the right path. For me, this continues to be the case and my anticipation for October 20th grows every day.