Hills & The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Something really awesome happened this weekend, not to me, it happened to one of my athletes during our Saturday group run.

The run itself was seemingly unremarkable- miserable is probably an appropriate descriptor- it was 46 degrees and raining.  Part of our route went through a closed road which is under construction that the rain turned into a muddy mess and we had to cross this section twice since the course was out-and-back.  I’m talking mud the texture of quicksand, for a good 75 feet.

Okay, this MAY be a slight exaggeration.

The route I picked was pretty hilly.  Well, in fairness, it was not just hilly, it was HILLY. Several large, long, steep, scary hills. Naturally, I did not warn my athletes, I just told then which direction to go and they headed out, me peddling my bike along side of them.

Fast forward, 30 minutes later…remember I said that this route was HILLY?  Well, the three worst hills are in the last mile of the course and they are brutal. I was riding along side of two runners, Jessica and Beth, when we got to the first of these hills and they were holding a 10 minute per mile pace.  I put on my coaching hat and encouraged them to hold that pace up this REALLY long hill…and they did.

But their legs, sadly, were pretty much toast at this point.
Then, a little over a half-mile later, we hit the second of the aforementioned hills, not as long as the previous, but pretty darn steep.  Jessica began to pull ahead (speed demon) but I stuck with Beth.  What Beth didn’t know at the time was that she was holding a pace that I had never before seen her run.  I had been working with her for more than 2 months and this pace was incredible for her- and she was 3.5 miles in.  Impressive.  But she began to struggle on this second hill.  Her breathing pattern changed and it became obvious to me that she was panicking.  I encouraged her to settle down as we got to the top of this hill but we both knew that the excruciating uphill finish was still coming.  I coached her through breath control and form but I could feel her frustration.  So I did what I had to do, I let her in on the secret: “Beth, you are running a 10-minute per mile pace, so if it feels hard it’s because you’re killing it not because you’re weak.” I don’t think she believed me at first but I assured her that she was in fact running faster than she ever had, for almost 4 miles, in the rain, through the mud. And with that, she found her second wind.

Here she is in between Hill #1 and Hill #2.
When we got to the third and final hill, the end was in sight.  I told her that all she had to do was get up this last hill and finish strong. I told her she could slow down but she could not stop.  I stayed by her side, offering encouragement, as she powered up the hill to the finish crossing in just over 40 minutes.  She was in tears, she had done the impossible.  I gave her a big hug and was overcome with pride.  This was an amazing accomplishment and I had the great honor of being there beside her when she pulled it off.
What I haven’t mentioned yet is that Beth had been told by a doctor that she could not run due to lower back issues.  That didn’t stop her from doing my beginner’s 5K program (she was actually the reason I did the program- her request prompted me to create the program) where over the past 8 weeks, we’d worked her up very gradually, from 1.5 miles to 5K.  On this particular Saturday, we went 4 miles and she crushed it!!

You earned it Beth! 
I’ve found, both in my own life and with the athletes I’ve coached, that most often the barriers to achieving awesome things are just stories in our heads- an internal monologue of self-doubt, fear of failure, and excuses- they’re not real and they have very little, if any, basis in fact or reality.  Sometimes it starts with an external influence (a diagnosis, naysayers, etc.) but when we internalize it, it becomes our own voice, a voice we trust blindly, a voice we don’t question.  It plays like a broken record in our minds, preventing us from taking a chance, stepping outside of our comfort zone, and finding our own greatness.
True story.
I have been guilty of this on numerous occasions myself.  I even blogged about my own struggles with this before (see The Big Box post). These stories are self-imposed limits. The things we tell ourselves, consciously and unconsciously, make us stop short and ultimately keep us from seeing and reaching our true potential.  So, what if we just changed our minds? What if we decided to start telling ourselves another story? What if we picked up a new script? Take Beth for example, what would happen if instead of the “I can’t run” story or the “I’m not strong enough to…” story, she told herself the “I am a strong and powerful runner who eats hills for breakfast” story? I’ll tell you what would happen, she would power through a very difficult 4-miler at an incredible pace.  She would recognize that the only barrier she ever really had was the story she was telling herself and that story was fiction.  The problem wasn’t her body, it was her head.  She thanked me profusely but it was all her.  HER legs, HER back, HER will. The only thing I did was give her another story to tell herself. 

This is why I so willingly challenge my athletes with hills.  I know they hate it but hills expose runners for what they truly are.  Hills build character and tenacity.  They are just like any other life struggle, you’ll discover more about yourself in the middle of them than at any other time.  Avoiding challenges is not a habit we should get into, in running or in life.

Are you a hill seeker?

Way to go Beth!!  I know you’ve set your sights on a 10K on April 27th and you can bet I’ll be there to hug you when you crush that too.

2 Comments

  1. said:

    Alison,
    You are a true inspiration and words cannot explain the impact you have had on me! You believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself and challenged me to do things I never imagined. You are more than a running coach…you lead by example and inspire me to always push harder! I set goals and you make sure I crush them! I will forever be changed by you and I know that this is just the beginning!

    March 31, 2014
    Reply
    • Beth- You are amazing! It has been such an incredible honor to be a part of your journey. Knowing you has changed me!

      April 1, 2014
      Reply

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