Even if you’d rather drink poison than go for a run, pushing yourself through mile after mile is similar to chasing after any life goal: You have to overcome fear of failure, wanting to quit, and psyching yourself up to do it all over again after you cross the finish line. The Cut sat with three elite runners to discuss getting through any challenge whether it involves sneakers or not: filmmaker and Olympian 10K runner Alexi Pappas, author of Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas; mental-health coach and runner Alison Mariella Désir, author of the upcoming Running While Black: Finding Freedom in a Sport That Wasn’t Built for Us; and coach and former track-and-field athlete Lauren Fleshman, author of the forthcoming Good for a Girl: A Woman Running in a Man’s World.
Tell me about the toughest run you’ve had and how you got through it.
Lauren Fleshman: I was running a track race, defending my national title. I struggled a lot with anxiety that year and completely lost my love of running. I found myself in fourth place with a mile to go, and in the past I would have thought, All I need to do is beat one of these people and I’ll make it to the world championships. I would have seen it as an opportunity. But because of the mental space I was in, all I could think about was, What if I push through this pain and don’t make it? I ended up pulling off the track and stopping for 13 seconds because I was so afraid of failing, and when I stopped and watched everyone run away, I felt very aware that I was the only person truly capable of beating myself. So I jumped back in and ran as hard as I could to the finish line. It didn’t change my finishing place, but it was a wake-up call for me that I needed to reconnect with my joy of the sport and find a way to reclaim it for myself again.
Alexi Pappas: The morning of an exhibition relay, I got my period and my sciatic nerve was still not super-happy. If it were a normal situation, I probably would have dropped out, but I was on a team of six people and wanted to be part of it. Halfway into the race, I felt the pain go away. I don’t recommend people run injured or sick, but I wanted to do this, and it felt euphoric to know that I had not given up in the middle of something.
Alison Mariella Désir: I was running the Bear Mountain marathon relay with three men who were faster than me. We wanted to win the co-ed marathon relay. But the additional element I didn’t think about until the race was that I was going to be running in Bear Mountain, and for generations, Black people have run into the woods and have never come back. So there was this pressure I was putting on myself to win but also of going into this space where I had no idea if something happened to me whether people would help me the same way they would a white person. I forget my time because the survival piece overtook the pain. I forgot about going fast. I was like, I just have to get in and out because something could happen to me. I think of other Black people, and on top of the weight of training, there’s this additional weight of white supremacy you have to grapple with. Who are the people in the environments where you’re running? Do they see the humanity in you? Do they see a criminal? All of these things go through my mind when I’m just trying to go for a run.
What advice would you give to non-runners when they’re attempting something that seems impossible?
A.M.D.: When I started preparing for my first marathon, I was very depressed, and the only reason I decided to do it was because a Black friend of mine was running. Seeing his example made me sign up for a 16-week training program. A marathon is impossible; so few people run that distance. But the plan broke it up into little buckets, and all I had to worry about was waking up and following whatever was on the calendar each day. If I put in the input, then I’d get the output. When I was unemployed, I thought, What if I take the same strategy of putting together a four-week plan, where every day I list out a certain number of activities I’m going to do that will get me to this impossible goal of finding a job? It’s the little wins that will keep you going. Break up something difficult into small pieces. Even if you have a few bad runs or days, it’s all building to something in the end.
L.F.: How you feel on a daily basis doesn’t measure success. You can’t invest too much in a day when you feel crappy. And I’d say the impossible things are much more likely to happen if you’re approaching them with your own flair and style. If you’ve never done something before, there’s a temptation to look at people who are succeeding and trying to emulate them. But when I’ve done that, I’m most likely to run into obstacles.
A.P.: The best advice I ever got was from my Olympic coach when I wasn’t hitting the splits. I was afraid that I wasn’t going to accomplish this big dream and that I wasn’t worthy of chasing it at all. He pulled me aside and told me about the rule of thirds: Whenever you’re chasing a big dream, you’re supposed to feel good a third of the time, okay a third of the time, and crappy or not great a third of the time, and if you feel roughly in those ratios, it means you are in fact chasing a dream. If you feel too good all the time, you’re not pushing yourself enough, and if you feel too fatigued, you might be burning out or having a mental-health challenge and need to reevaluate.
How do you deal with failure, and what’s your advice for grappling with it?
L.F.: I just don’t fear it the same way I used to. The advice I’d give is do the self-work you can to have your value feel beyond any accomplishment. You are not what you did, and understanding that is how you can build the most resilience. You don’t really fail; you learn. Most of my book is about failing, and I wouldn’t have been able to make these contributions to women’s sports if I hadn’t failed, so now I don’t just jump to the conclusion that it’s bad.
A.M.D.: I try to be curious, not only about my failures and why they happened but also, Why did I consider them failures? How do I know that that failure is the end versus just the middle? It’s about reframing your thinking. The practice of being curious leads to more empathy and understanding.
A.P.: I personally am very stubborn, and whenever I do something, the result is something I always try to retroactively rewrite as something that was somehow in my favor. So if I fell down on a run and couldn’t run for two days, that’s a very minor failure, but I’ll be like, Well, I probably needed the rest. There’s some narrative I can tell myself. That was a survival technique for me growing up. Also you have to zoom out of the situation and appreciate yourself for trying. It’s wonderful to watch someone try something they might not get. It’s so brave.
What drives each of you not to give up?
A.P.: Running will expose you to your boundaries. I used to be driven by thinking I could solve an internal problem of not feeling like I mattered enough with an external solution — my performance. The Olympics and running were obvious objective things to chase for me. The interesting thing was when we achieve the dream, we’ve sublimated the idea that this is going to fix everything. It can be an amazing experience but still not answer that core need you have. What drives me now is knowing I’m trying my best. It’s a peaceful feeling.
L.F.: Running has been the through-line of my life more than anything. I want to know where it’s going to take me, what it’s going to teach me, who I’m going to meet, how I’m going to experience the mornings or evenings or observe my natural environment. That’s what grounds me.
A.M.D.: Running has always been for my mental health and given me a new perspective. It’s also given me every good thing in my life: my partner, my son, these two women. In 2012, when I first started running, I was depressed and attempted suicide. Now I think, Wow, imagine if my life had ended then. I wasn’t even in the good part.
What restores you?
L.F.: I check my self-talk. Any time I catch myself in a destructive self-talk pattern, I stop and redirect to more love and forgiveness and spaciousness with myself. That’s a practice I implement every day.
A.M.D.: To ease my anxiety, I take ten deep breaths whenever I need to, and now my son joins me, which is sweet. It’s a helpful practice. I don’t feel differently about the stressor, but it’s not triggering the same response. You take your brain from fight or flight to rest and digest.
A.P.: I try to relish every day and actively celebrate what I’ve done. Another technique is starting over. In grad school, I lived with one of my best friends, who is an athlete. She gave herself the gift of starting over if she was having a rough day. She would take off her regular clothes and put on her pajamas at any time of day, get in her bed, lay down for one minute, then pop out of her bed and say, “New day!” Put on a new outfit, make breakfast again, make coffee. And I was like, If she can do this, I can. Giving yourself the gift of restarting is such a kind thing to do.