I’m a runner. For the last few months I’ve been training for the London Marathon which I’m running for Mind, the mental health charity.
Running really hurts sometimes but I love it. Which could be the contradiction that characterises many of the best things in life. Haruki Murakami, the writer and running machine, says:
‘Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, ‘Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner themselves.’
Running, especially long distances, is as much in the head as in the legs. When you train for a marathon, there are no short cuts. I run a long way in training which gives me plenty of time to consider the love/hurt divide in detail. So, the good stuff:
- the purpose and pride of running for a reason; my commitment to raise awareness around mental health issues and provide help and answers for those whose lives are blighted by the everyday battle of just being here.
- the endorphin rush when you see your front door again at the sharp end of a four hour training run.
- being fitter, thinner and being able to enjoy guilt-free crisps.
- sleeping better, concentrating harder and being better company – who can resist another detail-filled conversation about refuelling and compression shorts?
When your running is going well, it’s easy to love it, especially when the weather’s fine, you’ve avoided injury and you can see you’re making progress. But when things start to go wrong? It’s been a miserable and long winter by UK standards. Being wet and cold in shorts for long periods of time saps your motivation. Then I succeeded in running into an overhanging branch and scratching my cornea. It hurt a lot. I passed out and worried everyone.
Whilst I sat at home, my eye recovering, my head said the following things:
‘You’re too old to be doing this, what if next time it’s your heart that gives out in the snow? What if you fall in the canal? You can’t look where you’re going, now you’re going to lose all your fitness, you’re going to let your sponsors down, the charity down, yourself down. That eye will never regain its sight properly. Eat some biscuits and forget about the stupid race’ etc.
With the right mindset, this could have been an opportunity to recharge, recuperate and go again. Eventually, it was. But at the time, it felt scary. Hurt outweighed love and my thought processes rushed ahead of me.
When we feel vulnerable, we become less able to respond effectively to difficulties and setbacks. Now I’ve recovered, I’ve looked at the ‘mind chatter’ above through a different lens (boom, boom). The School of Life speak of ways in which we can sabotage ourselves:
- Spiralling thought patterns. ‘I’ve hurt my eye… I’ll be behind in my training…I can’t run the marathon’. One concern triggers related but unrealistic concerns that build until we’re overwhelmed.
- Catastrophizing. ‘What if I go blind / have a heart attack?’ Predicting the worst possible outcome and if the outcome transpires, not being able to cope.
- ‘If only’ thinking. ‘If only I wasn’t so…’ Everything would be well if only I was younger/fitter/more like Mo Farah.
- Learned helplessness. ‘It’s so cold, I can’t run, my eye hurts, what’s the point’. We can feel powerless and want to ‘give up‘ due to previous experiences of failure.
The irony of running for Mind and running training around resilience in the workplace recently has not been lost on me. We can get ‘stuck’ when successive or multiple negative thoughts or events stack up. The habits of childhood, our core beliefs and learned ways of thinking and behaving (in other words, being human) stop us acting in ways that are psychologically healthy. And when I say we, I mean me.
So how might we change our mindset? It might be worth considering to what extent we ‘fuse’ with our thinking to the extent that we are unable to see that our passing thoughts are not our permanent identities. ‘I’m not able do this at the moment’ is not the same as ‘I am useless’.
Conversely, we might be tempted to suppress or avoid undesirable thoughts, emotions or situations, to ‘tough it out’, blame others or give in to difficult feelings. Setbacks and failure are a normal part of the human condition and seeing these as acceptable, inevitable but passing phases in life may help us build our resilience to cope more healthily.
Doing worthwhile things are challenging; challenge brings doubt, fear and vulnerability alongside exhilaration, pride and achievement and none of those are permanent. As I write this with my two good eyes, I’ll try to remember that on the marathon start line.
Flaxman, P., Bond, F. & Livheim, F. (2013) ‘The Mindful and Effective Employee’. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications
Flaxman, P. et al. (2017), Acceptance and Commitment Training For Workplace Settings. City, University of London
Murakami, H. (2009), What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. London: Vintage Books