Riverside Drive 5k - an exercise in patience

I talk a lot about fear in this blog. A lot of that has to do with the fact that excuses are borne out of fear, and fear is what allows us to hold ourselves back from pushing towards our full potential. A self-defense instructor in high school once told me that "I can't means I don't want to or I don't know how." This has always stuck with me - whenever I think to myself that I can't do something, I assess whether it's because I don't want to, or because I don't know how to do it. If I don't want to, why not? More often than not, I'm afraid of some aspect - afraid of the challenge, afraid of pain, afraid of not doing as well as I had expected, afraid of finding myself in a frightening place of doing too well, and raising expectations on myself to a level which which I was unsure I could maintain. And if I didn't know how, well the only way to remedy that is to make an attempt and learn from it.

Last Wednesday around 6:30 pm, I found myself wandering around Riverside Park in Manhattan, looking for a race for which I had hastily signed myself up the night before. It was an impulse decision, and not well thought out beforehand, and I waffled mightily about whether or not to even go. Ultimately, obviously, I dragged myself out of the house and to the train, all the while trying to convince myself that I'd be glad I did. Even as I was swiping my metrocard, a little voice was telling me that I could go home, and all sorts of ridiculous excuses started popping into my head.

What if no one else signed up and I'm the only one there?

What if I'm the slowest person there?

I don't want to embarrass myself.

What if it got cancelled? Am I wasting my time? I never got a confirmation email.

I'm so sore, and so tired. Will this be good for me? Can I finish? Will it be torture?

And then...

Do I just not want to, or do I just not know how?

I definitely wanted to go, in theory, I was just so nervous - and all of those things going through my head were just going to hold me back. I took a deep breath and hopped on the train. If nothing else, I told myself, I would learn something from this race.

When I found the race - it hadn't been cancelled (silly excuses) - I saw a cluster of lean, limber guys doing stretches that looked like overcooked string beans, and some men and women around my age, of (it looked like) varying abilities. There were some high school kids, and a number of middle-aged folks who took their fitness seriously. I admire them. I found a bench for my bag, and took a deep breath, letting my shoulders relax a bit.

It has not ceased to surprise me how much of this challenge - or any challenge, really - is mental. How much of it isn't just the last mile or two, pushing yourself to get to the finish line, but backtracking from there - getting yourself to the starting line, letting your head clear, but still being mindful of your breathing, your form, your posture, making sure you slept and ate right the night before, and the day before that, so you would have a productive workout....and on it goes. Your mind becomes a cocoon of focus so that when the time comes to break free of  that cocoon, all the work has been done. In college, I struggled immensely with the mental games swimming presented for me. Looking back, I realize that so many little pieces were missing, and there were just so many pieces in general, that I never took the time to start the process of building mental stamina over again. I was so impatient to pick up where I had left off in high school that I didn't take the time to remove myself from all the noise I had created around me and just find the quiet starting place in my mind. I could never find that place where goals are formed, when you conceptualize exactly what you want, and you realize that you will go for it, no matter what it will take.

I just didn't want to, and didn't quite know how.

And that's okay. Out of some of our hardest struggles and our lowest failures grows the understanding of our capabilities as people. So often we look at failure as leaving without getting what we wanted, but really, failure is stretching your mental capabilities in the opposite direction - you know the depths of frustration, and the disappointment of something that you want so badly, but you just cannot have. You now have a better understanding than ever before of what it will take to make that goal, whatever it might be.

That's how I found myself in Riverside Park last Wednesday. This 5k was going to be a test of my mental stamina, because if not now, when?

And it was hard. I hit hills right off the bat, and they never quite stopped. In the middle of the second mile, I had to smile at how ridiculously unpleasant the race was. And then I had to smile because I was in the thick of it. I was pushing through, no matter how long it took me to put one foot in front of the other. I had faced a few nerves, and they hadn't bested me this time. Physically, the race sucked, but mentally, I felt like a beast. I had taken all sorts of reasons for "I can't" and turned them into "I can," "I will," and "I did." My marathon finish just got a tiny bit sharper in my mind, and that is the kind of motivation that doesn't fade quickly.


  1. Great post! I love breaking "can't" down into if you don't want to or you can't and analyzing it from there! I'll have to keep that in the back of my mind! And good job on the race!

  2. Hi Emily! My first visit to you blog and I really enjoyed this post! Congrats on your success! It always feels good to triumph over nerves hey?! I wish I like to run, ha ha. There's something kind of magical about running. Glad I found your blog. OXO Natalie

  3. "More often than not, I'm afraid of some aspect - afraid of the challenge, afraid of pain..." I needed this today. I'm scared to death to run outside in the heat and humidity that is Houston which is why I've been putting my run off. Between your comment on my blog and this post, I think I'll get through it OK :)

  4. Yes, you definitely will!! The Houston summer weather sucks, but after going out and training in it, you will be that much stronger come marathon day, when the weather is (presumably) much cooler.

    Also, my wedding is in Houston in fall 2012! I'm excited for my next trip down to start planning!

  5. Great job on sticking to it and running that 5K! I always think that moment standing at the start line waiting for the signal to go is the hardest part of a race. :)

  6. I remember having the exact same fear of "Will I be last? What if I am seriously dead last? What if I can't finish?" the first time I ran a NYRR race in Central Park. Stuff like that freaks me out, too, sometimes :) With the NYC marathon this year I thought, "I'm so embarrassed about how slow I am, what if people see my results and how slow I am!" But I finally realized - "So what, we're all just doing what we can. What, is some jerk going to make fun of me because it took me 5:01:16 to finish? Fine, let them. I was trying my hardest and that's all I can speak to." Anyhoo - glad to hear that it sounds like you had your own positive realization, too :)