Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Breaking Through Barriers

As is the case whenever I'm unable to run, I find myself doing more analyzing and thinking (and recording odd videos) about my relationship with running. Something that running has shown me is a clearer definition of my limits, both physical and mental. Not because I've broken through my barriers, but because I have a clearer idea of what they are. I haven't been a new runner in a very long time, but I remember the overwhelming urge to stop running when the slightest discomfort hit me back when I was first starting. After a certain amount of training, the effort becomes easier, but there is still discomfort (unless you're running at a very easy pace). The key to the improvement, I believe, is learning how to deal with and manage the discomfort. My oldest daughter is just starting to run, and I know she is able to go farther and faster than she believes she can (although I know better than to push her at this point), and that's because I have some understanding of what level of discomfort is acceptable. Now, compared to a world-class runner, I have no clue. Give me the same physical gifts that Steve Prefontaine had, put us on the starting line of a 5000 meter race, and he would still eat my lunch, get me to pay the bill and leave the tip.

But I have seen glimpses of "barrier breakthroughs" in my running. I'm sure you've had those runs and/or races when you're cruising along at a high, but sustainable, effort level. You glance at your watch and realize your pace is faster than you expected, then you push a little harder, into unknown territory. It hurts, but you tell yourself to relax and accept the pain. Like I eluded to, this doesn't happen very often for me, but when it does, it makes me wonder how much more I have in me.

There have been several instances during races when I've come to a decision point. I'm redlining and unsure if I can maintain my current pace much longer. Do I continue to try pushing and risk blowing up? Or do I back off so things feel a little more comfortable? I usually choose the latter. I wish that wasn't the case, but I know my mental strength is still lacking. Sure, maybe I would blow up at that greater effort level, but maybe I hit a breakthrough point and advance my running to a higher level, with new found confidence.

Not to get too philosophical, but there are life lessons I've taken from this, too. We all go through trials - work, family, relationship and health related - that test our limits. I think running has helped me to realize that a lot of the barriers we face are not only self-imposed, but they're movable. They can be pushed through, if one is willing to endure just a little more pain and discomfort than they believed they could. We can reach new levels that seemed unatainable before.

Now, if I can only put this into practice myself!

(not sure why I'm so "deep" today…)


  1. Don't we want to be more aware when we run? Do we really want to be zombie robots?

    Here's where a bit of cruise control and mind over matter can help, but not to the point where we disconnect with the reality we have created for ourselves.

  2. I'm not sure I follow your reasoning, Andrew. My point is that we're capable of doing more than we realize, in running or otherwise. It's easy to be content with our "comfort zone" (I'm guilty as charged), but gains happen when we push to find our limits and, sometimes, break through them.

  3. Well the only way know your limit is to hit it once in a while.

    As far as practicing it...

    My solution is simply to have some dedicated races that allow me to push past my perceived "redline", if I blow up- I've already made peace with that. At least I know where I stand.

  4. As a newbie runner, I think this is one area where using a heart rate monitor has really been helpful for me. There have been times when I have felt like I needed to slow down, but then I checked my hr and I could see that I was nowhere near max - maybe not even over 80 or 85% (like during the dreaded tempo runs). Learning to over-ride the desire to slow down is a real challenge that I'm nowhere near mastering. But, yeah, I've definitely had those race moments where my pace was faster than I thought possible for the given effort level.

  5. Matt - good points, as always. I should pick a non-"A" race to push past my perceived limit (when I'm healthy, that is).

    Brian - I should clarify that I'm not suggesting that pushing during every run is good. I actually run most of my training runs at an easy pace (and use my HR monitor to actually make sure I run SLOW enough). I look to find my limits during key workouts and races. Good luck with your training & keep running!

  6. Lately I've begun seriously following my coach's most repeated advice, which is to negative split *every* training run and race. I initially rebelled at his advice, thinking that I was initially running too slowly, but after blowing up all to often it the later portion of the run I came to realize that my jack-rabbit start was simply my ego and adrenaline talking!

    I fully agree with your underlying point that our running-related accomplishments and challenges provide us valuable lessons applicable to our broader life. In this regard I feel it's important that we dedicate ourselves fully to activities that we undertake, versus our default tendency of starting strongly in a new activity, then pulling back once the enormity of the challenge is revealed. I guess we are 'deep' today!

  7. Since we get endless rebuttals ...

    I think I meant to say that the pain/discomfort we feel needs to be managed by the mind so that we can break through it, not dull the experience with music, drugs, etc. We need to manage ourselves through the barriers just like you wrote.

    Look at my comments as an affirmation and then a slight tangent (in my mind) that was actually commenting on an another bloggers post about being able to run farther while listening to music.

    Common Colin, aren't you in my mind yet? :)

  8. Ah, okay. Sorry I misunderstood. Thanks for clarifying!

  9. Colin - I also run most of my runs at an easy pace. I was mostly referring to speed work, such as tempo runs and intervals, as well as during races.

  10. Timely article


  11. "Whether you think you can or can't, you are right". Henry Ford.

    I forget what book I was reading, I think it was Space by James Michener and it talked about breaking the sound barrier. Whenever the test pilots would get close, the plane would start violently shaking. All the pilots had to back off the throttle. Then, instead of backing off while he was literally out of control, Chuck Yeager "punched it" and was the first to break the speed of sound.