Stubbornness: friend or foe?

Less than two weeks to go…

until my first post-foot surgery race and no major setbacks yet! (I’m picturing the gods of irony dropping a giant anvil on my head as I write this…nothing yet, but I’ll let you know). Training hasn’t been stellar, but it has been steady, and right now that is the aim of the game. My foot still hurts quite a bit as I run – right where the sesamoid bone was removed – but so long as the pain doesn’t increase too much, I am running through it. Inevitably, I still hit a point at which I have to stop, which is an endless source of frustration. This past weekend, I made it up to 36 km before I threw in the towel. Was I disappointed I didn’t make it to 42 km as planned? Yeah. More than I’d like to admit. But to be honest, I think I’m more proud of the fact that I stopped, rather than continued hobbling along (as I’ve been prone to do in the past). I mean come on, it was only 6 km. Why should the fact that I stopped short of a self-imposed goal take away from the 36 km I had actually managed to do?

Contemplating life… Okay, I was actually just thinking about how to get the chocolate bar out of my backpack without undoing the straps.

As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, since this (damn) foot surgery, I’ve really been trying to take a new approach to my running. Ease up on myself. Listen more to body, set realistic goals, and try to enjoy the act of running itself, regardless of distance, speed, or competition. Problem is that this is much easier to say than do.

You see, I am cursed with the stubborn gene. Always have been and always will be. It is part of my DNA. Part of what makes me, me, for better or worse. My mom always used to say that I was like a dog with a bone: when I sink my teeth into something, I don’t really let go until I’ve finished, even if it is past the point at which I logically should have stopped. I don’t even realize it anymore, but I take this approach to everything I do. Hell, it is what got me through law school, through my first mission to Africa, through my last mission in the middle east, through my time (albeit brief) at a corporate law firm in New York… It has gotten me into countries without passports or visas, onto sold-out planes during snow storms, and it has definitely been THE one aspect of my personality that has gotten me through my races. How do I really learn to change that? How do I learn to turn off that voice in my head that says tells me to keep going no matter what? And if I do get rid of that part of my personality, what is left??

We’re surrounded by messages that rewards stubbornness – at least in sports. Think about it. Thanks to Nike, sayings such as “second place is the first loser” and “impossible is nothing” have become part of our psyche. We celebrate the stories of people who surpass all odds and continue in the face of adversity even when all signs point in the other direction. For goodness sake, a blockbuster movie has been made about a guy cutting his own arm off during a climbing expedition!! And why the heck not? It is natural to idolize – and idealize – this never-give-up spirit and we relish in the stories of triumph. The problem is that we never really pay attention to the other side. The down side to stubbornness is that it isn’t always the best idea. We forget that sometimes it doesn’t pay off.  Ha, would Nike have made as much money off of t-shirts emblazoned with the words “know your limits… and stick to them” instead of “know your limits… and never accept them”? Would 127 hours have been produced if the climber had simply said, at hour 126, “y’know what? I should call it a day.” Obviously not.

We tend to use the word “stubbornness” to describe persistence when it doesn’t yield success, and “persistence” to describe stubbornness when it leads to victory. The former is negative and the latter is positive, but the only difference between the two is the outcome, which is often out of our control. So how do we know when to give up and when to keep going? How do we determine when giving up means being a wimp and when pushing through is heroic?  How do we know when to cut our arm – I mean losses – and determine whether that was actually a win?

As you might have guessed, I’ve been thinking about this one a lot. This whole running thing has really forced me to examine not only my mentality about running, but also my approach in life. Unless I find the answers to these questions, I ultimately know that I will revert back to my old ways and run myself into the ground. Truthfully, I still think I’d rather do that than take the “smart”, less ‘persistent’ approach that I’m used to. But I’m trying.

Stubbornness is seen as good in sport, but bad in life. But as I’ve said, it is often the same mentality that simply manifests itself in two different ways. I’m having trouble backing off in running because I don’t know how to back off in life. I am hard-wired to finish things to the end. Leave no stone unturned. Wear out my opponent. But what if the opponent is ultimately myself?

Before we dive too deep into the cobwebs of my psyche (which I’m pretty sure will have you running ultramarathons away from this blog), let me bring up something that I read off of a fellow ultrarunner’s blog. You see, I’m not the only one who has made this connection between one’s approach to running and one’s approach to life. In my opinion, they are very much intertwined, and this is reflected in Charlie Engle’s most recent blog post. Charlie Engle, for those of you who have not heard his name before, is a pretty famous/infamous American ultrarunner. He also happens to be a former drug addict. The dude has been through more adversity than one could imagine. To his credit, he turned his experience with addiction around and has since inspired runners across the US (and beyond). He, along with my coach and fabulous fellow Canadian ultrarunner, Ray Zahab, ran across the Sahara desert in 111 days to raise awareness of water issues in Africa. Don’t even try to tell me stubbornness didn’t come into play there. Watch the movie of his journey – Running the Sahara (itunes) – and you’ll know what I mean. However, you can clearly see where this mentality has gotten him into trouble. Unfortunately for Charlie, he was recently convicted of mortgage fraud, which apparently arose out of his efforts to fund his run across Africa. Within a matter of days he will be head to federal prison for 21 months of incarceration. After reading his last blog, I was really intrigued by what he had to say about this ‘stubborn’ quality that I’ve been describing, and its effect on the non-running aspects of life:

My initial reaction to almost any setback is to fight and battle against it as hard as I can. If I am in a race, this approach usually serves me well. If I am in a relationship, fighting tends to land me in quicksand and struggling just makes things worse.

I must admit, I can relate. My recent attempts to rid myself of my ‘running stubbornness’ has made my ‘life stubbornness’ more apparent, especially in my relationship with Speedy. The best way I can describe it is that stubbornness can act as a safety blanket of sorts in running and in life – and especially in relationships.  I don’t like to lose and I don’t like to admit my faults. I’d rather just ignore them or push on and see if I can make do in spite of them. How do I know when to compromise my goals? When to stick to my guns? When to try for that extra 6 km and when to stop and get that nice cold diet coke? (damn it tasted good…)  Stubbornness is simply a part of ME, and getting rid of in my running is going to have to involve getting rid of it in general or it simply won’t work.  But sometimes getting rid of stubbornness means recognizing our own vulnerabilities, and that isn’t an easy thing to do. Sometimes it means recognizing other priorities, other than the one that is staring you in the face, whether it be a particular finish line that you want to cross at all costs or, well, you can fill in your own relationship dilemma. To be frank (which I hear is the new ‘in’ thing these days with blogs), I’m not sure if Speedy will stick around to see if I can soften the steely side… or if he’ll like what is left if I give it up.  But for now, I’m going to focus on taming the inner stubborn beast for the next two weeks before this little race. Moderation, smart training, and a general toning down of, well, everything. Resist the urge to go out and hit that 40km mark that I missed on Saturday. I have to say, tonight, with this glass of wine and block of cheese, I’ve made a good start 🙂

Me and Speedy in Wales

See you next time, same bat time, same bat channel! (And less philosophizing… blame it on the wine).

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5 Comments »

  1. had the same surgery in its not looking good after 2yrs it hurts! your story is inspiring!

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