Monday, September 26, 2011

Pulling a fast one

Over the course of my career as a cross country athlete, one of the questions I have gotten most often is, “What do you think about out there?”

I’ve always hesitated to reveal the unglamorous truth, which is that, more often than not, I am simply thinking, “God, this sucks.”

Other runners claim to harbor only positive thoughts while racing. They are liars.

But really, isn’t a cross country meet just one big lie-fest? Do you really believe your mom when she yells, “Keep it up honey, you look great!” when you are 100 percent positive that you not only do not look great, but are in fact foaming at the mouth like some kind of rabid freak?

Unabashed lying isn’t reserved only for spectators.

Cross country runners almost have to be dirty, rotten liars to keep internal complaints (i.e. “I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than continue to subject myself to this agonizing physical and emotional torture”) from affecting external performance (i.e. stopping).

There are many methods of mid-race self-deceit. One of my go-to approaches is the comparison argument. It involves conning yourself into believing that the pain you feel is not nearly as bad as _______ (fill in the blank with the most terrible, awful experience you can think of).

Some runners opt to employ a hypothetical version of the comparison argument—that is, they choose situations that, though obviously painful, they have not actually experienced for themselves. Common themes for hypothetical comparisons include childbirth, crucifixion, shark bites and, due to the recent popularity of the film 127 Hours, amputating one’s own arm.

I prefer to imagine things I have actually survived. It gives the comparison more depth, as I can recall real feelings and images from the selected incident.

For example: “The burning pain in my lungs isn’t nearly as bad as the explosive diarrhea I got after eating Applebee’s seafood.” Or: “If I could live through a night at the Newark Airport HoJo, I will live to see the finish line of this race.”

Once I’ve exhausted my arsenal of comparisons, I usually resort to making promises that I have no intention of fulfilling. Like: “OK, if I keep my average pace under 5:45, I will reward myself with _________ (insert guilty pleasure of choice, i.e. an Egg McMuffin, a Taylor Swift CD, an episode of Kate Plus 8).

By the time I’ve written myself mental IOUs for two dozen Krispy Kremes and a puppy, the finish line is usually within sight, and the only motivation I need to keep myself going is the knowledge that I am within seconds of being done.

After catching my breath, gulping down several cups of watered-down Powerade and pouring cold water over my head, I punctuate the lie cycle with one last fib to ease the anxiety of toeing the line again in the future: Well, that wasn’t so bad.

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