Sunday, April 20, 2014

Defeating The Runner's Stitch, aka Letting The Bad Stuff In Is The Best Way To Destroy It

I had run less than 500m in my second ever 10K road race when I started to feel it - an uncomfortableness on my right side, just below the rib cage. The beginnings of a stitch. To say that this was an inauspicious start to a race would be an incredible understatement; this was the beginning of a disaster.

A stitch is essentially a runner's cramp, and I've been prone to them for as long as I've been running. Before I became aerobically fit, I used to get stitches nearly every time I would try to run "hard". Since then, they've become much less common, but every now and then, when I least expect it, one maliciously emerges from dormant muscle memory and sabotages a workout.

Zooming back to the race, the weather was perfect - clear and cool. My legs were feeling a little heavy at the start, probably from the weightlifting session two days before, but condition-wise I should have been fine. The gun went off, and I set out about 20 seconds per mile slower than my target pace to make sure I didn't overdo it too early, yet even at this easy pace the Stitch was quickly threatening to ruin my day! I started cursing to myself, and slowed down another 5-10 seconds per mile. My mind instinctively turned to all the possible negative outcomes: I'd have to embarrassingly stop running within the first mile; I'd push through and the stitch would just get worse and worse, and I'd have to stop later on; maybe I wouldn't even finish the race at all. In fact, I had essentially just left the gates - I could simply give up and turn around.

And then, because I wanted to enjoy the beautiful spring morning, something inside of me resolved to deal with the Stitch in a completely unexpected way: I decided to embrace it. I had a little internal chat with the Stitch. I simply said, "Look, Stitch, I'm not going to fight with you. We've still got 45 minutes to go. Let's be friends instead." And then I thanked the Stitch, because he would keep me honest with my pace for the rest of the race, and I told him that together we'd enjoy the morning run.

The Stitch was thrown off guard with my offer of friendship, and started fighting back in confusion. At mile 1, he didn't know what to do. At mile 1.5, he started to kick up a little harder, but I just smiled and told him to enjoy the run, and slowed down another 5 seconds per mile. By mile 2, I could sense he was seriously considering the offer of friendship. And then between mile 2.5 and mile 3, we finally made peace, and he decided not to ruin my run. I picked up the pace for the second half of the race, and ended up beating my previous 10K PR by about 1:45.

It's impossible to navigate through life without encountering negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But how we deal with them means everything for their power over us. It's so easy to get stuck in a cycle of negative self-talk, being angry for feeling jealous, frustrated for being sad, annoyed at the fleetingness of happiness, but none of these reactions are helpful in the least. We now live in a world where we do everything in our power to just not feel bad, as if acknowledging less-than-positive feelings would be akin to admitting defeat. But distracting ourselves from unpleasant emotions just reinforces an unhealthy way of traipsing through life. Instead, we have the option of accepting and embracing sadness, despair, and pain, and by doing so, gaining control over them and getting back on the path to happiness.

Everyone knows how to deal with the good times. But how you handle the bad says a hell of a lot more about you.

And with that, I'll leave you with why Louis CK hates cell phones, because he gets it: