At the beginning of the school year in junior high, the physical education teacher told my class to run a mile as fast as each person could. I, being both an obedient and a competitive little thing, ran my hardest. I wasn’t very fast — I was fit from the swim team but did not do any running — but I ran all out. For some reason, many of the kids walked the mile. I couldn’t understand it. Why didn’t they listen to the teacher? Why weren’t they even trying?
After we finished the mile, the teacher dropped a bombshell, and I knew exactly why those kids had “run” like tortoises. She told us we would be tested on the mile throughout the school year, and if we didn’t improve our time each week, we would fail. Those kids that had walked? They had older siblings who had clued them into the deal. If they walked the first week, they could jog the next, and run slowly the week after that, and so on and so on, steadily “improving” each week. Those of us who had run all out were now stuck with a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
Completely worn out from the effort of running a mile, I saw no hope of improving. I felt tricked, and the whole thing completely de-motivated me. I wasn’t a runner, I didn’t have the natural talent, and I wasn’t going to be able to do it. What a horrible mindset! I ended up getting out of PE by putting my hours in at the pool. I didn’t run after that for many years. I opted instead to keep fit by swimming, mountain biking, rollerblading, walking and hiking, but never running.
I did one Race for the Cure 5K in 2006 when I was 35, and while I achieved my goal of coming in under 30 minutes, it nearly killed me. I still didn’t feel like a runner (whatever that means). Running felt difficult to me, and it seemed I wasn’t naturally suited to it.
Something clicked inside me when I was 39 and staring down 40. I wanted to be “fit at 40.” A friend (hi Geli! Thank you friend!) challenged me to run 30 miles in 30 days. That seemed totally doable, and I did it! Around the same time, I picked back up with swimming and started training for my first sprint triathlon. At some point during that six months of training, I turned the figurative corner with running. I enjoyed it! I enjoyed it enough to advance to an Olympic distance tri (with its 10K run), then a half marathon, and finally the full marathon.
Along the way, my mindset changed. At first, after the junior high mile fiasco, I had a “fixed mindset.” I believed people were either born runners or they weren’t. Either you had the natural talent or you didn’t. No amount of training would turn a “non-runner” into a “runner.” During the triathlon training, I started to see improvement. I put in effort and got out results. No one expected me to be an expert, a super-talented triathlete from the get-go. I relaxed and enjoyed the process and the progress. Without knowing it, I developed a “growth mindset.” Let me explain. For my lovely ladies’ book club (both the ladies and the book club are lovely), we are reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck.
As the subtitle explains, the book is about how we can learn to fulfill our potential. The author claims that we all have unknown and unknowable potential for growth. For example, some people think a person’s intelligence is fixed — that your IQ is innate and no amount of nurturing and developing your mind will change your intelligence level. The author talks about how we all start with a genetic endowment but experience, training and personal effort take us the rest of the way. Two quotes on page 7 struck a chord with me and I think they apply equally well to intelligence and athletic ability.
This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way–in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments–everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.
I love that way of looking at it. If a particular run is hard for me, or if I suffer an injury or other setback, or I don’t have my best race, I have two choices. I can tell myself that I’m a failure (the girl with the fixed mindset who didn’t think she was a runner) or I can learn from the experience and continue to improve (the new woman with the growth mindset who believes she’s a runner).
Does this resonate with you? Does running come easily to you? Did it always? How do you feel when you have a setback or do not get a PR in a race?