“So, what do you think is the most important mental quality someone needs to have—that can’t be coached—to be a successful athlete?”
My long-time friend Corey Kubatzky posed this question to me as we conversed on an especially slow Sunday afternoon at the running shop we worked at a couple of years ago. Corey was about to take over as the head women’s cross country coach at CU-Colorado Springs, where he had formerly been the Graduate Assistant during my senior season there several years prior, before spending some time coaching with the Hanson's Distance Project (of which his wife was a member), and he was now putting together his first NCAA recruiting questionnaire for potential incoming athletes who would comprise his future teams.
I paused in my Windexing of the watch case to contemplate briefly.
“Demons,” I responded, at which he burst out laughing. And with good reason too: we shared a whole lot of miles together “back in the day”–some better than others—during the 2007-2009 seasons where he always graciously accompanied me during many a training run and workout given our lack of women on the team to train with at that time. The guy is just so non-judgmental that a few times I probably got a little too comfortable around him in saying exactly whatever it was I was thinking, sans filter. One thing that’s stayed true and unchanging for many years now is that although I will always love this sport, it at times frustrates me to absolutely no end, and I was much (or perhaps just slightly) less adept back then at mastering any mental turmoil going on at a given time, so needless to say, he’d heard it all. What a lucky guy.
That fateful race in 2014 where my demons got the best of me. Boy, am I glad I picked a US Championship race to mentally implode in a spectacular fashion. Lets not return to that dark place, shall we?
In any case, not very long ago, I read something somewhere that some smart person said at some point sometime, that “Every human being should find out, before they die, exactly what we are running to, from, and why.” And at the same time, I was reminded of this aforementioned conversation in the running store a couple of years ago.
I have mentioned before that for many months over the last couple of years, that running had come to lack a certain something that it used to have. It took me some time to realize that a certain sort of urgency was missing from the equation, it was as though I had given myself a pass or become complacent or perhaps written myself off and somehow tried to convince myself that I was okay with it, when I never really was. Granted, it didn't really help that for a large portion of that, I couldn't actually run, that's a minor technicality. That aside, I realized the other day, and with strange relief, that after a few aggravating turns of events in my Running Realm in recent weeks, that I was feeling incredibly frustrated, because that sense of urgency has returned and ain't nobody got time for a buncha baloney. Yes, the demons are back. The sport that I love is frustrating me to no end..again. I was so happy because I was so angry! And that–despite some obstacles to overcome–actually makes me pretty thrilled. It was akin to the movie, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, where the Grinch's heart goes from being shrivled-up-walnut-sized, to regular-sized, and he realizes with great joy that HE REALLY CARES! Bless you, Cindy Lou Who!
Something like that. Regardless, it seems the demons are out of hibernation.
I think a lot of competitive athletes, regardless of level, understand and can relate to the strange feeling of “urgency” that drives us to go out and put in miles and tough workouts despite various circumstances; to not care about the weather or conditions or other outside factors, to make it work when it's anything but convenient, or perhaps play Russian roulette with injuries and such. For many of us, that urgency is our demon. Sure, we all love what we do and that’s the ultimate driving force (or at least it should be), but there is something else there too, something that makes us not care so much about all of those other things, to throw caution to the winds, and put our noses to the grindstone with no promise of a favorable outcome or ever really seeing our work come to fruition.
In addition to leaving no stone unturned in our own little “quests for glory,” I think part of us also knows that we may only get one shot at what we really want to accomplish, thus creating some of said urgency.
I was hanging out with my friend Peter--a sinewy, mustachioed, beer-swillin', badass mountain runner-- the other day, who is battling a super tough injury with a somewhat questionable prognosis and he was debating upon what course of action to take, and lamenting the potential loss of some upcoming race opportunities.
“People always say, ‘Don’t worry, that race will be here next year,” he said, “and it will, but I might not be.”
I think that particular statement perfectly encapsulated what we all kind of feel as runners: that our time to maximize our potential and really see what we’re made of is, in reality, quite limited. We’re mortals—particularly from an athlete standpoint–and that creates this “demon,” so to speak, of urgency to fulfill our potential while the window of opportunity is still open.
And in a way, running is also a way in which many of us fight back against our demons, whatever they may be. For instance, I was talking with my coach/friend David, who works with a lot of top-notch folks, and we got onto the topic of how in the day and age of social media in particular, there is always a positive, glowing picture painted of successful athletes’ lives, when in reality, many of them are actually quite self-destructive. But, running is their way of fighting those inner demons, a way to cope and calm their monkey minds, and they’ve become damn good athletes in the process.
To conclude this nonsensical, rambling, jumble of thoughts, what I’m getting at is that our “demons” can be many things, they can certainly be destructive if we let their voices get too loud, they can give us the yips, or they can sometimes keep us up at night. But if they’re channeled correctly they can be friends rather than foes, and they can all be used to create the same result, driving us to do whatever we can with the time we’re given because we just have to know what we’re capable of.
The Strumbellas put it nicely when they sang:
"I got guns in my head and they won't go, spirits in my head and they won't go. And the gun still rattles, the gun still rattles..."
Demons, folks. Gotta have ‘em. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to dye my hair black and pierce my lip with a safety pin. Run on, fellow whack-jobs!