I started in on my 4th set of 400 hundreds, the previous three at 72 seconds, and finally started to feel the strain of the effort. Just towards the end of the loop my rhythmic breathing increased by an extra beat and I had to let go to keep the oxygen pumping to my legs. I started the 5th 400 and the effortless cadence I held to that point felt rusty and worn out, forcing me to concentrate on my form instead of just letting muscle memory do the work. This, I quickly realized, was the part of the workout where the “work” becomes emphasized.
I continued to circle the track with increasing strain as my muscles absorbed the pounding of all the body weight above them and the rhythm of my breathing fell out of sync earlier than the previous lap. I needed something to make the next 3 loops as consistent as the previous 5. 400’s are too short for a motivating story line and abbreviated running poetry is just pathetic, so I pulled a trick I read about in a running magazine last year that shortened one’s motivation to a simple word. The runners created a “power word” or something that they relied on when things got rough. It’s a condensed version of mind over matter. I remember one being “fight” or something along those lines. Being slightly more literary, I chose a sentence,
“This is where we get better”. (or “get better” if things get REALLY rough)
And I went there. When my legs went from strong to weak to empty, I told myself that THIS is where we get better. When my lungs began to fail earlier and earlier around the track, I told myself THIS is where we get better. When everything starts to fall apart, THIS is where we get better. When it seems like we can’t go anymore, but we find a way to do so, THAT is when we got better.
It instantly became my new running mantra. It’s what I call on when everything gets harder than I want it to, when that feeling of superhuman strength withers into a humbling attempt to stay upright.
I like the reminder that at that point, “this is where we get better”, primarily because it’s absolutely true. You don’t get better when you start running. You don’t get better at conversation pace. You don’t get better 5 miles into a 10 mile run. No. If I could get better at any of those points, I’d probably run about 3 miles a day and spend the rest of the time catching up on yard work. I’d spend less money on worn out shoes. I’d sleep in MUCH later than I do. But again, you don’t get better at those points. You get better when the run gets worse. You get better when everything gets really hard and both your body and mind tell you to chill out, slow down, back off….but you don’t. You keep pushing. It’s at that precise moment, when you push your lungs past they point they’ve decided to stop helping out that you get better. It’s that precise point where your muscles have been broken and you start pulling deeper and deeper into your fibers that you get better. It’s that point when you are no longer comfortable on your run, but you keep adding on the mileage. THAT is when you get better.
I like to repeat this mantra because it is also a reminder of why I’m out there doing what I do. I’m not running to lose weight. I’m not running “for the love”. I’m not running for an “experience of purity”. I mean, yeah, to some degree I am, but fundamentally I’m running to GET BETTER. I have a goal and that goal does not come easy. You don’t run a sub 2:25 marathon skipping scheduled days. You don’t run it by skipping workouts to do something less strenuous. And you certainly don’t run it by giving in to the siren call of your legs and lungs when the going gets rough. No. You run it by pushing the boundaries just a LITTLE bit further than the last time. You run it by hitting that seemingly towering wall and telling yourself….
“This is where we get better”
Then running right through it.
I do this often now. Every workout I run has a point where everything gets hard, when my legs threaten to fly off beneath me and my lungs revolt with fire in my chest, and I remind myself. This is where we get better, to dig that much deeper, to find more muscles to utilize, to keep my lungs pumping wildly, to move that wall just a few inches further towards my goal.
Until I cross that finish line and take a temporary break from reaching for that line I’ve drawn in the sand, I’ll continue to repeat my mantra. If it all works out as planned, I’ll be able to catch my breath and confidently say, “I got better”. But until then, I’ll keep chanting in the present tense.