Thoughts From Three: The Other Question

After the success of Jim Vermeulen's XC Journal in the many falls of Cross Country, we've asked again for him to provide some news and notes once a month. Think of these as the thoughts that cross the mind of your average coach. Up from Section 3, we present you with "Thoughts From Three."

Fear:  an unpleasant, often strong, emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.


"There's always going to be pain in life. Suffering's optional."

Tallulah Bankhead

"....a few, I believe, knew not exactly why they were thus upon the road."

J. Quinn Thornton,Oregon and California in 1848

I had a runner once, a good kid who was cooperative and enthusiastic and who showed a lot of potential. One early October afternoon, I stood at the intersection of two trails on our racecourse and watched him battling a competitor. They weren't the front runners; those had passed a half minute earlier. But for the two of them, a race was on. My guy went into our Inner Loop, a sinuous line coursing through goldenrod and emergent shrubs, only a half stride off his opponent. They disappeared and a short time later came down a curving hill and surged out of the loop into the woods in that same formation. I shouted encouragement, then biked to Three Corners where they would emerge from the Woods Loop and launch into the last half mile of the race course with its signature hard hill. Charging into sight, the competitor had opened a significant thirty-meter gap on my guy. He passed with perplexed eyes and deep creases in his brow. I said what I should have said--and there was, in fact, time and distance to do what I said. But it was just words and hope. Their race within a race had already been effectively decided by decisions made in those hidden twistings of the Woods Loop trail.

Sometimes, with struggling but invested distance running athletes, I have a simple question. It's not the question of what he or she thinks is going wrong. Neither is it the question of what the athlete thinks he or she needs to do to improve. Those are, to be sure, critical considerations for a stymied athlete, and for lasting improvements to occur they must be answered and acted upon. No, the question that is sometimes called for first is more to the point: what are you afraid of?

All conscientious runners have concerns about performance. Meeting external or internal expectations, preparing properly for practices and meets, giving best efforts when it counts-these apprehensions and worries are typical. But it's the jolting 'fear' of those moments when the training gets really hard or the racing becomes critical that is unique to some. That kind of fear is highly specific and situational, though its source is usually mysterious and unexamined. And more often than not, for those prone to fear, it's arrival is the ultimate arbiter of success or failure.

Athletes are not supposed to be fearful in a sport. No parent wants that. No runner-or coach for that matter-wants that. Fear stymies performance and sucks the pleasure from a sport. Athletes train, they analyze, they strategize, then they train some more-not only to improve fitness and race performance, but to eliminate the physical and mental unknowns that might trigger fear. For most runners, time and experience with training and racing teaches them how to cope with the maximal efforts that might prompt fear. Yet for some, no matter the preparations or the desire, the fear comes.

The sports physiologists and psychologist have given much time and attention to that most integral element of distance racing, which is pain. Most coaches know, thanks to the pioneer work of Samuel Marcora and Tim Nokes, about the brain-controlled governing of the body during exercise in an effort to maintain homeostasis-and how sensations of pain are created to modulate effort.Pain is a signal, not a condition, coaches repeatedly remind their runners. But just past the middle of a spirited race, that's a hard sell with some. A coach is usually, at that point, referring to pain when yelling "keep driving, you can do it!" But that vulnerable runner is are already feeling fear. He or she is reacting to DeKonig's Hazard Score(Hazard = Momentary Rating of Perceived Exertion * Fraction of the remaining race distance) and the high score is announcing to be afraid, be very afraid. Such mental dramas often play out unseen in young runners who have not yet mastered the potential fears of distance running.

Coaches routinely invoke one solution, the purposeful and progressive training that will delay the necessary pain experienced by runners. As an obvious goal of training and racing, that make perfect sense. Proper and consistent training will raise the anaerobic threshold where fatigue sets in and delay those pain sensations readying to be launched by the brain. Coaches also do all they can with the other primary element of fatigue by giving runners opportunities in practices to experience and manage the inevitable pain. "Find the race in the workout" advise Simmons and Freeman. Get "comfortable being uncomfortable" preaches Coach Schumacher.

Train to lessen the pain, but also learn to manage the pain. It seems simple enough. But it wasn't that simple the day one of my runners stood on the track waiting for the baton and her final leg in an invitational 4x800. For her squad, theirs was a last good chance to reach a standard for the Open Qualifier meet later in the month. Place was not important, but time mattered, and it was going to be close. She stood on the track, arm outstretched and ready, but with a look of terror, already anticipating the fear she would have to overcome to endure the pain to race the time and come through for her teammates. In this instance, prompted by the situation, she raced well and they earned the standard, but in other races there were decisions to back off before the fear rose. Ultimately, she left the sport-and the fear--behind altogether, never having mastered the question.

There are, of course, runners who have simply made the initial decision not to go there. They know that hard running causes pain and, in their case, with the pain comes the fear they dread. Their calculation stipulates that if you avoid the pain, you can also avoid the fear. So the dilemma isn't so much the outright pain itself as it is a stubborn insistence on managing pain to avoid the fear they have not solved. It's like a peremptory homeostatic urgency to mentally stay out of harm's way. That kind of runner's roadblock can often be identified in athlete/coach conversations by the use of the word BUT.

  • I know I need to take more chances in that critical third lap of a 1600m, but...
  • Yes, I should push myself harder in training, but...
  • Maybe I should run more miles in the summer, but...

Once coaches hear the word, they know a decision has been made, though it's a decision that limits an athlete. Or, as Marc Bubbs suggested, "Once you find yourself using the word 'but,' you're turning yourself into the victim," and so releasing yourself from the responsibility (and, ironically, the joys) of full potential. When I jokingly tell my runners, "come' on, live a little, take a chance," it's just another way of urging them to face their fear (if it's there) and push through. A little light goes on in a runner's life when he or she discovers the emperor of pain does, in fact, have no clothes. Or as Laura, a pretty good former runner of mine, once said, "Once you learn to push past pain, you can really fly-and that is the best feeling."

I wish someone had an easy answer to the fear of pain by some distance runners. But all answers must be individual. Those who have decided they only want to push so hard--the 70% runners-have already answered the question for themselves, but at a cost. For those others who struggle to master themselves so they can master the sport, we can only hope they eventually answer that most important question: what you are you afraid of? We already know we can't answer the question for them.