One of the more embarrassing things about running is that we've all got mantras -- touchstone phrases and thoughts that we draw upon when the workout or the race starts to hurt. I've always had a dislike for psychobabble, but I confess that I've got a few of my own.
Two of mine are based in popular culture, and pretty darn cheesy. When I feel the temptation to drop out of a race or cut a workout short, for no reason other than that it's hard, I hear Sark from Tron ordering me to Finish the game! (7:18 of the link). And when I hit an unexpected hill, or my stomach seizes up, or my chest starts to tighten, or the headwind picks up, I hear Tim Gunn from Project Runway ordering me to Make it work!
The third, however, is all my own.
If not now, when?
To explain this one -- I generally try to run my workouts at about 90% of race effort (well, closer to 85% now that I'm working with my coach). Thus, when I find myself getting too close to that all out race effort, I back off. A routine workout is not the appropriate time for that level of effort (if I push too hard I'll need more time to recover, but won't get any additional training stimulus).
Thus, when I race, there comes a point where I hit that same level of effort, and reflexively think, for a second, that I should back off. It's at that point that I ask myself if not now, when? This is what I train for, this is the time when 100% is appropriate. The time is now.
When injured, I've always gone through a bargaining stage, dialoging with the powers that be (essentially myself, because I'm not religious), that if I can only heal up and return to running, I will back off at the first sign of incipient injury. I won't make the same mistakes again. I'll be better next time. Promise.
Of course, then I return to running, and as my confidence grows, my caution wilts. I grow greedy, and once again each missed workout or race is an opportunity lost. It's so easy to forget pooltime promises; and to convince yourself that twinges are minor things to be ignored.
This past week, I tweaked my plantar fascia. I think the cause was the few minutes of barefoot running I did on the infield post track workout. It was minor. No real pain, just tightness and a distinct feeling like a stone bruise underfoot. The exact sort of thing that I would have taped up last year and not given a second thought. And I had a race this weekend, and was feeling sharp and ready to run fast.
And then I remembered -- if not now, when? With every injury, I've promised myself that next time would be different -- I'd back off immediately. And then I've failed to follow through. Sometimes I've gotten away with it, sometimes I haven't.
If not now, when? It's easy to make promises when you're not in the situation that will call them due. But eventually, you do face the question. And here, my foot ached and was stiff, in a way that indicated that racing on it risked making it worse, not better.
Hard decisions are hardest in the immediate moment. You can promise yourself again and again while behind the computer that you'll run your heart out in the last mile of your next race, but it's another thing to push even harder in the moment when you're gasping and your legs are slowing and everything is screaming at you to STOP. And you can promise yourself again and again during your convalescence that you'll take care next time, and skip a day or three rather than risk a month or three. But that promise is easily ignored.
If not now, when? When will you finally deliver on the commitments you've made to yourself? When will you finally have the discipline and guts to break your bad habits? This is the time to make that decision. Don't wimp out again.
And so I skipped the race. Cheered for others and then did my "long run" in the pool. And doing so was frankly more agonizing than the last miles of a race.
But, if not now, when?