I know you might feel like you’re screwing everything up. You haven’t called that one friend back even though she left you a voicemail like a week ago. You keep forgetting to file a claim with your health insurance to get reimbursed for that stupid-expensive out-of-pocket thing. You spent too much on coffees this week, again, and Why can’t you just get it together? I promise you that you are nailing it right now. Your priorities are good. You are doing really important things. You are deciding which things are more urgent than others, and that is as it should be. It’s okay to be stressed, and it’s okay to look critically at what hasn’t been getting done and think about how you want to handle it going forward. I know you - I know everyone who reads this blog! - and yes, I am talking about you. Do you need to hear it from my voice? Then look no further!
My run coach asked me to guest-host today’s episode of her podcast, the Morning Mantra. This is her conduit to her athletes and to everyone who relies on her in some way for support, courage, love, and affirmation. She records it every day, which is nothing short of amazing. Recording yourself is really hard and triggering and cringe-inducing, and even on a technical level it takes some skill (note that you can hear the difference between my sound quality and hers when they’re spliced side by side), but she makes it seem easy. And though she is a really good run coach, and though most of her audience is composed of athletes, her podcast isn’t about running. As she likes to say, even the running we do isn’t really about the running. It’s about a need for something that’s usually much, much deeper.
I first met Mary-Katherine Fleming in 2016, over the phone, during her weekly coaching office hours. I’d signed up for her half-marathon training plan and I already knew which half-marathon I wanted to run - a race where I’d done well several times in the years before having a baby. I had a plan, I knew the steps, and I am a type-A, check-all-the-boxes, totally dependable training-program-follower. But there was one other thing: the Tufts 10K, an event very near and dear to my heart, was five weeks before the half-marathon I’d chosen, and I knew that Coach MK (which is how she is affectionately known among her athletes) had strict rules about her runners signing up for extraneous races while training for a long-distance event. You have to get special permission from me, she’d said, and she’d made it clear that the way to do that was to call her during her office hours. I dialed her number knowing the outcome I needed to achieve: obtain permission to run a 10K, perhaps by making promises to be extra good at following the training plan otherwise. Solid plan, as always.
When I called MK, though, she didn’t want to talk about running. She wanted to talk about my family, how old my daughter was, how long since I’d stopped breastfeeding. She didn’t ask about my running background (not that I didn’t immediately tell her that my half-marathon PR was a 1:55 and I probably would never be that fast again, but I was JUST SAYING). She wanted to know why I needed to run these two races. Why this half-marathon, and why the Tufts 10K? I remember saying somewhat dismissively, “well, there’s a whole story but it’s really long,” and I remember her saying, “you need to tell me everything.” I wasn’t sure why: the story of the Tufts 10K had very little to do with running. It was about years of low self-esteem as an athlete in high school, and changing the way I saw myself as I grew up. It was about me and my husband and the place we got married, and it was most of all about my mom and how much I missed her. I tried to give MK the story in broad strokes, because I knew she was busy and I didn’t want to waste her time. I clearly couldn’t hear yet what she was trying to say to me: this was what she needed to know, not my half-marathon PR or my average pace. I still thought we were talking about running, but we’re never really talking about the running. She gave me permission to run both races, on one condition: that I write that story and publish it.
I wrote the story and I published it. I still revisit it often, because it marks the first moment that I fully took stock of how much I rely on running beyond the running. I didn’t start running in 2005 because I was just plumb curious; I was asking running to help me make huge changes in my life. There were things it could change, though much more slowly than I had been led to believe. There were other things that it could only underline for me with a red pen. “Needs work.”
Sometimes what you realize is that you are leaning on running much more heavily than you thought, and sometimes you learn that it can’t actually give you what you are hoping to get. It can’t win you the approval of other people, or at least not in the way you need it to. It won’t make people treat you better, or at least not for the right reasons. It won’t make your body look the way you might think it “should,” or at least not all by itself. None of this means that it’s bad to want someone’s approval, or to want others to treat you better, or to want your body to look a certain way, but acknowledging that you want those things is much, much harder than we think it is.
I’ll give you one person’s approval right now, and I promise you do not even have to put on shoes to get it: you nailed it today, and you’ve been nailing it all along. If you need more of that, now you know where to find it.