Friday, February 26, 2016

We Need To Talk About Failure: Managing My Own Expectations

I am a black and white kind of a person. I'm not very good at navigating the grey bit in the middle. That tends to make me desperately insensitive, rigid in expectations and that I see a right way to do something, and a wrong way. And if I don't do something in my perceived right way, then I often deem myself to have failed. And when I fail, well... hell hath no fury like the attack my brain launches on myself.

Oddly, I'd never dream of saying to others the things that cross my mind when I'm beating myself up because I didn't get the splits on my run to the times I'd aimed for, or I didn't close a contract with a client at work, or I didn't get through all the items on my to-do list. They would be cutting, crushing, unnecessarily mean and in some cases nothing less than offensive. In fact one of the many reasons I've come to love being involved in a running group, is the opportunity to encourage others and to chip in with a congratulatory comment to remind people that the group is inclusive of all abilities, there is no place for judgement and we all take pleasure and pride in seeing people achieve their goals- whatever they may be.

So why do I expect so much more of myself? I have no idea. I do know I've always been a bit that way. I set myself high standards and I expect myself to attain and maintain those standards. I imagine it probably has a lot to do with my 'black & white' personality style, and I doubt very much that is about to change much as I travel through my late  20's. But it surprises me that I never stopped to think how this mentality would reach into my involvement in sports. Yeah, probably a bit dim not to have seen that coming right?

I dabbled in bits and pieces of sports at school, but never really stuck at anything. I didn't enjoy team sports and hated PE lessons with a passion. I had some pretty nasty ligament injuries in my mid-teens and distanced myself even further from anything sport or exercise related. Even at university, it wasn't really my scene. Something about being a grown-up with a job, rent to pay, and an expanding waistline set me back to being active. If you click the 'Cycling' tab at the top of my blog, you'll see a well documented journey from cycling to work for the first time a little over 3 years ago, on a very heavy red Raleigh dutch style bike (The Crimson Beast) through to riding over 100km at a time on a single speed city bike, to the joy of having 30 gears and carbon forks on a road bike. Equally, the 'Fitness' tab will take you through just over 12 months of one foot in front of the other- from Day 1 of Couch to 5k in January to running a marathon in October. Yes, really.

L:2016 R:2015. I don't look that different but a marathon and 100km in races later... It sure feels different.
Almost exactly 12 months- L:2016/R:2015

I challenged myself to get quicker riding to work every week, and cycled in come rain or shine. I pedalled myself dizzy keeping up with a lovely bunch of women I rode with, competing with their multiple gears and experience with my little fixie city bike, because falling off my bike would have seemed like a lesser failure than not keeping up. And in the early days of becoming more active, it was easy to stay on the upward trend of improvement. When you've barely exercised for 5+ years and start doing so 5 times per week, it's hard not to see an improvement. Likewise when you take up something new, every time you can go a bit further, longer, harder or do something you couldn't do before keeps a continuous sense of improvement going.

The problem, is reaching the point at which you stop seeing the improvement you crave, because you're working towards something far smaller, and you have much less ground to cover to reach your goal, but that ground is a minefield of obstacles and fire breathing dragons, stopwatches and just a half a kilometre short of the goal.

A couple of weeks ago, I headed off to a training session with my running group, as all sessions, it was mixed ability and was based around endurance. In my head, I knew what I was expecting. I don't even consciously set myself goals and targets, but I also know if I stop the clock at the end and the numbers are off, that's it. Ungraded. Fail. I didn't work hard enough and therefore I'm a bad human who must do better. As the session progressed, it was much faster and harder than I'd anticipated, I was running paired with someone lovely, who I know and who happens to be training for a handful of half marathons which she's likely to complete in sub 2hr times, when really I should have asked to switch my pairing part way through to drop my pace down a bit.

But that's giving up. Giving up is the same as not doing it right. That equally means I will have failed. So I carried on. And I completed the session, too frightened to stop running because I wasn't sure I'd be able to stand up if I stopped and struggling in a major way with my breathing.

I'd run further and faster than I'd expected and I went home, feeling dejected, cried in the shower and got an earful from my family because I couldn't stomach eating food after such a tough run, which doesn't help with recovery. But having run further and faster than I'd had in my head, I realised my own need to do things 'right' and my own sense of failure had reached the 'how' as much as the outcome.

Running further and faster is all well and good, but not acceptable to me because I'd done it badly, feeling awful, and felt I'd let myself down and my running partner down, because I'm pretty sure she could have pushed harder were it not for me.

I am a girl who runs. I am a girl who likes massive scruffy jumpers and a girl who likes snazzy nail polish. I am a girl who rides. But of all I am a girl who can, do not define me by my trainers or my lipstick, judge me on my achievements and my determin

So what's the point to this ramble? I think the conclusion I'm reaching for is that sometimes it's necessary to take a step back from your own expectations and examine how realistic they are. I love to run and cycle. They give me headspace when life is stressful, they bring me joy in the moments where I feel like anything is possible, exercise has restored some long lost confidence in my body, despite it taking a battering from assorted health issues and I'm even playing nicely with the other children and making friends. And all of those things for me, need to take precedence over the anxious worrying about the structure of a training session so I can assess how I need to perform, the need to do better every time and the dark feeling that settles after failing yet another goal that's being imposed only by my own bloody minded self. There is a time for discipline, motivation, drive. There is also a time for being kind to yourself and accepting that not everything will go to plan and that doesn't make you bad person, it makes you human.

This week, I have run for joy. I've run and laughed. I've run and listened to some of the most uplifting music I have saved on Spotify, I didn't break any records, I noticed I'm actually consistently a little slower than normal and I tried my hardest not to care too much. Instead, I took a moment on an especially bright and sunny (if brutally cold) day that I was holding a steady pace well over 1 minute quicker per km than I was 6 months ago, comfortably.

Success and in turn failure are in the eye of the holder and  I'm claiming this one for my own.

In 2014 I said I'd never be the kind of person to run a marathon. In 2015 I ran a marathon and 6 other races. On NYE I will rip over 100km of competitive running having raised about £1200 for @cr_uk it's been a hell of a year.
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