Me, Myself, and I-rational Anxiety
I'm not the first person to notice this, but it bears repeating that runners are predominantly an introspective and self-centered lot. That character trait is part of what makes good runners good, because a lot of what we do is fight the good fight between our ears. I'm willing to admit that I can be a selfish person when it comes to getting training time, and I definitely spend my share of time completing self appraisals.
A lot of the time, it's all good. I'm pretty decent in finding the good in my workouts and training, in general. That's the sort of positive self-appraisal that propels us forward. I've heard elite runners like Kara Goucher talk about keeping a positivity journal each day to build up a bank of good things to revisit for motivation. But I need to own up to something that eats at me and is a consistent stumbling block: I have consistent and totally irrational anxiety about sickness derailing my training. And, more specifically, I have irrational anxiety about my kids getting sick and then getting me sick and that derailing big races.
Introspection: Sometimes it's just what we need, and other times it's just the opposite.
I completely understand that I spend a fair amount of time worrying about low-likelihood events. I also completely understand that everyone gets sick from time to time and, of course, kids get sick with some regularity. And I even spend time reminding myself while I'm getting anxious that I am being irrational. But still, it happens and I let it get the better of me. It can become an excuse to give up on myself for a time, to let the foundation of all my hard work crack just a bit. And, sometimes, it can totally get the better of me and turn into a short period of complete negativity and self-loathing. Essentially, I spend enough time worrying about what might happen if my kids get sick that when it does happen, it confirms that the world is on fire and everything is inevitably doomed. (more on that below)
These feelings didn't come out of thin air, at least on the running front. I've always struggled with anxiety and as a runner I have a tendency to sell myself short. I've also had a few big races that have fallen victim to a last-minute illness. In 2015, I got a stomach bug TWICE from the kids right before running the Tobacco Road Marathon and I struggled mightily to finish. In 2016, I was in phenomenal shape and picked up a nasty chest cold from my daughter a week before the race and I had one of my hardest days ever. Those races and a couple of others stick in my head like nasty little minions, poking and prodding every time I get close to another big day.
This also isn't just a small issue for me that relates specifically to running. I've dealt with a combination of irrational thinking about getting sick and that sometimes escalating to mini panic attacks for as long as I can remember. I'm not a germaphobe in the "classic" sense. I just get into this anxious/unhealthy loop that can have negative consequences on me and the people around me. I've faked phone calls or messages in the middle of business dinners when my brain has misattributed arousal as nausea. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night (maybe after a dream involving sickness) and I've had to get out of bed for hours or the rest of the night to pace around my house and talk myself out of thinking that I'm going to throw up. This is an aspect of my brain chemistry that is annoying to me, to say the least. So, it feeds into this cycle where I get hyper-focused on things that are ultimately harmless but nonetheless get stuck in my mind.
Back to the inevitable doom and self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm stuck in one of those times right now where all of my fears are forced to the surface. The last week has been a rough one, with both of my kids down with the flu. They've been coughing, feverish, and miserable. I've been taking good care of them, to the best of my ability (my wife is out of town, so it's been a little more of a heavy lift than usual). And, not to sound like a completely self-centered dick, but this has been a really tough time in my anxious doomsday brain. You see, training has been going really exceptionally well. With 5 weeks to go before the Houston Marathon, I've gotten through tons of mileage and I've put up some excellent numbers in workouts and races. I know I'm fit and ready for a big day. But I've spent the last week unable to get out to run per the plan and I'm really stressing that I'll be laid up with a fever next. It's just a negative feedback loop that doesn't lead anywhere good.
The life of a house full of the flu.
This is the thing with anxiety: You can either let it eat at you, one little bite at a time, or you can work on strategies to get through the rough patches. I know it's never going away. I have to choose to manage this and all the other little things that I get anxious about in a deliberate way. Just like anxiety can break you down a little bit at a time, management strategies can build up a barrier of defense a little bit at a time.
Following a Half Marathon on November 10, training was right on track until last week when the sickness took out most of the family. But I'm determined to keep working and not let this get the better of me or my training cycle.
If you have something that really makes you anxious, maybe you can benefit from some of the strategies that work for me. You didn't think this was going to be a post exclusively about negative things, did you? Here are the little things that I do when I need to get through a rough patch:
Visualization: One of the hardest times for me is when I get in bed. My mind continues spinning and often this can let anxious thoughts turn into full-blown worry. I have a simple visualization exercise that works really well for me. I picture running the same stretch of road over and over again. It's a stretch at the beginning of a couple of local races that I have run many times, and I always feel that relaxation of the first mile of a race. A few times through that stretch and I tend to fall right to sleep.
Positive Review: I alluded to this before with the positivity journal concept. When I start to worry that I'm headed for an inevitable crash, I look back at all the good that has already taken place. That reminds me that training is a series of little things adding up over time. Yes, hiccups will happen along the way. But the whole thing is the whole thing. It helps to remind ourselves of that.
Just Breathing: Simple, but effective. If I find myself spinning out of control with negative thoughts, just spending some time slowly and calmly breathing can get me back on track. 10 long breaths with a focus on a steady and slow inhale and exhale is centering and can right the ship.
The snow we got last week. One other strategy: Go outside! Being outside or just looking at nature photos can help reduce anxiety and increase productivity.
I've always been proud of my tenacity, and this is another area where I'm determined to put that to good use. Yep, there are going to be times when this gets the better of me and I have a bad day (or 3). But I'm going to continue to work on it. And despite a terrible and completely off plan week last week, I'm still gunning for a PR in Houston because I've done the work and I'm going to keep doing the work.