Thursday, July 3, 2014

It's hard to run fast with so much baggage

How did Week 3 of Boston Qualifying Marathon Training go? It’s difficult for me to admit this, but…it went well. Very well. Rather extremely very well. I hit all my interval paces right on target—and even did a few faster than I needed to. I felt great, which is to say I didn’t feel like throwing up, and in the end I did seven miles at an average pace that was just about what I’d need to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

Great. Now I just need to do that for another nineteen miles.

When I said this to the BF, he waved his hand in front of my face and made that “ah dt dt dt” sound people make when they’re trying to shush you because you’re ruining a nice moment. “You did it. You did a great job. You should feel proud of yourself for that.”

I should, and I do, but I also can’t help but put this little achievement in perspective. I haven’t actually accomplished anything new here; after all, a few years ago I could run seven miles at a pace a whole minute faster, and twice that distance at a pace 30 seconds faster. All I’m doing here is trying to get back to reasonable racing form before the real works starts: training to run a BQ marathon pace for an entire marathon. So yeah, this is great and all, but…

I know, I know: Ah dt dt dt dt!

People frequently tell me I’m too hard on myself. I don’t see it. If anything, I think I’m not nearly hard enough. Let me assure you, I do not suffer from low self-esteem. You gotta understand something, though: whereas some people might have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other whispering in their ears about virtue versus vice, I have the hubris monster on one side and the humility beast on the other. The hubris monster tells me how amazing I am and the humility beast says “yeah, but let’s put this amazingness in perspective.” I don’t think this is a bad thing; it keeps me balanced, keeps me from being an insufferable braggart and, far from being self-defeating, keeps me ever-striving for new goals. In my opinion, if you only listen to the voice that tells you what you want to hear, you’re missing most of the truth. Ignoring that other voice, the one that casts doubt, urges caution, checks irrational exuberance, is a sure way to disaster.

Funny thing, though. That voice sounds an awful lot like my mother’s voice.

I’m in an awkward position here, one that might be familiar to some of you who still carry baggage from your childhoods. You know what I’m talking about: you resent the way your upbringing has caused problems in your adult life, and yet paradoxically you find yourself frequently criticizing other people for not raising their children the way you were. Case in point: one of my ESL students has so enjoyed working with me that she asked if I could tutor her daughter as well. The daughter is ten. That’s less than half the age of even the youngest student I normally tutor, and even though I agreed, I wondered what in the world I was getting myself into. Turns out the daughter is a terrific kid, one with excellent reading and writing skills. I felt embarrassed at the childish books I’d brought to our first session; here I was asking her to read a story about the adventures of Mr. Squirrel (He meets a bird! He meets a frog! He meets a skunk! Oh no! Run away from the skunk, Mr. Squirrel!) when she’s already tackled the tomes of Harry Potter et al. When her mother returned, we were in the middle of a typical ESL role-playing activity with a restaurant scenario and pictures of food items that could be ordered. I was eager to tell her my thoughts about her daughter’s advanced abilities in the written word, but before I could get in a word she immediately exclaimed, “Oh, this is good! She has so much trouble ordering in restaurants. She’s not good at that at all.”

It’s a stereotype, I know, and so not excusable even for me, but my first thought, accompanied by a mental eyeball-rolling, was Typical Asian mother. Next she’ll be telling me I should make sure her daughter doesn’t order any dessert in this pretend-restaurant of ours because she’s getting too fat.  

When I described all of this to the BF, I explained why this little scene was so familiar—and disturbing—to me. My mother was never one to gush over every little thing I ever achieved as a child. She never tore me down, mind you, never said anything intended to make me feel worthless and inferior, but it simply wasn’t in her parental M.O. to praise accomplishments to the skies or rationalize failures as unimportant. An accomplishment was its own reward, and a failure—well, there really isn’t much to say about failure, is there, because you wouldn’t be wasting time talking about it when you could be rectifying it, would you?

Yet as wrong as this mindset appears to me in others, I’ve still managed to retain it as my own credo until this day. As one of my other students now says (as he’s eagerly absorbing all the slang he can), that’s messed up.

Obviously it’s not a bad thing to be pleased with one’s success. I also maintain it’s not a bad thing to temper your pleasure with realistic assessments of how that success fits into a bigger picture. Yeah, that last bit sounds rather soul-deadening, but the thing is, it’s my soul, it’s my voice speaking in the form of the humility beast, not my mother’s or anyone else’s. I’m happy with my speedwork this week. I did what I set out to do and I enjoyed doing it. I also know I’ve got a hell of a long way to go before reaching my ultimate goal—if I reach it at all, which is certainly not a guarantee. These are all things I need to tell myself.

And don’t worry. The hubris monster is still around to ensure that every once in a while, just for a moment, I smirk and strut and believe myself quite the speed-running badass. And then I eat some ice cream. No one can live on humble pie alone.


  1. I heartily agree with, "it’s not a bad thing to be pleased with one’s success. I also maintain it’s not a bad thing to temper your pleasure with realistic assessments of how that success fits into a bigger picture."

    I don't think it's an effect of my upbringing, but often when something good happens to me, I think, "Okay, what's going to go wrong in other parts of my life or other projects?"

    The bigger picture is a scary place, and as William Stafford wrote, "the darkness around us is deep."

  2. Awesome Stafford quote. I always appreciate your dark-heartedness, QBN. It reminds me so much of...well, myself. Of course we'd both call it pragmatic realism and not negativity, and we're right and the rest of this sad, foolish world is wrong, wrong, wrong.