Friday, January 16, 2015

10,000 Frustrations

You’ve probably heard the theory of 10,000 hours. Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, it says that excelling at something requires a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice. You’ve maybe also heard the backlash: how it’s not really true, as there are plenty of examples of athletes quickly ascending to the top of their sport. (One of the most famous is Donald Thomas, a basketball player who became a high jumper when he jumped over 7 feet just messing around with friends. About a year and a half later, he won gold at the World Championships.)

From my own perspective, I'm not sure about 10,000 hours. I have a different theory:

10,000 Frustrations: The number of discouraging, awful, terrible days/moments/workouts/races/thoughts a person must experience before reaching their goal.

(Is this more universally true? Perhaps not. Or maybe all of Thomas's frustrations came during his basketball career?)

I’ve posted around twenty race reports since starting this blog and about half of them are discouraging: every race in Philly, most 5Ks (this summer I ran one at the same pace I needed to run 26.2 miles), the previous two marathons. Maybe that’s not quite 10,000, but I overuse the heck out of the word "frustrate" and an awful lot of those uses don’t even make it to the blog. Last week I mentioned the best workouts of each season, but not the worst: the marathon pace workout that got cut short and became a slow and pathetic shuffle home; the tempo run(s) where I needed to keep stopping for breaks and still couldn’t hit the prescribed pace; the many other workouts and races that were wildly off my goals, making my big dreams seem both ridiculous and impossible.

I had the best season of my life last fall, but I was close to rock bottom in September. After an embarrassing race capped off a terrible month, I jotted down some discouraging thoughts: When was the last time I had a good race? I keep making excuses… Maybe I'm just not as fast as I think I am. That thought/realization/fear was like a punch in the gut. It had been months since Boston, when that phrase had started its endless loop in my head. Nothing since had silenced it.
Mid-Frustrating-Race Face.
What was the solution? How did I move past what seemed like the 9,999th discouraging moment? Two ways: I was ever so slightly flexible and also unflinchingly stubborn.

A week and a half after Philly, I had a tempo run on the schedule. I’m awful at tempo runs; my expectations and actual paces are always vastly mismatched. (Or is it my expectations and actual abilities that are vastly mismatched? That was the interminable question.) I always did them on the same stretch of road, out and back. Like the old cliché, it was uphill both ways. (It’s actually pretty flat, but the effort felt that way. And—I swear to you—the wind was assuredly in my face both directions.) I’ve used this same route for years and tempo runs have never gone well.

So I stopped doing the same thing and expecting different results. I changed it up. I found a new route (a loop that I would have to circle a couple times, but no matter) and it made all the difference. I actually hit my goal pace for the first time in years, if not ever.

Maybe sometimes what we need is a fresh take. I have too many memories of tempos gone poorly on that route; maybe it was getting in my head that it was uphill and windy both ways. I think it’s possible that part of the reason I fell apart in Boston this year—at the exact same place as last year—was the memories and doubts from the year before. As soon as you let a doubt sneak in—“I’ve been here before, and it hasn’t ended well”—it’s all over. Sometimes you need to change things up: training routes, workout structures, race courses or distances. Give your brain a chance to not know the end result before it happens.

What happened next? Loyal readers know the story: I took that one workout (the Only Successful Tempo Ever) and I ran with it, literally. I used it to fuel the remaining workouts before the Army Ten Miler, and they went well, too. I based every morsel of hope I had for Army Ten Miler on that workout—not on the many failures of August and September. And it worked.

Changing things—even the simplest thing like a workout’s route—was the flexible part. Now for the stubborn part:

People often talk about how they get a lot of motivation from wanting to prove their doubters wrong. But I’m incredibly lucky to have a relentlessly supportive family, team, and set of friends, and often the only person who says I can’t do something is me. So when I get frustrated or discouraged, I also get a little mad at that girl that thinks she can’t. When she gets her way, I get a little more stubborn. Next time, I’ll really show her. 

If you look carefully at last week’s rundown, you'll see that my expectations (my A and B goals) often got faster and faster, even when I didn’t get the results I wanted the previous go-round. (Despite never breaking 3:10 or 3:05, I went for sub-3. Despite never breaking 2:50 or 2:46, I went for sub-2:43.) Is this dumb? Maybe. It could lead to more disappointment and frustration.

But I think it’s actually evident of a completely rational belief that training pays off even when races don’t go as well as you planned. You’ll have your bad days—in workouts and races—but if you're stubborn enough to keep fighting, you will get better. Maybe it won’t be evident just yet. But if you’re working hard, your muscles, heart, and lungs are getting stronger. And if you get your brain to believe it too, you'll get there.

I hope 10,000 frustrations is a gross exaggeration, but it seems that way sometimes. As Rocky said, “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.*”

So even if it is 10,000 hits, keep fighting.

Dream big,

*Thanks, GotMyTShirt, for posting that quote a few months back. (See? I told you all my supporters are eternally encouraging.) 


  1. Here's a very recent quote that has inspired me. I'm a fan of the Sixers, made up of young guys on a team designed by their employer to "tank." They play (and almost always lose) with great determination against teams who let their own best players rest on the bench for the game. Tony Wroton, age 23, throws himself into every game no matter what the score. In a post-game interview their coach, Brett Brown, said "Tony's not gonna die wondering."

    1. Yes, I love that story! What a great attitude; no one should die wondering.

  2. This was definitely encouraging to read - because we can all relate to those awful feelings of frustration that seem to crop up time and time again! I, too, have had failed tempo runs, race pace miles, and many races that didn't go as planned. And I've asked myself plenty of times "Is this ridiculous? Am I just unable to get any faster?" but I keep coming back to the fact that often my most rotten workouts/seasons/whatever are followed (sometimes months and months later) by a race or a run that's just really special. Where everything FINALLY comes together. And that is what keeps me moving forward. And helps to quiet that voice in my head that wants to tell me I can't do it. Fall seven times and stand up eight, right? :)