The 3rd Stage of Running


Whining: Stage 3

by Patrick Reed

Welcome back to this series exploring in depth the stages of becoming for the distance runner. Click here to begin at Part 1 of the series.

“At some point, every runner rests her elbows on her knees, bent over with exhaustion and emptiness, and knows that she has lost. She has let herself down. In this moment, she faces a choice: either persevere or abandon the dream….”

To abandon the dream is to whine…

What I am learning more and more in life and in running is that the more directly I confront a source of resistance or joy and the more honestly I face up to my failings, limitations,exultations and achievements… in short, the more honest I am with myself — the more successful I am. The more directly I run at the hill, work the hill, run into it and through the hill, the more success I enjoy in conquering it. The more intentionally I pursue the object of my fears, the more readily they fall away —

And since success in our efforts – not measured as some objective time goal, but rather measured against one’s very potential – is the goal, it is vital to honestly push straight at that success. Whatever hindrances stand directly in our path must be taken head-on.

I believe that the aversion to such an honest striving for victory is the main culprit in our perceived failings. And it is this which causes us to whine…

As I mentioned in the Cliff’s Notes version of this extended series about “The Four Stages of Runners,” every athlete who has given running her all meets – eventually – a great defeat. In my experience, that great defeat has come not so much at the hands of a victorious foe – who stole the gold right out from under me in the last critical strides of a running duel. Rather, my most debilitating defeats have come at my own hands: thinking I knew what I was capable of (usually a time goal), I let myself down. This is the chronic mis-estimation of me (most often, overestimation) — and it is accompanied by the depressing fallout of coming to grips with my limitations and a new understanding about who I really am. It is this sickness – the disease of not knowing myself – which is the father of my Whining — the third stage in the runner’s development.

I have personally experienced this ailment at almost every period of my running career.

But such mis-estimation of our abilities is natural, I think, and so every runner must endure at least some of this hardship. As Dr. Phil Maffetone says, a key component of training is “over-reaching.” Without reaching beyond the status quo of our fitness today, we cannot grow; the training effect can have no traction. In a sense, it is human and necessary to over-reach.

Added to this conundrum in which we are ensnared naturally, we also seem to possess an undying faith that we can go faster – given the right conditions, training, diet, lifestyle, etc. – than we have before. This is the human spirit, as they say. And so it is natural to keep striving, to believe beyond hope, to hope for a greater tomorrow and to know that our best races are ahead. Even when it butts up against all reality and common sense. Such dreaming is the very stuff of faith.

Given all of this hard-wiring to reach beyond and to believe in the face of the sternest odds, how are we to avoid the apparently inevitable whining which ever keeps pace with our flawed dreams??

In the end, it comes to this: at some point, every athlete rests her elbows on her knees, bent over with exhaustion and emptiness, and knows that she has lost. She has let herself down. In this moment, she faces a choice: either persevere or abandon the dream….


But I ask you, in giving your all – in leaving everything on the track, have you lost?? Can you lose? Have you let yourself down? Or, instead, have you learned a deeper truth about who you are? Have you probed your possibilities, met with a new, unforeseen limitation and so forged the stuff of a new goal? What we too often mistake for losing is our ego running out in front. It is a false sense of who we are. Often it takes the form of an ugly and superficial us – who, when we reflect honestly on it, we’d rather not be. When we experience such “short-comings” we sketch out the boundaries of who we are — and like the ill-defined scribbles of the artist’s study on paper, we are not so strictly defined by this new information. Instead, we are granted new understanding – a newer, more honest appraisal of who we are as runners and as humans.

It is possible, and it happens too often, that the runner stops here – still weeping on the curb after that final attempt at the PR 15 years ago. He forever replays the loss and imagines what could have been. Trapped in the past, his future efforts are measured no longer by future dreams of limitless possiblility, but by the finished race, the stopped clock, yesterday. If we would get to true “winning” in our running, we must reassess our “losses.” It is likely that they are victories, truly, if only we would look at them afresh, turning them to every angle to inspect, and eventually turning them upside-down.

Get back on it!

~Coach Reed

image credits: and