Running with Joy

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I haven’t had much to say in recent weeks. Work at the office has picked up considerably, my marathon training is officially underway and I just haven’t been inspired to write anything “of value” since my last post.

But this morning I found inspiration in two things.

The first was while listening to the opening chapter of ‘Let Your Mind Run‘ by Deena Kastor (listening to audio books is a very useful way to pass the time when using an indoor trainer). Deena was telling readers/listeners about her introduction to running as a child. Her parents signed her up for the local long-distance track team in an effort to improve her self-confidence and to encourage interaction with children her own age. From the start she was hooked – not only because she was obviously very talented, but because of the freedom which running offered; the unstructured release of feel-good endorphins; the time spent chasing shadows over track and trail; and how happy it made her feel.

The second was a video published by Matthew McConaughey on YouTube and shared by a friend on facebook. Within the first half of the clip McConaughey tries to explain why, in his view, we’re not happy (humanity as a collective).

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In it he says:

Happiness is an emotional response to an outcome. If I win; I will be happy. If I don’t; then I wont. It’s an if – then, cause and effect, quid pro quo standard that we cannot sustain because we raise it, every time we attain it. You see happiness, happiness demands a certain outcome. It is result reliant. And I say that if happiness is what you’re after, then you’re going to be let down frequently and you’re going to be unhappy much of your time.

Matthew McConaughey

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I admit, an American movie star isn’t my typical source of inspiration – but there’s something about this video which really struck a cord.

I remember seeing an Instagram post by Gerda Steyn shortly after Comrades this year which said that one of the things she truly believes in is being happy – and that with happiness, comes success. I’ll admit, I raised an eyebrow, chuckling to myself that no one could truly be that happy all the time (particularly given how unhappy I was myself)… but you know what, both Gerda and McConaughey are right, notwithstanding the fact that they use different words to describe exactly the same thing.

Last year was a dream come true for me. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would win the Comrades Marathon (and there are days I still think I am an imposter on the list of Comrades champions), my greatest hope was simply to run for Gold. Similarly, when I crossed the finish line at the Valencia Marathon in 2h35.44, I was speechless – I had no idea I could cover ground that fast! Off a base of relatively low expectation, and by setting reasonable (and what I believed to be attainable) goals; in smashing those goals I was euphoric. I couldn’t think of anything that would make me happier.

It’s what happened next that made me unhappy.

After withdrawing from Comrades 2017 just 1km into the race, I spent the next 12 months thinking that if I could just get Gold (at best Top 5) in 2018, then all the pain, suffering and financial hardship which my family and I had endured would be worth it. If X, then Y. Cause and effect. I achieved that goal, and then I was happy.

And after picking a fight with the regulator and thereafter being threatened with a ban from the sport in August 2018, I thought that if I could just run faster than 2h37 at the Valencia Marathon, then my reputation and euphoria would be restored. Once again, my happiness became result dependant.

So when things started to go wrong for me this year; as my body became increasingly broken and frail, and my mental resolve to endure the relentless hours of hard training weakened; my happiness also started to disappear. The fact that I’d stopped practicing as an advocate and had cut back on my coaching didn’t help – because the only thing I had “going for me” was my running; and when that wasn’t going very well… I started to feel worthless.

Attributing one’s personal worth and happiness to our personal perception of success is something we all do, intentionally or otherwise. But it’s a risky business thinking that if we could just be “successful” at business/work/sport/etc, then we will be happy. More dangerous still is thinking that if we are “successful”, the admiration or recognition of others will make us happy. True happiness, or “joy” according to McConaughey, must be both independent of other people and of our personal markers for success. In other words, whether or not we are successful should not determine whether we are happy.

Now I know that sounds counterintuitive. Obviously if we are “successful” we are more likely to be happy. But doesn’t that depend on how we define success for ourselves? I’ve learnt the hard way this year that whether or not I win a race does not determine the level of my success. Just because I didn’t win doesn’t mean I’m any less of an athlete, or a person. And sure, I like to win, and I’m going to work really hard to try and win again, but winning needs to be a bonus. My success (and my happiness) needs to be drawn from wider a field. Things like: getting through a training block uninjured; hitting a target pace in training; juggling my work/home and other commitments to ensure I comply with my training plan; eating nutritious, healthy food; scheduling regular strength work… all these things contribute to making me a successful athlete, regardless of where I may place at a race. Being an athlete is more than a set of race results; and it’s being an athlete which makes me happy. That is where I find joy – out on the road using my body for the purpose for which God intended.

And if I’m having a bad day in tekkies, that’s ok – I don’t need to be unhappy – there are other things in my life from which I draw happiness. I love coaching and helping other athletes succeed. I love managing Team Massmart and being able to contribute in some small way to the development of our sport and the upliftment of others. Working as an advocate is a stressful and yet exhilarating experience. All these things give me worth and bring me happiness.

Going forward I don’t want my happiness to be results driven. I’m committed to simply enjoying the process, to running with joy no matter where I land up on the results sheet. I’m tired of comparing myself to others, attributing my self worth to the worth of my race results. I’ve got nothing to prove to anyone, and not everything is a competition.

My Mum always says to me before a race: “if you’re not going to try and win; what is the point of running”. And that’s right. There are days when I’ll need to go out there, put my body on the line and give it hell. There’s absolutely no harm in trying. But if I don’t win, that’s ok. In every race there is a single winner…. that doesn’t mean the rest of us are losers.

So here’s to running with joy, regardless of the outcome. Find happiness in your success as a parent/athlete/spouse/volunteer/professional/etc. Because each of us is worth more than the sum of each of our parts.

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3 thoughts on “Running with Joy”

  1. Carly Sunshine says:

    Love this!!

  2. Madelé says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I needed to hear this again! I’m in the middle of a hard training block which is mentally and physically so tough. And I just started losing that element of joy in the training as it started feeling like work! Thank you so much for sharing; it is so inspirational.

  3. Melissa says:

    This is what makes a true champion. You inspire us everyday Ann, its not about being the best, but giving your best and being happy with yourself. Thank you for this lovely blog.

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