Walking the line between tough and stupid

The fine line between tough and stupid, knowing where to push and when to hold back, is critical to staying healthy. Photo Illustration Tim Catalano

The following is an excerpt from "Running the Edge" Chapter 7:

"It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities." — Josiah Charles Stamp

If there is one lesson runners learn well, it is the connection between their behavior and the consequences. By its very nature, running requires a certain amount of self-discipline and personal accountability. If a runner misses the majority of his or her runs, slacks off during workouts, or ignores proper nutrition, performance suffers. Likewise, when runners consistently work hard, eat right, and do the things needed to stay healthy, they almost always find success.

At the starting line, it may not be apparent who has put in the work and who has not, but as the race treads on, each runner is judged step by step for his or her actions in the days, weeks, months, and even years leading up to the race. There is nowhere to hide from this judgment, no one to blame or credit for what is happening. By toeing the line, the runner has submitted to this sometimes cruel but always honest evaluation. Time is a cold-hearted arbiter of truth, and like it or not, a runner must take responsibility for the race and the results.

This is not to say that at times circumstances beyond a runner’s control do not affect a race. Injury and illness often wreak havoc on even the most disciplined runner. In the cruelest twists of running fate, these factors seem far less fair than simple cause and effect. It is easier to accept harsh judgment when it is deserved, when we have not demonstrated the will to prepare. We can accept this blame and legitimate appraisal of our ability. But when we know we are ready for more and are dealt a losing hand anyway, we are alone, with no one else to bail us out.


There is a fine line between tough and stupid. It is a line I have had trouble walking my whole life, and it has occasionally come back to haunt me. In 2000, I was the proud owner of my first home. It was a new home that needed a lot of work to finish. I could have hired a landscaper to finish the backyard, and a builder to put in a deck, but I thought it would be a fun challenge to do both myself. So one day, some of my good friends helped me work the auger as we drilled holes for the pilings of the deck. They helped dig the trenches for the new sprinkler system and haul eleven tons of gravel from the driveway to the backyard one wheelbarrow at a time.

The Olympic Trials were seven weeks away. The smart thing would have been to take it easy and rely on my friends to do the heavier lifting. I could have taken smaller loads in my wheelbarrow or just spread the work out over several days. But I had to be tough and outwork everyone else. That day, I was on the wrong side of the line between tough and stupid. Only several years later did I learn that on that day, I had suffered a bilateral sports hernia. All I knew was that my back hurt. I was also rushing back from an Achilles tendon injury and was hammering ninety miles a week without much base. The day after the dirt hauling, I went on a twenty-mile run, and by the end of the run, the sacroiliac joint in my lower back was killing me. Not wanting to miss a day of training, I pushed through.

The next day, despite the pain, I started my run. I was now on the wrong side of tough and stupid for the third straight day. Four miles into the run, I had to stop. The pain in my back was so severe I had to walk back home. I could not bend over, dry myself off when I got out of the shower, or even brush my teeth without severe discomfort. At the advice of my doctors, I had no choice but to stop running and allow my body to heal.

I took my first steps running again ten days before the 5000-meter prelims at the Olympic Trials. I did some basic jogging and felt OK, but I had missed almost five straight weeks of training and my confidence was at an all-time low.

In my preliminary heat, I ran as fast as I could. I knew I needed to be in the top six to advance automatically to the finals, but I could barely manage fifth. That race was incredibly hard, and I was not even close to the top three. How was I supposed to make it into the top three of the finals to make the Olympic team when I could barely get out of my heat? In the hours before that final, I had plenty of time to think. I was so frustrated. To be this close to achieving a lifelong goal, and now I could easily miss it. No one else could run this race for me. I would toe the line and take my shot. I would offer myself up to the cruel judgment of the clock, my competitors, and the public. There was nowhere to hide. There was no one else.

When the gun went off, I placed myself on the inside lane but way back in the pack. Two laps in, I was in thirteenth position, already 30 meters behind fourth place. By the mile, I had slowly worked my way to the front of the chase pack, running comfortably in sixth or seventh position, but Bob Kennedy had opened up a nearly 50-meter lead. At 3,000 meters, Kennedy’s lead had been closed by Marc Davis, and the pair led the chase pack by less than 30 meters. I knew I had to be patient and could not afford an early move. I needed to wait for the race to come to me, but I could feel the stiffness creeping into my legs. I had to keep shaking doubts from my mind. With two laps to go, Nick Rogers had taken the lead, followed closely by Marc Davis. I was next to Kennedy, along with Brad Hauser and Matt Lane, rounding out a pack of six. Three of us would make the Olympic team in the next two laps. I watched Nick Rogers stretch out to a big lead with a lap to go. I wanted to respond, but my legs seemed to be ignoring my mind. Pain seared my quadriceps and chest. I was hanging on by a thread. In the final lap, I summoned every stride of every workout I had ever run to help me. I beckoned every weight I lifted in pursuit of this goal, every morning I dragged my weary body out of bed to get in my morning run, every party I skipped, every choice I made in the last four years to help me in this moment. All that training had to be somewhere inside me. A few weeks off could not erase the previous four years! All those workouts had to be somewhere in the deep recesses of my capillaries, ready to lend what they could to the final surge.

Nick Rogers had a four-second gap on Brad Hauser and me, and it looked as though the race was for second. With 200 meters to go, I knew I had made the team, but something in me would not stop or settle for just making it. I needed to prove to myself that I belonged, and nothing less than the national championship would be good enough. My consciousness was sucked inside my body, where it wrapped itself up in muscle, blood, tendon, and bone. Everything looked as if it were shrouded in a red and black veil before I suddenly shot out of my body and watched myself from above the stadium as Brad Hauser and I overtook Nick Rogers. I broke the tape first, and everything went silent. For a brief moment, there was no pain. I tried to raise my arms in victory, but could not get them to rise past my shoulders. I was mercilessly slammed back into my body to deal with the agonizing pain of what I had done. I had never hurt that bad before or have since. It was as if my lungs were full of boiling oil, burning me from the inside out—the kind of pain that hurts days later just from the memory. But I had done it. There was no one else but me. I learned more about myself as a runner and a human being on that day than I had in any other single event in my life. I got closer to the edge of my potential than I had ever been and saw myself not for who I was but for who I could be.

One of the first lessons running teaches us about success in athletics and in life is that there is no one else. No one else can do your workouts for you. You alone must do the drills, repeat the core exercises, stretch, and lift the weights. You cannot hire someone else to do your cross-training when you are battling injury, or pay someone to run a race and get you a new PR. You are truly your own hero in running. It is up to you to have the responsibility and self-discipline to get the job done.

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