Choosing which story you get to tell.
By Rachel ToorAs featured in the September 2012 issue of Running Times Magazine
You would think by now I’d know to expect it, but you’d be wrong. The nagging conversation that takes place in my head in the later stages of a race occurs each time as if it had never happened before. Oh right, I think. I know how this goes. But each time, this debate, this discussion with myself, surprises me. It never feels like a rerun.
It goes like this: Who are you trying to impress? Or, more precisely, Who are you afraid of disappointing? When I get to the part in the race where it starts to feel hard, when I want to give up, I talk to myself. Often I’ll get to a point where, if this were a real conversation with a real other person, I’d be so annoyed and frustrated I’d leave the room.
Maybe there are people who are truly self-motivated, who don’t need attention and praise. That’s noble. I am made of weaker stuff. I care what others think about me; I care about how I will tell the story when I have to say, out loud, how things went. For me, shame is a useful motivator. I like to trumpet my successes because it helps me to hear not that I’m better than people think I am, but better than I believe I am; I hate to admit defeat or to recap a bad performance because it plays into my self-doubt. I try to restrain from the Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda refrain but it’s hard not to make excuses and stick to Didn’t.
The prospect of telling the story, of having to narrate my body-bruising crashes and scarring burns, my train wrecks, my wall-hitting, ball-dropping, face-falling failures can be enough to keep me going, to make me try harder. The act of having to report — to a coach, to a friend, to a potential lover — that I wasn’t as good as I should have been, didn’t try as hard as I expected to, that I gave up, gave in, collapsed, foundered, is a force that I am not sure I will ever be grown-up enough to ignore.
No doubt this performance expectation was instilled in me long ago, by a father who asked, if I brought home a test with a score of 99, why I didn’t get 100, who edited every paper I wrote in high school and never thought they were good enough, who was generous with things but Scroogey with compliments. No doubt perfectionist tendencies get nurtured like orchids, coming in different colors, different shapes. No doubt some of this has helped me in life to achieve, if not to feel content about, what I’ve accomplished.
Sometimes, when I was leading a race, I would think about the pleasure of being able to tell the story. No need for excuses, for explanations. I won. It’s not usually a compelling tale. Tolstoy famously said that happy families are all alike, and we know that’s not true. They are just less interesting than the unhappy ones. The story of winning is hard to tell without seeming obnoxious and self-satisfied, unless, of course, it comes with the challenges of Odysseus. The irony is that often, when I was leading a race, I would become too interested in recounting it and, like a tragic Greek hero, see fate intervene. I’ve gone off course in a 50K after leading the race for 27 miles. I’ve done that more than once. I’ve gotten cocky and pushed aside the fear of failure only to bring it on.
Even now, when I’m less likely to be at the front of the pack, I still get bogged down in mental debate.
The conversation goes something like this: Go ahead and slow down. You’ve got nothing to prove. No one cares about your times. The difference of two minutes, of 30 seconds, is nothing. You’ll race again and do better. You’ve raced before and done better. This is not worth it. There’s no reason to suffer when there are people in the world who are suffering for things that are serious, not play.
The response goes like this: You can do anything for seven (or 57) minutes. You will feel so good when it’s over. You are strong. You are tough. You are stronger and tougher than those you will beat. You can do better. You will care later. The writer in me bristles as I repeat cliches that coaches and teammates spew to provoke desired outcomes.
At some point, you make a choice. At some point, you stop having the conversation. You make a decision. You take action. You just do it, or you don’t.
Who will I disappoint? Of course, when I start hearing that nagging question, I know that the only answer that matters is: me.
The great essayist Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The truth is, some stories are more useful than others. We make choices that allow us to pick which ones we get to tell.