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The Power of Positivity: What I Learned at Summer (Running) Camp

Fun running in a beautiful setting and a “work vacation,” that’s what brought me to Mammoth Lakes, Calif. for Deena Kastor’s third annual Mammoth Running Escape retreat this past July. I envisioned casual miles, good food and interesting discussions. Yet for some reason, I found myself staring at the ceiling at 3:27am filled with self-doubt. This was supposed to be restorative—no racing, no pointless personal comparisons and no mental gremlins invited.

All started well. The other attendees were an eager and diverse group from around the country. Abilities spanned the spectrum from recreational runners, to sub-3-hour marathoners and the youngest female to run a marathon in all 50 states. Some were there to rediscover a love of running. Others wanted to spend time soaking up the good energy of the preternaturally upbeat Olympian. I was there to document their journeys, or so I told myself.

As the weekend unfolded and talk turned to races run, mile splits and goals, a given when runners congregate, my self-doubt started to creep in. And that’s when I recognized why I was really here. It’s because Kastor is purposefully positive. She maintains it’s a learned trait. She has a book coming out on the topic in the spring. And she was giving a talk about that very thing after our first run. While I’m a master (well, pretty good) at putting on an outwardly positive face, it often doesn’t match my inner dialogue. What better way to learn and practice than with running, something I already enjoy.

Chill, early-morning shake-out miles on rolling trails around the high alpine lakes at Lake Basin put me at ease, and helped assuage my self-doubt. A luxurious post-run picnic, enjoying delicious and nutritious meals is a critical part of Kastor’s success plan, also did wonders for bolstering my mood and everyone’s energy levels for the mental lessons to come.

The discussions about positivity, goal setting, purpose and shifting our approach from “I can’t” to “what steps do I need to make it happen,” are still swirling through my head. My far-reaching list of goals ranged from dropping three minutes off my marathon time (doable with work), axing an hour from my Ironman time (wait—do I really want to run another one?) to running a 50-miler and a 100-miler (definitely getting ahead of myself). Welcome to my monkey mind.

We had to choose one goal, just one. And then create a detailed list of action steps. Given the fact that I’m registered for the New York City Marathon this November, I decided to put that and running a PR at the top of my list. My plan includes adding weekly speed work, incorporating daily pre-run drills and post-run stretching, joining a running group and being kind to myself (which includes getting good sleep, eating enough to fuel my training and positive self-talk).

Having a plan gave me a new sense of lightness, but I still had to address my defeatist tendencies (as in my flyer of an idea to run a 40-miler in September just “for fun”). We tabled the talks for a cooking demonstration, a workout at the Whitmore Track & Field Complex, built by the Kastor’s for the Mammoth Lakes community, and a burly nighttime race up Mammoth Mountain. As challenging as it was to gain 2,000 feet over the 5K course, watching the sun set during the run made it worthwhile–practicing positivity! Having Olympians Sarah Attar and Alexi Pappas on hand to cheer finishers up the last climb didn’t hurt either.

On the final morning, we enjoyed another stunning run, this time to Devils Postpile and Rainbow Falls, followed by a trailhead brunch. As some people packed and started their journeys home, the rest of us congregated by the pool to relax and reflect upon the weekend (tip—don’t leave early!). We also revisited the goal setting conversation. Andrew Kastor, Deena’s husband and coach, as well as coach for the Mammoth Track Club, made the point that short-term goals are often easier to embrace once you’ve considered your long-term plan. And that’s not just a look down the calendar at your next event, either. How do you envision your life at 40, 50, 60 and beyond? He wasn’t asking for general ideas, but instead as much detail as possible to bring the visioning process to life.

In looking at my goals with a longer lens, spending the next few months working on speed while gradually building up mileage should put me in good shape to run a strong marathon in November. I’ll also have the base to build miles for 2017 and beyond—I see 2020 at my year for a 100-miler. Preparation helps send my self-doubt gremlins scrambling. As long as I put in the work, and earn it, I can toe the line with confidence.

This all makes logical sense. I had to deal with the emotional attachment of running a Labor Day 40-mile trail run with friends. Given that I usually run alone, the partners-in-crime component was a strong sell. As is beauty of the course and my desire to run longer distances. Could have I finished? Yes. But, would I re-injure myself or cause new issues by running long miles on a bare-bones training program? Definitely.

Hobbies are supposed to be fun. And that is how I’ve always approached running—if a race or event sounds entertaining, I’ll run it. While I’m always glad for the experience and the stories, my performance has plateaued, injuries are on the rise, and, ultimately, enjoyment has taken a nosedive. I believe I have more to give, but the only way to realize it is to stop sabotaging myself with whimsical decisions. As for my long-term plan, it’s time to get strong and healthy. I want to keep dropping my race times. Hell, I even see an age-group podium finish in my future. (This is my dream, let me enjoy it!) Instead of running the September race, the smart choice is to play support crew for my friends.

Knowing that change takes time, I’ve given it a month since the Mammoth Running Escape. In revisiting my action steps towards running the New York City Marathon, I’m making headway. Weekly speed work has happened (although this is the first week I’m actually taking it to a track) and pre-run drills and warm-ups are a regular part of every workout. Post-run stretching hasn’t been quite as successful and my mobility is suffering because of it. And I’ve yet to join my local running group, but I have made a point to run with another person or group at least once a week. (Trust me, given that my goal used to be to run with someone once a month, this is a huge improvement!)

As for being positive and kind to myself that depends on the day, but having it be a focus certainly helps. Official marathon training kicked off this week, I decided not to run the 40-miler in two weeks (grown-up decision for the win!). I’ll be cheering for my friends at the finish and cannot wait—it even sounds like fun.