I stepped to the starting line of the 1991 Junior World Cross Country Championships in Antwerp, Belgium knowing I was a favorite to win. I had a plan based on whether scenario “A” or “B” transpired among my competitors. Neither did.
As I rounded the final hairpin turn of the tight, ribbon-like 4K course I thought, “I am going for the win!” As my eyes drew in the finish line down the long straightaway, I saw two women, who’d broken from the pack early in the race. I ran that last 250 meters in bewilderment and grief, wondering how I’d missed them.
Frustration set in afterward, as I had to accept that my perspective—how I’d regarded the race and my competitors—had been too narrow to succeed. I had not seen the full picture; my focus was on two frames of a reel when I needed to see the entire scene. That full scene included me and my competitors, striving together, pushing each other to our best efforts. I did not regard my competitors as such back then; I saw them as detractors, rather than additions to my race experience.
If I had entered the race focused on the bigger picture, viewing the challenge of my competition as providing me a “growth opportunity,” would I have seen the reality unfolding before me, and been able to respond? I’ll never know, but years of exploring how to become more aware of how I am affected by my interface with others and the environment have been beneficial and enjoyable.
How often do we narrow our focus so much that we eliminate the bigger picture? Or, on the other hand, allow it to become so wide that what’s right in front of us is blurred? Think of the iPhone camera modes: In “portrait mode” we blur everything but the object of our focus. But, with patience and a steady hand, we may be able to shift to “pano” mode and take it all in with clarity.
What influences the perspective and focus we take?
Why We Lose Perspective
Kay Porter, Ph.D. and author of The Mental Athlete, says athletes often zoom in too close with a perspective called myopia. “Successful and elite runners have consistent focus and concentration skills. However, sometimes they get over-focused on the goals of the race and lose sight of their desired outcome. This loss of perspective often leads to ‘over arousal’ and creates mind, body, and emotional tension, causing them to underperform,” she says.
Of course, preparing to race well requires an ability to compartmentalize. As a young runner in high school I was impeccable at this, and the resulting hyperfocus enabled world-class performances. But it also took a lot of energy to maintain such an air-tight psyche.
As I grew up, especially in college, I learned how to allow more in. I sought the “pano” shot at every turn — absorbing strengths, vulnerabilities, the experiences at hand. On the eve of the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon, at the pre-meet press conference, I went into that pano mode to take it all in. Then, someone asked me about how the death of my mother had affected my running career. My lens busted. The question unleashed emotion, and I felt depleted for the next day’s race. After months of preparation to win the 10K, my vision was blurry and I could hardly see the lanes on the track. I deflated like a balloon with every lap.
Luckily, age affords us perspective. Life is an emotional ride! I have learned how to manage those emotions — without denying them — which is essential for running longevity as well as physical and mental health.
Tools to Adjust Perspective
So what helps us zoom in, zoom out, or get the focus just right?
- Be Curious: A key to spontaneously being able to adjust perspective has been embracing curiosity — in relationships, races and all experiences. Curiosity has helped me enter “pano” mode, expanding the possibility of what can be perceived and received, in any given moment.
- Breathe: Two years before I made the World Mountain Running Team at age 38, I practiced Kundalini yoga (and still do!), which has taught me to use breathing patterns to achieve various mental states.
- Affirm Yourself: Look yourself in the mirror and say: “You have everything you need, inside you — just allow your energy to flow.” (Or something similar that resonates with you.)
As a teen, I felt it was “me against the world;” I believed my strength was in my independence from others, not my interdependence with others; I was in “portrait mode,” with the focus on me and the rest of the field blurred. Racing when I was young was a lonely endeavor. At 38, my perspective became more focused on interdependence and it actually excited me to embrace my competitors as my friends and co-creators.
These lessons are especially important today. We need to seek the ways we “Inter-are,” as Vietnamese Buddhist monk Tich-Nhat-Hanh says.
On your next run, ponder how much you are willing to be moved by your interface with the environment. Open yourself to the idea of “Inter-being,” and when an opportunity to run stride for stride with someone presents itself, say yes. Try something new. Maybe next time you talk to someone, you’ll be more likely to see their point of view.
Melody Fairchild is a running coach, director of Boulder Mountain Warriors Youth Run Club, founder of The Melody Fairchild Girls Running Camp, and master’s athlete in Boulder, Colorado. Her first book, GIRLS RUNNING (VeloPress), co-authored with Elizabeth Carey, is forthcoming. Elizabeth Carey is a freelance writer and running coach based in Seattle, Washington.