For anyone who doesn't know, DNF means Did Not Finish. I didn't know that term until I started running races in 2016. To date, I've run 31 races and 4 Virtual Race/Challenges, with only 1 DNF. Up until last Saturday.
Really, I think it's reasonable to assume that if you run a lot of races, you will likely have a DNF. In my case, which I think is pretty typical of most runners, my first DNF was unavoidable--I simply could not go on. I thought I had blown out my knee, and half a mile into a 5K I had to turn around and limp back to the start line. It took me longer to hobble back that half mile than it would have taken me to run the whole race on a good knee. Luckily, I had not blown out my knee, but it was significantly impaired for a number of months, and no part of me felt (or feels) any guilt or regret about not finishing that race.
Saturday was a different matter.
If you've read any of my previous blog posts, it's no secret that I've been in a struggle: some internal intruder vs the rest of my mind, body and spirit. And I am truly baffled and, quite literally, running scared. In the past (almost) 5 years I've gone through many, many iterations, revolutions and come-to-Jesus moments with running--never fun while it's happening but always advancing my running and leading me to new understandings about myself and why I'm doing all of this. I like to think of it like peeling an onion; taking away layers of things I don't need and leaving me lighter and more free. I guess maybe those outer layers are easier to shed, because this layer is a doozy.
Author Steven Pressfield calls this intruder Resistance, and he believes that it's in all of us. Resistance is smart and insidious, tenacious and relentless. And as soon as you are landing on what really matters to you, it pulls out all the stops to challenge you. Up until now, I've been able to win every round against Resistance, but this round is different. Maybe it's a perfect storm of being worn down by Covid, and losing a friend, and losing my job, and a few other significant things too personal to put down in writing. Maybe I got cocky, believing there was no more work to do, or that I knew how to recognize Resistance. Or maybe I thought I could always outrun it, over power it, and predict it. But Resistance is a formidable foe and, honestly, I have to tip my hat to this one. It's really effective, this new Resistance strategy. This time Resistance gave me the Yips.
Wikipedia defines the Yips this way:
The yips is the colloquial term for a sudden and unexplained loss of skills in experienced athletes. Symptoms of the yips are losing fine motor skills and psychological issues that impact on the muscle memory and decision making of the player which creates a failure to perform basic skills of the sport... The impact varies widely...The worst cases are those where the athlete does not recover at all, forcing the player to abandon the sport..." (yikes)
The Yips are mostly associated with golf, and sometimes baseball. And I'm betting that a performers' stage fright is just another variation. Although many, many books have been written (and I have them) about mindset and running (and even the bit more extreme headcase and running), I have yet to find anything about a runner with the Yips. Especially a very average runner with the Yips. But frankly, I fit the bill. This past Saturday, as in recent history, I was gripped with anxiety while I was warming up for my race. I stood at the start line crying, and seemed to have "...an unexplained loss of skills..." that led to me walking off the course at the halfway mark. Although I am having a flare up of that old knee injury from my first DNF, it wouldn't be fair to ask my knee to shoulder the blame for this second DNF.
So...what's to be done? How do you shed the Yips? I'm actually not quite sure. I think the resolution may be indirect, meaning--don't directly address the Yips. My coach said something similar yesterday in an email--that his worry is the more we talk about it the more we give credence to it. I think there is some truth there and I think that's what I have, inadvertently, been doing. Steven Pressfield says you challenge Resisitance by "going pro" in your life (i.e. striving for excellence in whatever you pursue). It might seem counterintuitive, but my gut told me that I need to go in deeper--to turn into myself more to challenge the Yips. So, recently, I put all my books away, just for a little while. I unsubscribed to all but 3 podcasts. I allow myself only certain times of the day to check social media. And I stopped wearing my headphones while I run (for the most part). Reading and research and podcasts and music on my runs are all things I love, but also ways that I retreat. If I really want answers, if I really want to pull this up by the roots, I need less input from the outside and more output from the inside.
Funny enough, this last paragraph is where I stopped last night. I fell asleep and had this dream: I was outside walking along a sidewalk. There was a fence that ran parallel to the sidewalk with a small strip of grass separating the two. I was pulling up weeds in this grassy area as I walked along--those thistle-y kind that are no big deal if you catch them early enough, but can grow to be a thick, thorny nightmare. Some of these came out easily, others required a bit more work and a trowel to get them out. The goal, always, was not to superficially pull up part of the plant, but to get it by the roots so that it's actually gone. As I was doing this, the ground was breaking away and, all of a sudden, the grassy area had disappeared and what was left was the fence, the sidewalk, and a deep trough where the grassy strip used to be. The biggest, tallest, thickest, thorniest tree sized version of this weed was growing up out of this trough. When I peered over the edge, I could see down to the floor of this trough, and this thorny weed tree was actually growing out of a big pot, like you plant flowers in. Although it wasn't immediately clear to me how to start to take this thing down, or how to get down deep in the trough to pull this thorny weed tree out of that pot, I did not feel a sense of the impossible because, even though at first glance this thing seemed intimidating, it wasn't even planted in the ground. It was in a pot. And even though it would take some calculating, and I would inevitably have to endure getting pierced and cut by the thorns, it wasn't planted in a permanent way. Once I cut it down and figured out how to get to the pot, I could easily just pull it out--I wouldn't even need a trowel. Furthermore, I could use the pot to plant something beautiful, like flowers, or something nourishing, like vegetables. And I knew all of this peering over that edge. Something large and imposing and hurtful, actually had shallow roots.
I don't know if I knew this in the dream, or if I figured it out this morning drinking coffee, but the big thorny weed tree is Resistance--it's the Yips. It's a big blowhard, and I can overcome it. I don't exactly know how, yet, but my dream told me I'm doing the right thing. ACTION is key--just keep walking along that sidewalk pulling up the smaller weeds, and the big, scary show stopper will be revealed for what it actually is: just a big, overgrown weed in a pot, easily eradicated with focus, a plan, and hard work.
Resistance may be able to control and fool us in the daylight, but it has no power in our dreams. My dream came from me, and deep down I know that I may have allowed these challenges to grow and loom large, but when I really face them they are not bigger than what I am capable of handling. I am strong enough to tackle my life, and I am certainly strong enough to run a trail race.
I'm not sure the Yips are gone yet, and I'm sure that as long as I have dreams I will periodically go toe to toe with Resistance, but I'm pretty sure it's a price worth paying for an authentic and purpose filled life.
Oh, and unless I do blow out my knee, no more DNF'S.