It was Friday morning, the day for my long run, and I had let myself sleep in. Usually a few of us meet at 4:45 am and head to Jerusalem, where we’ve found a “relatively” flat route, and put in double-digit miles before the hot sun comes up. But I had hit the snooze and sent an “I’m sorry, I can’t do it today” message to the group. Fortunately, (or unfortunately), accountability lives within. By 7 am I had parked my car and stretched my legs. I took off alone to complete the 12 miles, happy to be setting my own pace, but missing the company of the others.
For me, the first mile is always the most difficult- it’s harder than the uphill sixth mile and even harder than the tenth mile when my legs are tired and my knees hurt. During that first mile a battle rages in my mind. It screams at me that I can’t breathe, that the distance is too long, that walking is just as effective as running. My mind tells me to slow down, to turn back, to stop all together. And in the same way as does a mouthy teenage girl, it goes on and on and on. I’ve tried millions of ways to stop it- I’ve tried to beat it down with rebuttals to its arguments. I’ve tried to chastise it, calling it lazy. I’ve tried telling it that my legs and lungs are the ones doing the real work, so it has no right to speak. I’ve pleaded with it, I’ve begged it; and I’ve certainly guilted it. I’ve found that my best line of defense is to ignore it. I tune it out by turning my music up or try to change the subject by pointing out a pretty tree or a funny looking dog. Some days my mind is more relentless than others, but usually that other part of me, the part that wants to be disciplined, is able to bide enough time to take away the gusto of my mind.
“You see,” the disciplined part of me chimes in after ten minutes or so, “we caught our breath. Our blister doesn’t hurt anymore. If we turn back now, we’ll have to run another mile anyway, so we might as well keep going. We could walk, but that’ll take us so much more time.” With those responses, my mind is silenced and loses interest in the battle. It rarely admits that the disciplined part of me is right, but it gives up the fight and, while it pouts, it at last allows me to think about something else. Sometimes I’m able to convince my mind to also enjoy the run, but more often than not its only the disciplined part that does.
On this particular Friday I was enduring the mile-one-fight and pretty sure my mind was going to win (it had already won the battle of sleeping in, which bolstered its resolve). I don’t know if the argument was showing on my face or through my struggling pace, but I could swear that the 50-year-old man jogging toward me knew exactly what I was dealing with. As we approached one another, he gave me a wonderful gift: he clapped his hands, made eye contact with me, smiled and cheered “You can get through this!”
That was exactly the token of encouragement I needed. I heard my mind start to ask “Who was that guy? How does he know we can do this? He has no idea…”
“Shhh!” the disciplined part of me said. “Listen and watch again.” I replayed the encounter in my mind. And then I played it again. With each remembering, I was more encouraged. My mind began to quiet itself and I could feel it giving up the fight, but this time it happened in a different sort of way. My mind didn’t simply run out of decent arguments and sulk off overruled as it usually does. Instead, it started to believe. This time it wasn’t just broken down and forced to submit; this time it joined the other side. “Do you think the guy has a point?” my mind asked the disciplined part of me. “Maybe we really can do this. I’ll bet he saw something good in us; he probably saw how hard we’re working.” My disciplined part didn’t have the heart to tell my mind that what the man probably saw on my face was my frustration with the mental battle rather than the exertion of the physical struggle. What difference would it have made to tell her anyway?
I finished the run at my fastest pace yet.
Now, a couple of weeks later, I can’t even count the number of times I have replayed that scene of encouragement, and not just while I am running. I remember it when I am frustrated with grading, when I’m feeling overwhelmed with a class, when my alarm goes off, and when I serve myself vegetables rather than mac and cheese. I recall it when I’m missing home and all those other times I find myself not able to do what I know I can and should.
Day after day, this man’s small token of encouragement lightens my burden of discipline. It not only helps me win the fight, but it makes an ally of an enemy. It builds me up when I feel incapable, it reminds me to endure.
Who knew encouragement could be so powerful? I’m willing to bet that man didn’t have any idea that his costless handclap and free smile have become priceless to me.
Wherever you are, Mr. Encourager, Thank You!