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Don't call it a comeback

How I learned to quiet self-doubt and build consistency.

I want to tell you a story about myself, and through the process, describe how I've come to use consistency to avoid disappointment, kill doubt, fight depression, and reduce burnout.

July 2013: Eight months after suffering a minor stress fracture in my foot brought on by experimentation with "toe shoes" and more likely low calcium intake and way too much Gangnam Style, my running was hitting stride again.

Again. I've come to despise that word. My running story goes way back. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of running, racing other kids or my older brother around a field. As a 1st grader, my older brother told me the story of the first four-minute mile. I laughed and insisted "I could do that". In my young mind, to-the-tree (75 yards away) and-back was a mile. A mile I could easily run faster than four minutes.

In 2001 I discovered just how much I loved running: enough to fight through grueling workouts that were foreign to a 7th grader and push harder than I'd imagined possible in races. And I was good at it.

I looked forward eagerly to the next season, only to fall sick for much of the 2002-2003 school year. When I wasn't sick, I struggled again and again to regain the form of the previous year. Maybe I wasn't good any more? Maybe being sick meant I'd never be good again?

September 2003: A freshman in High School. To be honest, I'm not sure why I didn't run Cross Country this season. The coaches I'd come to trust had either been fired or left for better positions, and I was laser-focused on a new sport: basketball. Really this was an easy excuse. Mostly I was scared I wouldn't see the success I'd had in 7th grade again.

That February I figured it was time to make a new start with running. A classmate had been training all year and performing well and was inspiring me to go find my form again. It stung hard that something I was supposed to be good at I no longer was. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't jealous of my classmate, he wasn't "supposed to be good". He just worked hard. (Looking back today, I really wish I'd known the value of that then and had worked with him.)

I attended the first few weeks of Track practice, but quickly realized the coach was never going to tell the middle and long distance runners anything other than "go run two miles". I didn't know much about training theory, but I did know that wasn't going to get me to state.

I'm pretty sure every workout I crafted for myself was race pace or faster. I certainly could have done much better. But I stuck with it, and by the end of the season I made state in both the 1600m and 3200m. Things were good again.

September 2004: No coach, no season. No running again.

September 2005: New coach. The season went better than expected for what amounted to my first running in over a year, I started to feel like a runner again.

Shortly after this season a lifetime health issue kept me away from sports for nearly a year. In the end, I had to learn how to properly manage low blood pressure. I ran the state XC meet on no-training and at the heaviest weight I've ever been in my life. It went as poorly as the previous sentence might imply. I renewed my focus on basketball, and set my sights on College.

February 2009: Winter of sophomore year. The previous fall I'd attempted to walk-on to the basketball team at a DIII University. My freshman year try-out had been delayed a year when the school decided to rerun several tests to confirm I had a healthy heart (the condition that had sidelined me a year in high-school). Out of shape and out of practice, it did not go well, and I figured it was a good time to go back to running... again.

I quickly remembered why I loved it, and for the next year and some change I ran with the most consistency and structure I'd ever had. I took the 2009-2010 year off from school to earn money to go back, and kept training. Slowly, I built speed and mileage.

July 17th 2010: I cut my right ankle with a chainsaw. I was devastated. I'd finally found my form and passion, but here I was, again, starting over. I was blessed that the damage to my ankle was mostly unimportant tissue. Ten weeks on crutches, and I was back on my feet... and immediately back to running ... 8-10 miles a day. This was a huge mistake, but it took till the end of that fall's cross-country season to realize how much of a mistake it was.

I spent the season icing the ankle, hip, then knee, then other knee, then other hip, then other ankle. Near the end of the season, walking across the smooth floor of a gym, I caught my right ankle funny, and sprained it badly. I was done. Life was falling apart all around me at the same time, and there was no solace in running. I figured time would heal things, and I hung up my running shoes.

March 2012 Almost a year and a half later. I ran a little, and while my joints still showed weakness, pain, and stiffness, I figured it was time to work through it and work it out.

Around September, I began experimenting with a tiny number of "barefoot" miles (in Vibrams). In October, I paced a friend for the Chicago Marathon. Gangnam Style was all the rage and I danced to it for much of the marathon... and again at my cousin's wedding that night.

Two days later after bounding up and down stairs doing chores, I hopped a bike to a friend's place to go for a short run. The first step off the bike I felt a pain like I'd never felt before. After 2 miles it only got worse. Stress fracture. Three week interruption and another four to ease back-in. This time, I resolved "not again".

This time the interruption was a dip, not a break. I was learning something.

This time.

I despise the words this time as much as the word again. They really are two sides of the same boom-bust cycle: overreach, implode, overreach, implode.

All this brings me to July 2013. Almost.

In the winter of 2011, after life imploded around me and my body had given out on running, I dropped out of school. I'd like to say it was a purely sensible decision to drop out and start a tech company; it at least was one of the best poor decisions I've ever made. But while the motivation to start a company and try something new was honest, my decision to leave school was not. Emotionally I just couldn't take it anymore.

The boom-bust cycle of running had coincided with a boom-bust cycle in my personal life, my parent's life, and school. I was down, depressed, alone, and making poor life choices with no safety net or support network to help me deal with or reason about them. Starting a company to pursue an idea I loved was the one good thing that kept me sane in an otherwise roller-coaster year.

In July of 2013, that company failed. I looked around and somehow sensibly realized that if I wanted to succeed at life, running, or work I needed to stop sprinting for short-term goals and start focusing on the long-term. So I got a job as a full-time software consultant to be able to pay rent and tuition, and went back to school full-time to finish my degree. Full-time work and full-time school left no-time for running. I didn't like this sacrifice, but I had the sense to realize that in the long-run finishing school and establishing a career were more important than chasing dreams of being an elite runner.

So I found myself, again, not running.

I found myself.

And after finding myself, I realized a few things about the boom-bust cycle.

  • The boom-bust cycle is burnout.
  • The boom-bust cycle is depressing.
  • The boom-bust cycle is avoidable.
  • The boom-bust cycle is driven by doubt.

In software, especially open-source software, burnout among engineers is common. In my own experience, both in running and in tech, I found that dashing out the gate in excitement would ultimately lead to a crash.

Usually this crash occurs because dashing-out-the-gate meant picking an unsustainable pace. With an unsustainable pace, you sacrifice by piling on debt in order to keep moving forward. Ultimately; however, the debt will become so great that you can no longer move forward anymore. Paying off this debt is overwhelming: overwhelming becomes depressing and impossible.

It's easy to see how the pressure to fix-bugs and deliver-on-time can lead to increased self-doubt and depression and ultimately burnout. In running, I call this the "I just can't". It's when after weeks of slogging through workouts that were harder than they should be and refusing to take rest, you suddenly "just can't".

It's a bit harder to see how self-doubt is an enabler enticing you to dash out the gate too quickly in the first place. As I reflect back on various projects and running re-boots, I see a trail of self-doubt.

Some of the many doubts I've had about running:

  • I'm getting older so I must do this faster if I'm going to do this at all.
  • If I rest I won't be ready enough on race day.
  • If I slow down this run I won't be ready to run faster during my goal race.
  • I skipped _ days so it's already pointless.
  • I might not have enough time so I might as well not start.
  • The race is too close so its too late to think about training now.
  • I don't feel "ready" today so I probably wouldn't run well.

Compare them with doubts I've had about tech-projects:

  • I can't build X because I don't have the perfect Y
  • I must build a new X because there's no way I can fix the old X
  • I must build my own X because I don't understand this existing X
  • I can't build this because I don't have enough time.
  • I've got to finish this ASAP because I won't have time later
  • I don't have time for this project anymore because there are too many things to fix
  • I don't want to work on this project anymore because it's just too hard to _
  • I don't have time to fix this now
  • We've got to ship now because ____
  • I know it's wrong but I don't have time to do it the right way
  • I must build this to prove I _
  • This project is my only hope
  • I can't do this because I don't know ____
  • I can't fix this because I don't know ____

Doubt, especially doubt about time and ability, is a very easy excuse to use to never start, or go-all-out on a project. What I've learned is to take time out of the equation. For instance.

Old Me: I want to run 6min pace instead of 7min pace? Let's go all-out on workouts meant for 6min pace, and let's set a deadline to do this in 4 weeks.

New Me: I want to run 6min pace instead of 7min pace? Let's run some workouts to get to 6:55 pace, and after a while lets see where we are.

Old me felt pressure to deliver and get to the end-result at quickly as possible, no matter the cost. New me recognizes that so long as I put in consistent quality work, I'll reach my goal without having sacrificed anything.

Old Me: This code is crap, lets rewrite it all. (6 months later I'm staring at an even crappier code that only I understand and can maintain).

New Me: This code is crap but if I do a bit here and there to fix it I'm sure it will do the job. (6 months later I'm staring at a fairly nice code that has matured enough that it is easier for many folks to maintain it).

Old Me: I don't have time to write tests, run benchmarks, and document this code, the deadline is past-due!

New Me: Let's set a completion status that includes requirements for writing tests, running benchmarks, and documenting code. Let's eliminate artificial pressure from deadlines by communicating progress not completion dates.

I had to learn to conquer doubt in software engineering separately from (and somewhat in parallel to) running. But the final application of the lesson turned out to be the same: make small attainable gains on short reachable goals as part of a long-term strategy, repeat.

Today, when I hear the words "this time" or "again", it immediately raises an alarm that something is unsustainable. When over the years I repeated those words to myself in running, I was failing to see that they were indicative of bad habits, and part of a pattern of excuses I would lie to myself with to fake confidence.

July 2015: Two years after I stopped running to both work full-time and attend school full-time I found myself in such poor shape I could barely stand for 15min without feeling exhausted. Two years of working from home and being primarily sedentary had wrecked my body. I no longer needed to work long hours. It was time to reach for something more sustainable, and pay down the debt.

So I did.

I ran for fifteen minutes a few times a week. Then twenty, then thirty. Then I ran more times a week. I kept building, slowly.

When I'd stopped running two years before, a typical threshold workout consisted of 6xMile at 5:05 pace. My VO2 workouts were 10x.5Mi at 4:30 pace. It would have been really easy to compare myself to that and give up in despair. My first two mile run, I had to stop every half mile and walk. I averaged well over 12 minutes per mile, with an average HR of 210bpm.

Seeing numbers like that, I wasn't sure if I'd ever run a fast marathon. All I knew was I wanted to get better each week, and I wanted to get back to a point where I could run ultra-marathons. It didn't matter anymore to me how long it would take to get there. I knew if I put in consistent work I would see results.

So I set very general goals.

  • run more days
  • build more mileage
  • run more hills
  • spend more time on my feet

I stopped thinking about and working on speed and paces and instead turned everything into making small improvements to my base, week over week. A little more time on my feet each week.

And a funny thing happened. After a year, my pace had improved more than I thought it would have. After 18 months I ran a 15:58, 5K having still done no speed work. After 2 years, a 10min 2mile on a hilly, grassy, wet course in humid weather, still no speed work.

Focusing on small iterative gains was also giving me speed. After 2.5 years... This past month I added speed work into my training, and with that too it's a process: a little bit more each week.

That's where I find myself now. Running with confidence and strength. Taking things one race at a time, one small milestone at a time, with an eye towards the long-term. This time there is no this-time. Consistency sets its own deadlines.