a new mindset for racing
At the race director’s signal the pack surrounding me pulsed into motion. Runners who had massed at the start a moment ago burst through the black arch and flooded onto the trail like a torrent unleashed. I climbed through the forest in the early morning light, riding the wave of energy. We ran through thinning trees and burst into the sun, hanging a left at the Loowit trail. 30 miles later, after circumnavigating Mt Saint Helens, we’d reach this junction again and sprint downhill to the finish.
In this race, my second 50k, I was wary of going out too fast, but the pace felt slow and it seemed to me that this pack was in need of a leader. I took a breath and pushed out in front as the trail disappeared into a blocky minefield of broken volcanic rock, bleached wooden fenceposts the only indication of the route. I wanted to run my race.
In college, I ran competitively three seasons of the year. In the fall cross country, in the winter indoor track, and in the spring outdoor. In every season I hated racing. I saw racing as a test of who I was, a chance to lay it all on the line and come up short. I loved running, but I had the sense that every race was a chance to expose my weaknesses. I measured success in outcomes. How did I place? Where did I fit in the hierarchy of my team? Did I run faster than last time? It took me years to realize there was another way.
After the stress of racing in college I was burned out on running in general and racing in particular. I kept running, but I didn’t fall back in love with the sport until a friend introduced me mountain running. Long, slow affairs where our goal was to travel far and enjoy the beauty of big terrain. Using my feet to explore these wild landscapes opened up new possibilities for an old hobby, and rekindled my love for running.
As I began to explore the new places running could take me, I spent more time on the trails going farther than I ever had before. I began to wonder, how fast could I go? What would it feel like to race again? I liked seeing myself as a fast runner, and when the thought of racing came up, so did my old fears. Racing meant a chance to fail. No. Worse. Racing meant the chance to expose my inadequacies, my weaknesses. I kept hearing about trail races all over the PNW, but whenever my curiosity piqued, fear kept me from toeing the line.
Then I encountered an idea that completely changed my view of racing. The epiphany came via a book. Mindset by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck is an exploration of two different ways of viewing your abilities and working with challenges. In her book, Dweck defines the “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset”. The fixed mindset is characterized by the belief that one’s abilities are fundamentally static. You’re awkward or witty. You’re a fast runner or you’re slow. The growth mindset is characterized by the belief that your abilities can be developed. You might not be a very good storyteller now, but with focused work on form and structure and a lot of practice you could spin a yarn. You might be slow, but you could be fast. Mindsets are often deeply ingrained, but it’s possible to change your mindset with awareness and work.
A key differentiator between these two ways of thinking is how challenges are perceived. The owner of the fixed mindset, believing his capacities to be static, only accepts challenges where he knows he will be successful. He sticks to the guitar riff he knows he can crush, he enters the local 50k instead of that hundred he’s been dreaming about. Challenges are a test of one’s innate ability.
The owner of the growth mindset seeks challenge, which she perceives as an opportunity for learning and growth. She knows she needs to see her abilities with clear eyes to improve them. She’s not interested in maintaining an illusion (or self-delusion) of herself as more than she is, and she’s not afraid of shattering that illusion with a poor race outcome, a crudely drawn sketch, or a campfire song sung off-key. She relishes challenge because it helps her improve.
The mindset a person has determines what motivates them. The owner of the fixed mindset is externally motivated. To him, the way he performs against himself matters less than how he stacks up against others. He wants to win. He craves validation of his ability. If he doesn’t get it, he’s failed. Naturally, he looks for ways to win and makes for bad company when he doesn’t. He throws tantrums, he yells at his girlfriend when she tries to comfort him. Being externally motivated makes accepting challenges fraught because what matters is how you perform against others. Success is largely outside your control.
The owner of the growth mindset is internally motivated. She’s driven to learn and wants to be her best self. What matters to her is that she puts in the work and lives her values. Writing a critically acclaimed novel doesn’t drive her, neither does winning a trail race. She enjoys those validations of her effort, but they’re not what brings her back to her work. The work itself is what matters. If she’s raced bravely only to be brought down by that nagging achilles injury, so be it. She’s still succeeded. She drops out of the race with grace and jokes with the aid-station volunteers until they can help her from the course. Being internally motivated makes taking on challenges less intimidating because what matters is performance against your own metrics. Success is largely within your control.
“Mindset” showed me a different way to think about racing. I could race to learn, because I was curious, and for the pure fun of it! I would learn as much from a bad race as a good one, and as long as I worked hard the effort would be worthwhile. I could race for my own internal motivations. I got to decide what success meant.
I jumped into some trail races in Forest Park. I was nervous, they were hard, but I enjoyed them. I raced a difficult 50k in Utah and was surprised how good it felt to push myself and really know what I could do. The opposite of what I’d feared was happening. Instead of proving myself inadequate I surprised myself with my abilities. Now I was really curious. Over the next couple of years I ran more trail races. I still got nervous, the same fears came up. But, as I practiced with this new way of thinking I started to make peace with the fear and stress that came with racing and began to see it as an opportunity to learn, a chance to get better at something I loved.
Back at the Volcanic 50k I was climbing out of Toutle River Canyon with 20 miles to go. The sun was in my face for the long climb, dry sand churned underfoot. At a switchback I looked behind me and was surprised to see the other racers had fallen far behind. I checked my excitement, I hadn’t done anything yet. I pushed my pursuers from my mind, turned back to the climb in front of me, and kept digging. For hours I ran alone through the sand and rock, baking in the sun, driven by a desire to leave everything I had on that 30 mile mile loop. Around the mountain, through the last boulderfield, back into the trees and, finally, through the black arch to the finish. I’d won. I was proud of the way I’d finished the race, but most of all I was proud that I’d been brave enough to start.
To learn more about Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets, see Dweck, Carol. Mindset. Ballantine Books, 2006/2016.