I don’t know why an ice cream truck pulled up right before the JV2 boys race started, but I can tell you that I didn’t appreciate Fur Elise belted out in ice cream truck tones at a frenetic tempo on repeat. I’m guessing the truck didn’t set J in the best state of mind either, although I’m not sure if he was processing the ice cream truck or background noise before the air horn started the race. I suspect he had been ruminating in his anxiety long before we pulled into Grand Forks for his meet.
J started out of the gate at a decent pace, making sure to keep up with the pack (which happened to be entirely made up of fellow Spartans. COVID and participant entry limitations have been an interesting experience so far!) but already I knew his head wasn’t in the race. Almost instantly he was reciting his anxiety narrative, full of “anxious numbers,” on the verge of tears. Steve called me from the other side of the course to let me know J was struggling at a half mile in. A few minutes later, I could tell that it was bad. I could hear him struggling before I saw him come up over the hill. “Potbelly!” he yelled out at me (we had promised him we’d go to Potbelly after the race if he ran his hardest). “Yes!” I yelled, “you’re doing great. You run hard and we’ll get Potbelly shakes,” but I could tell that promise wasn’t doing much to help him settle down. He was still crying. He was still reciting his anxious numbers.
W and I ran to the next part of the course to meet him, and the whole time I kept thinking, we need to calm him down. We need him to stop that anxious narrative. We need to remind him to calm down but in a way that doesn’t stress him out even more. I quickly ran through a few phrases in my head. “Calm down!” Nope. That’s what I say to him when I’m angry at him when he’s freaking out about something. “Settle down!” Nope. That’s what teachers say when they’re frustrated with a class of disruptive students.
“Relax! Shake out your arms!” I said, dropping my arms at my side and shaking them out like wet noodles to show him. It was the only thing I could think of. That’s what a lot of runners (including myself) do when they start to feel tight. But J’s right arm is already a wet noodle at the side of his body when he runs. Technically, his upper body isn’t tight at all when he runs. But for some reason it seemed to work–at least to help him settle his brain for a few minutes. “That’s right, relax for a minute. You’ll be okay.” And he was okay for a minute.
He kept running the course, and I could tell he was panicked again (he’d start to cry then surge for a brief minute because he was angry, then he’d slow down again to cry. I could literally see his mental state in how he was running). For the rest of the race, that was my strategy when he passed me. Just try to get him to relax, even if it’s only for a minute or so.
Somehow he made it through the race without dropping out. We talked about it afterward and I asked him why he was so anxious. The weather, after all, was great for a race. He had been so pumped to run (he had told me all week that he was excited to run his meet in Grand Forks. This is the first year where I’ve heard him talk about being excited for running in the meets).
“I’m anxious about the pandemic and school starting,” he said.
His mental meltdown had nothing to do with running at all. School starts Wednesday. This was all about the pandemic and school.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. He had struggled a bit with practices this week and when I asked him why he was so edgy, he had given me the same answer. And over the years I’ve learned that J’s mental state is directly related to how well he will run. If he’s worried about school or fire drills or anything else, he’ll run a terrible race. He gets mentally jumpy and derailed.
I can’t blame him. I’m feeling the same way myself. I’m a little anxious about school starting. It’s a brand new schedule (my kids are in school for three days, then home for two). It can change at any given time. I read the news and see the stories about other schools across the US starting and their COVID cases spiking. I’ve just come out of last week with all of the extra mental load that comes with back to school prep (running kids to doctor’s appointments, filling out forms and paperwork, etc). J’s senior pictures are Thursday. I’m running my virtual marathon Saturday. I’m working really hard right now with being present in each moment of each day. (I’m getting a little nervous for my virtual marathon on Saturday–I’ve never run 26.2 miles in my life. I’ve trained for 8 months and worked hard, but that mileage isn’t in the workout plan. I just have to trust my hard work will be enough to carry me through the race. If I think too far ahead, I’ll derail myself.)
One day at a time. That’s what I keep telling myself. Focus on enjoying each last workout. Focus on celebrating the first day of J’s last year of high school. If I think of all of the baggage and “what ifs” around each moment, it just causes unnecessary stress. It’s a lesson I’ve learned over the last few years. It’s a mindset that seems even harder to stick to during a pandemic.
There are so many unknowns I can’t control right. I don’t know if there will be XC meets past September. I don’t know if the races will be shut down before then. I’m not sure how long face to face school will last. It’s so easy to let those unknows take over and then suddenly you find yourself worrying and wasting your mental energy over things you don’t even know will happen.
So J, thank you for reminding me through your race to take a moment every once in a while and just mentally relax and shake it out. Thanks for sticking through your race. You and me, my friend, we’ll get through this next week.