The Inner Voice

“Your mind will give up before your body does.”

I can’t find the correct attribution, but I know I heard it while watching the Olympics in a segment about the long distance runners.   It’s one of two quotes I remember from the Olympics, and it resonated instantly within me.

The Olympians talk about not just being physically strong, but also mentally strong.   How far can they push the limits of their bodies–and their minds?  Their tolerance for pain, their need for air, or their ability to maintain a singular, mind-numbing focus on one tiny objective?

The inner voice can’t be discounted in anything, but especially when pushing your personal boundaries.   I think that’s why I’ve always been drawn to solitary disciplines.   Growing up, I ran track and shot archery, both which are extremely individualistic.   I played oboe, an instrument where most bands and orchestras, if they have one, usually only have one or two.

At the end of our coached rowing sessions, we tend to have a pow wow where we can only talk about ourselves and our rowing that day, and if we understood what we were being coached about.  Usually, I don’t know if our coach or anyone else noticed, I always say something short and simple like, “it was fine,” or, “it was good.”   The truth is, by then, I’ve had all the coaching I want from inside my head and the last thing I want is to rehash it.  I’m tired of that stupid inner voice berating stroke after stroke.   It goes a little something like this:

“You didn’t keep your elbow up. Eyes up. Catch the water. Hang on the oar.  Make your butt slide back first.  You didn’t press down at the release.  Come on–you know better than that.   Hold your damn slide!  Sit up!  You just rushed stroke seat.  Keep your weight into your pin.   10 for light feet.  10…9…8…elbow up!  Darn it–10 for keeping your elbow up!”

So by the end of the row, I want silence.  I know what I did wrong because it usually annoyed the tar out of me for 5000 meters.

My inner voice is more critical than all the political attack ads put together in an hour-long special.  I read my writing and immediately find the faults–not enough action words, typos, lack of voice and figurative language.    One glance around my classroom reveals everything I’m not pleased with and wish I could change.   Even a walk through my tiny cottage and I’m berating my inability to stay organized and be a 1950s woman keeping every glass table shinier than a flashlight.   The glory of my inner voice is I can keep this thoughts to myself.   No one else needs to know them and I don’t offer to share them.

My inner voice has never been a cheerleader.   Then I started running again.  I dreaded that first run–how out of shape was I?  Could I even make it a mile?  Would my shins swell up and knees ache and bruise, forcing me to limp painfully home?  Should I just give up and resign myself to waking up at 4:30 a.m. so I could fit in enough biking time?  I set a goal: Run 10 songs on the new Linkin Park album.  If I could make it to the end of 10 songs, I’d have run 32 minutes.    “Go slow,” my inner diva directed.  “It doesn’t have to be fast, just long.”

I finished the first song, and my critic said, “See?  You made it one song.  You can make it one more.”  And each song, it became, “you made it two more…three more…four more…”

Then the fitness tracker’s robotic voice: “One mile–in–twelve–minutes–thirty-two seconds.”

“You made it a mile!” the critic said.  “And your legs don’t hurt.  You can run just one more.”

At five songs, “Five songs down, five more to go.  You’re halfway there.”

“Two more songs.  You can make it!”

And when I began to stumble and struggle as the last song began, I began to whine at myself.  “Do I really need to keep going?”

“You promised yourself ten songs.  You can make it through the last one.  Don’t give up now!”

“But it’s only one song.”

“Who cares?  If you give up now, you’ll just give up on race day.  Is that what you want?  To give up on race day?  To let your team down?”

The critic pushed me on all the way through the final song and when I stopped running, I could feel how smug and pleased it was.

And it didn’t stop there.  My inner voice cheered me on through the successive runs.  “Look–you passed that tree earlier than before.  You’re running faster than last time!” and “See that girl ahead?   She may be running faster, but she’s going to tire out.  You are a tortoise.  You may be slow, but you keep going!   See!  She stopped!   You can do this!”

It’s weird to hear my inner voice cheering me on for a change.   I didn’t realize how much my personal cheerleader had evolved and become so important to my psyche until I erg tested.

I understand the value of outside encouragement–nothing is better in the homestretch than to hear your name or your team echoing across the water–but during my erg test, the outer voice began to drown out my inner voice.

“You’re doing amazing,” It would say.  “Keep that 2:09 spilt.  You feel great so keep it going.”

“Casey!  Back it off!  2:12!” Outer voice would answer.

Repeat a dozen times.  Or more.   By the time I entered into the last five minutes, the outer voice was constantly yammering.  It was trying to be positive and encouraging, (“you’re killing it, girl!”)  but it wrecked my concentration.   I needed focus, to zero in on what my body was telling my mind it could handle and my mind pressing it on–not giving in.    All it could say was, “I wish that voice would shut up and let me row my piece.”

In the end, we are all our biggest critic–but we should also be our greatest cheerleader.  I’ll probably never stop mentally berating myself on the water (you should have heard me this morning!) but I’m starting to discover the value of self-encouragement.    I believed I could run a 5k, and I almost did without stopping. (I only stopped after running with a massive cramp for half a mile.)  I believed I could row a better spilt than a 2:14–and I did.  I even believe I can row sub-2:10.    We need to believe in ourselves and our abilities.  Yes, it’s going to take some tough love and serious pushing to break through those barriers.    And no matter how many people are on your team, or in the boat with you, in the end, you’re always on your own.   No one’s going to tell you “you can do it!” because they’re all too busy rowing.   You need that little voice letting you know you are capable of hanging in there just a little bit more.

Everything I’ve accomplished in the last few weeks is thanks to the little person in the back of mind reminding me, “don’t give up.   Your mind will give up before your body, no matter how much it hurts.”

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About camckenna

I teach; I write; I row.
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