Toughness isn’t something you are born with. It’s something you earn when you have to do something that is hard.
Running to me is the foundation for my toughness. Growing up in Chicago, one athlete that I respected the most was Walter Payton. He was not as physically gifted as Bo Jackson. It was because he was tough.
I remember watching an old documentary about him and how he used to run this hill by his house every day. This hill was at a 45-degree angle and about 60 yards long. Payton's way of training was to grind himself down to near death.
It probably wasn’t the most efficient way to train. But the level of toughness that was gained was undeniable. Walter Payton only missed 1 game in his NFL career out of 190 games in arguably the most injury-risk position. Nothing kept him out of games.
This inspired me in my own training. When I was training to play football, I used to run 300m repeats on the minute basically until I couldn’t run 300m in a minute anymore.
It wasn’t about the physical benefits of running, it was about the mental.
The real competition is against the little voice inside you that wants to quit — George Sheehan
Running Helps You Face Yourself
To be tough, you have to come face-to-face with yourself. Toughness isn’t something you are born with. It’s something you earn when you have to do something that is hard.
Running can become a perfect choice for that. You’re doing something that is relatively simple but also can be as difficult as you want it to be.
Runners know those moments when they wanted to stop.
We’ve all had moments in our life where we stopped something and we knew we had a little more.
Often, those opportunities don’t arrive when we expect them.
You only get one shot at that presentation at work.
You only get one chance to write that paper.
Running gives us the opportunity to prime the mind to give all we have. Every day we lace up, we can choose to give it our all or give our best. Or we can choose to check the box and move on.
Most of our battles in life are going to be you vs you.
Running Creates Presence
Toughness doesn’t need an escape, it needs presence. When you are tough, you learn to lean into the things that are making you uncomfortable instead of running away from them.
Most runners know when they reach that point where all the mental chatter starts to evaporate. As often as I listen to music or a podcast while I am on a run, there comes a certain point where I’m not even listening to it and I am only paying attention to the world around me.
The feeling of the cadence, the sound of the feet hitting the ground, and the pace of the breath creates a level of presence that is hard to explain.
If you are in a race that is truly challenging to you, this also creates presence. When you get to the point where you feel like you hit the wall, nothing in the world matters other than doing the next task.
If you cramp, get some salts and hydrate.
If you bonk, get some food.
If you’re hurting, get to the next aid station and massage your leg out.
Running has taught me that to get past the pain, you need to lean into it instead of running away from it. When you run away from the pain, all that happens is the brain tries to push that signal to you even harder to get your attention.
When you stay present and with the pain, you tell your brain, “I know it’s there and I will do my best to manage it.”
Running Builds Discipline
Toughness is often built through discipline. It takes being tough to be consistent day after day even when you want to quit.
Take an early morning run for example. You hear the birds chirp, the streets are quiet, and feeling the crisp morning air has a feeling like no other.
However, waking up in the morning isn’t always easy. The bed sheets feel nice. The mind says, “Stay in for another hour. It’s comfy.”
This happens even when you are preparing to do something that you find enjoyable.
Discipline does not come naturally to everyone. It has to be strengthened like a muscle.
When you choose to run to the goal that you set for yourself, you are building discipline. When you decide to go that extra mile because you told yourself you would, you’re building discipline.
Opportunities for discipline can come at any moment during a run. Heck, there’s been times when I’ve been on a run and have been tempted to ride an electric scooter home because I didn’t want to run the extra 2 miles. I have finished my runs every time but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a part of me that wanted to push back.
Discipline isn’t something you obtain and keep. It’s something you have to build and maintain.
It’s easy to fall out of discipline but it’s difficult to keep it up.
Running gives you a daily opportunity to build discipline. It lets you exercise that “discipline muscle” deep inside of us.
I know that every day I go for a run, I ultimately eat healthier, do better work, and am a better partner to my fiance.
Running Shows You Possibilities
Every time I finish a race, I know where I stand. In April, I ran about a 45-minute 10K. This led me to think, “Is it possible for me to run a sub-40-minute 10K? I didn’t even train specifically for this one.”
After I finished my first ultramarathon, I gained the confidence that I can go 50 miles on foot.
Every time you finish a race that is pushing you, you level up. It shows you the possibilities of what you are capable of.
I believe many of us have no idea what we are capable of. Ten years ago, I didn’t think it was possible for me to run anything further than a marathon. I read Dean Karnaze's book Ultramarathon Man and assumed that he was a genetic freak who could run super long distances.
I was wrong. There are some things that most of us are capable of that we haven’t even tapped into. We leave more on the table than we realize.
Being tough is about pushing and finding your limits. You actively seek out your ceiling and see if you can put a little more into it.
Our possibilities are often governed by how we perceive ourselves. Running can give you an outlet to test your limits and ultimately change how you perceive yourself.
Racing teaches us to challenge ourselves. It teaches us to push beyond where we thought we could go. It helps us find out what we are made of . — Patti Sue Pulmer
If I didn’t run, I think I would be a weak and bitter person. The normal existential angst that I have been turned up to 11.
I would probably overcompensate in other areas of my life.
Running became the perfect bridge for me to continue athletic pursuits after I finished playing football in college. It allowed me to keep that tough mentality that I had playing football and carry it over into another area of my life.
Toughness is something that you have to consistently work on or you will lose it.
Running can become an outlet to be consistent about working on your toughness. Every day can be a challenge. Some days will be easier than others. You never know when the easy days will come and you never know when the hard days will come.
Toughness is about being able to handle those days with grace and managing them to your best capability.