Channel your inner Hare—even if you may be a Tortoise.
Growing up, I was irritated at the tale of the “Tortoise and the Hare.” Secretly, I always wanted the Hare to win—I mean, he was clearly the fastest—irrespective of his crappy attitude. The facts pointed to him “deserving” to win. So why did the Tortoise get the victory lap? This whole line of thought was ironic considering that I was never one of the fast kids. Intuitively, though, I believed that the fast animal should win. I also understood, however, that the Tortoise totally won because he was persistent, not cocky, and kept moving forward. At the end of the day, being a Tortoise or a Hare doesn’t actually matter—it’s what you do with what you have. Actually, the Tortoise seems to be my spirit animal now that I am all grown up. I have finished four iron distance races channeling my inner Tortoise—mostly because I had no Hare in me. Even when I run the ever-speedy 5k and drum up some love from my non-spirit animal, the Hare, I am still like a hybrid Tortoise-Hare.
What gives? Like Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights,” I just wanna go fast. I wanna go fast! That is the first plan. Step one: go fast. Got it. Now, how do I go fast? For starters, it’s easier to run fast when you weigh less and have less mass to move. Check. Okay, I get skinny and then I will be fast. Turns out that “getting skinny” is the dumbest thing that anyone can actually set as a real goal. For a Tortoise, “getting skinny” is not so much an impossibility as it is an unrealistic expectation, and sets the Tortoise up for all sorts of weird emotional roller-coaster rides. Sure, a Tortoise can lose weight and get fitter. Sure. Easy! If it was so easy, wouldn’t everyone in the world be a Hare?
So getting skinny to find the Hare isn’t the answer for everyone. I have worked my tail off for well over the past year at this elusive “getting skinny” proposition, and while I have lost pounds and tons of body fat, I am still a Tortoise. That wants to go fast.
I have found that the number-one rule in getting faster is defining, in your own mind, what speed actually means. This is a difficult thing to do, because it’s very easy to start the compare-yourself-to-others game. Defining speed as something totally objective—and not subjective—is the default for us. Of course, I suppose that speed is objective. However, I have found that defining what “fast for me” means—instead of fast on an objective scale—has unlocked all sorts of barriers for my swimming, cycling and running speeds.
When I did my first 5K back in 2010, I pushed myself as hard as I thought I could go at the time, and ended up with a time just under 39 minutes. Objectively, sure, that speed is technically quite slow. For me at the time? Straight off the couch with zero running legs under me? It was fast. Over the past five years, I have worked to get faster—which isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do while training for long course. The ever-speedy 5K isn’t something that I ran very much over the course of Ironman training—but I did get faster, regardless. Now, instead of chasing the sub-30 minute 5K, I am now chasing the sub-27 minute 5K. While I won’t win any land speed records, a sub-27 minute 5K for me would be screaming, Ricky Bobby fast—and I look forward to hitting that mark at some point. But in this process, I had to learn what fast meant for me, and for my body.
Next, I have found that it’s OK to go “fast” and be absolutely terrified during the process. The first time I cranked up the treadmill to 8.2 (again, fast for me), I thought I was going to die. I really thought to myself, “Today is the day that I fly off this damn thing and hit the treadmill behind me in a violent, flailing scene—head split open and people snapping pictures and uploading to Instagram with #swimbikedead #hereshelies #triedtogofast.” But I cranked the treadmill up, and I ran. I didn’t run long at that speed, but I did lots of intervals—I think 30 sets of 30-second intervals at an 8.2 with 30 seconds of rest in between. And it was OK; I did not perish. Allowing myself brief moments of speed and glory—also known as interval training—has really worked to build my confidence. Knowing that I can go “fast,” even if just for a blink in time, is an amazing feeling.
Finally, allowing myself to be majorly uncomfortable has allowed me to test my speed and find what I am truly made of. I have found the 5K to be one of the most brutal races on the planet. Because 3.1 miles going as hard as you can is really a tough thing to do. I have found that for the most part, Tortoises of the world don’t come to running with the knowledge of what going “fast” actually feels like. I have news for us Tortoises—going fast really hurts. The lungs burn, the quads rip from their proper places, and skin and sweat flies in all directions. Parents shield their small children from looking at you—and it’s awesome. We Tortoises, historically, tend to push to a certain limit—like the start of breathlessness—and back off, because it hurts. Which is why Tortoises are great for long distances races. We can putter along all day in Zone 2, because it feels easy, and we are comfortable not going into the dark places at fast paces. When you ask a Tortoise to put on the Hare cape and go run a 5K, we tend to resist.
Being consistent, persistent, and relentless and wearing a tough shell are all amazingly fantastic attributes in our sport. I am sorry for, in my mind, giving the Tortoise such a bad rap all those years I thought the Hare was better. Neither is better—they are different and each is admirable for many reasons. The Hare sometimes allows the ego and objective speed to get the best of him. The Tortoise can get discouraged for a million other reasons. The best bet is to have faith in yourself, and be proud of all of your efforts and races—but to always ask yourself if you are doing the best you can with what you have. I challenge my fellow Tortoises of the world to really push themselves in the next running race or workout. Ask yourself if you can channel your inner Hare, just for a little while, and see what you are made of. You might be surprised and learn to believe that “fast for you” is sometimes exactly all the fast you need.
Meredith Atwood is a wife, mom, attorney, Ironman, coach and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She lives in Atlanta and blogs at SwimBikeMom.com.