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May 15, 2019

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blow Up


First off, a confession. I still don’t “love” a blow up, not really. Running the first quarter or half or 90% of your race buoyed on hope and high expectations, only to have your legs or your lungs or your mind crumple well before the finish is not mine (or most people’s, probably) idea of a good time.


I come by the aversion honestly – my job as an aeronautical engineer working on the NASA Space Launch System (read: rocket scientist) is all centered around minimizing risk. I help predict the forces on the rocket while it’s moving and our goal is almost always to come up with the lowest possible set of loads that still cover 99.865% (yes, really) of the possible outcomes. We trade the reward of lower loads, which can help our rocket be lighter and more efficient, against the risk of a force occurring when we finally fly it that’s higher than our predictions, which the rocket may not be strong enough to withstand.  

Human spaceflight is a world where the risk needs to be as low as possible, so is it any wonder that my engineer brain keeps trying desperately to minimize the risk in my running too?  I’m comfortable with uncertainty, but only to a point, and I want numbers to back it up. 

I want to be able to plug my latest track workout or time trial or 5k into the online calculator and have the internet tell me what I’m capable of on any given day. I want a formula for heat and humidity and hill effects, and for what happens when there’s a guy breathing too loudly next to you for too long.  I want to know that the pace I propel off the start line at is one I can sustain the whole race, with maybe just enough for a kick at the end. And the thing is, I can pick that pace if I treat it like a rocket-loading problem – what’s the fastest I can run while being absolutely sure I’ll never have to slow down? 

But the thing is, as any runner can tell you, that’s not the point. The point is not to show off your discipline and prediction skills, to always negative split. The point of racing, part of the reason I fell in love with it, is to push yourself, to find out what you can make your body do on that day, in that race, and to sometimes surprise yourself along the way. In his book Endure, Alex Hutchinson says, “If you execute a perfectly paced race, that means you effectively decided within the first few strides how fast you would complete the full distance.” There are no surprises in safe racing.


The risks that come with a blow up loom large, and not just from a fear of the physical toll. It’s a confidence blow, a sign of training that hasn’t gone as well as you think it has, a referendum on your judgement. Why did I think I could go out that fast? Who am I to think that that time, that podium spot, that level of competition was within my reach? It feeds and confirms every insecurity, every little voice in your head at the end of a workout whispering that you’re not good enough at this, and now everyone will know. 

The thing is, though, running isn’t about avoiding those demons – they find you regardless. It’s about facing them down and going for it anyway.  It’s about embracing the lack of supporting data for your goal (even if it kills me just a little bit inside) and just getting out there and doing the damn thing. It’s about finding John L. Parker Jr.’s Red Line, “where you can lean over the manicured putting green at the edge of the precipice and see exactly nothing.” To find that line, to really nail down the most that you can make your body do, you have to risk a few slips into the nothingness, a few seized-up, breathless hobbles across the finish line. 

So I’m learning, slowly, to embrace those moments along with the victories. I’m trying to see them as a reminder that I’m brave enough to face the risk of failure head on, that I’m strong enough to power through when my body’s not sure I can, and that I’m smart enough to use the lessons from this race to get better. Running isn’t rocket science - sometimes you just need to go fast and take chances. 

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