“Whatever you do, just don’t let me stop running,” I said to my husband as I laced up my running shoes and headed out the door. “I’ll see you at about 9:45. Remember — don’t let me stop!”
It was 1998 and I was training for my first marathon. I’d completed half marathons successfully. I’d been training faithfully, running every day, with a long run after work on Wednesdays and a longer run every weekend. It was early on a Saturday morning and I was about to run 20 miles. That was three miles longer than I’d ever run in my life.
My husband, not a running enthusiast, had agreed to be waiting for me at mile 18, which is where I figured I’d be in real need of a running buddy, cheerleader, and nag. He was going to run the last two miles with me.
The first ten miles flew by easily as I ran a loop through beautiful back country roads. Somewhere around mile fifteen I noticed I couldn’t just let my mind wander as I ran anymore. I had to focus my thoughts. By mile 17, I had to deliberately will myself to continue.
As I crested a hill and saw my husband waiting for me, I was flooded with relief. Only two miles to go! My bad knee ached and my leg muscles were feeling pretty tight. My left foot, which I’d once broken in eight places during a racquetball game, hurt in every one of those eight places.
“Hey!” my husband said in a friendly, upbeat manner as he fell into pace next to me. “How are you doing?”
“Fine,” I said through clenched teeth. “Don’t want to talk.”
“Ok!” he said happily. Then, a few seconds later, “Anything in particular I can do to help?”
“Be quiet,” I grunted.
“Ok!” he said again, still upbeat. We ran in silence for a couple of minutes, then he said, “Anything you need?”
“I. Need. You. To. Leave. Me. Alone,” I hissed meanly, timing each syllable with a footfall. We ran in silence. I could tell he was glancing sideways at me, trying to assess my condition.
A few minutes later I said, “I’m going to stop.”
“No!” said my husband. “You can’t stop! You’re almost there! You’re doing so well! Don’t stop!”
“I’ll stop if I want to,” I gasped.
“You said I shouldn’t let you stop! I’m not going to let you stop!” chirped my way-too-enthusiastic husband.
I stopped running. He took my hand and tried to pull me along. “C’mon, only a mile to go!”
I swatted his hand off my arm and kept walking. Well, limping is probably a better word.
“Please?” my husband begged sweetly. He turned to face me.
I leaned into his face and yelled, “Back off! I just ran 19 freaking miles and I’ll stop when I want to stop!”
We walked home in complete silence. Later, once I’d unfrozen all my tight muscles, had a shower and a milkshake, I apologized.
I wish I’d know then what I know now: That I was setting my husband up. Finishing the 20-mile run would be every bit as much an act of mental stamina as it would be physical stamina. And that mental stamina came at a price. The sheer willpower it took to run those last few miles would result in some serious ego depletion, the diminished capacity to self-regulate thoughts, feelings, and actions. And because I had to keep telling my aching body that it had to go on and on, I’d be less able to be manage my emotions by the time I crested that hill.
If you find it hard to manage your own emotions during difficult conversations, one of the easiest and most effective things you can do to help yourself out is to time those conversations for when your energy is highest and your willpower hasn’t been deployed heavily just beforehand. If you’ve been resisting those chocolate chip cookies on your assistant’s desk every time you’ve walked by all afternoon, beware.