Re-Defining Our “Weaknesses”

Had I written this post last year, I’m sure the first sentence would have been, “I’m not good at running uphill.”

That’s something I used to say all the time, whether as a preface to a hilly workout I knew I’d struggle with, an almost-automatic default when I found myself falling apart on a climb, or a sort-of fallback after a hilly run course where, as expected, I did not perform well.

But I no longer say that sentence. And as a result, at least in part, I truly am no longer “not good at running uphill.”

Just keep climbing! Working on the uphills last fall. Photo: Harry Lefrak Photography

But let’s start at the beginning…

Uphill running has long been one of my biggest “weaknesses” in triathlon racing. As much as I’ve always loved climbing on my bike, and likewise excelled at it, I’ve felt an equally passionate and not-too-easily-explainable disdain for uphill running. I just simply didn’t like it – probably because it made me feel slow and out-of-shape as hell – and I really was slow at it, by comparison to both my own running on flats and descents, and to my competitors.

To say uphill running has never felt easy to me is an understatement. It used to be that every time I reached a hill in a race, I entered this massive struggle zone that sucked me in, and all I felt was pain. So I’d slow down, slog my way up, count down every last second until I reached the top, and think, “Thank God that’s over.” Then I’d see other racers practically bouncing by, and I’d feel even more deflated. Every time I got absolutely schooled on the hills like this, it solidified my belief that I seriously “sucked” at uphill running.

Maui run
Focused in, sucking wind, and trying my best not to be too miserable on the super-hilly Xterra Worlds run course last year. Photo: August Teague

I was also completely and utterly baffled by how other women could get up the hills as fast and seemingly effortlessly as they did. Of course, they trained very hard to be able to do so. But I trained hard too! They were also in phenomenal shape. But as an elite triathlete, so was I… The more I pondered how these other racers were able to be so amazing at running uphill, and why I by comparison was not, the more I realized that there was absolutely no good reason why I couldn’t be good at it too.

And I suddenly understood that the main reason I wasn’t good at it already was simply that I didn’t think I could be. In that moment, I realized that what I really needed to do most was change my mindset. When it came to uphill running, I’d gotten stuck in a cycle of negativity that only continued to feed on itself. I knew that if I could just find a way to transform that momentum, the improvements would flow from there.

In sport, as in life, it’s good to identify our weaknesses; to know them and confront them. But it’s not so good to continually identify ourselves by those weaknesses…

So after last season, I made a decision: I was no longer going to be a “bad uphill runner.” And I was no longer going to hate running uphill. I wasn’t going to identify myself that way anymore, and I wasn’t going to hold myself back by that kind of belief (or lack thereof).

This was a distinct change of approach, and I bought into it fully, and committed to seeing it through. I knew it would take specific changes and a particular focus in my training to really see significant progress in my uphill running, but that above all it would take mental training. Before I could ever actually be a good uphill runner, I needed to be able to see myself that way. But first and foremost, I needed to convince myself that I actually liked running up hills.

So I practiced constantly.

While I used to avoid hilly routes in training to every extent possible, I started seeking them out. I ran uphill as often as I could, working to find small bits of progress each time, and latching on to them like my life depended on it. While I used to often switch to a walk on bigger climbs in training, I forced myself not to do that when I knew I didn’t really need to. Initially, it was a big conscious effort to push through those moments where I used to give in. Honestly, it sucked. But every time I wanted to say that, whether out loud or to myself, I changed my thought process, and turned every ounce of energy toward convincing my mind it was actually happy to be running uphill, and getting better at it every single time.

Eventually those moments came less frequently, and I became increasingly confident in my abilities to push through them. I was able to run longer and longer distances uphill without getting that “I think I might die” feeling, and my times gradually started to drop. Most importantly, I started to feel like I truly was enjoying it, rather than just pretending.

It wasn’t long before I found myself actually feeling excited for the climbs, rather than dreading them, as I did for so long. And like a domino effect, those positive thoughts soon led to more positives. The more the momentum grew, the more fun I had out there, and the more I continued to believe in myself. And in turn, the more I believed, the more momentum I continued to gain.

While I certainly can’t claim to be any sort of superstar uphill runner these days, I can absolutely say with confidence that I’m no longer “bad” at running uphill. I no longer feel disadvantaged when I reach a climb, and I no longer count myself out. In my first few races so far this year, I’ve actually found myself thriving on each punchy climb, carrying a pep in my step I’ve never known before, and a grin instead of a grimace (at least on the inside!). For the first time ever, I’ve actually felt stronger on the climbs sometimes than I did on the flats, which was something I never thought would happen!

The transformation I’ve been able to make in just a few months time has been significant – and I know it’s mostly because I was able to change my mind.

I made the decision to change the way I saw myself, and in turn I have begun to change my outcome. I think deep down I’ve always known this potential was there for me, but I just couldn’t seem to tap into it. I’d considered myself a “bad” uphill runner for so long, and counted myself out so many times, that I didn’t quite know how to do anything different. But I’ve learned these past few months how to not just focus on my weakness, but re-think what that word actually means, and change the way I perceive it. I now see my “weaknesses” merely as opportunities to become stronger. And perhaps, with a slight change of approach, you too will find that when it comes to your weaknesses, you’re actually a whole lot stronger than you think.

Feeling IN my element on the uphill (finally)! Photo: August Teague

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Rory says:

    Yeah! Watch out next you’ll start running mountains! I always thought it was mindset too, so I found the steepest things I possible could and ran them a bunch till I liked it too. And on one particularly miserable run I started calling the uphill run mindset “vertical humor” – you see the next hill and instead of groaning just start laughing haha!

    1. karalapoint says:

      Vertical Humor – I love that! Great approach. I’ll try my best to laugh those hills in the face next time! 🙂

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