I think some of how we deal with pressure is innate. Like speed I think that you can develop what you have but a person who has a natural physical reaction to shut down or get overly charged up they will never have the ice water that runs in their veins. Just as a inherently slow person can get faster but will never be a world beater in the 100 meters.
I do not think I was born to be in a pressure cooker but still at my best I have always been able to handle pressure.
As a kid I remember being in a little league game. I was not much of a player. I came up to bat with two outs in the last inning we were losing by two runs and the bases were loaded. I have heard that in such situations the ball can appear to be as large as a grapefruit or as small as a pea as it comes flying in towards you depending on if you are a cool cucumber or a high strung flyer. I experienced neither.
Instead the first pitch it appeared the pitcher was just tossing the ball to the catcher like he wanted a new ball. It was so damn slow. I was shocked. I didn't swing. I was confused. Why was this kid throwing the game away. The kid in right field was half asleep. I had never hit a ball to right in my life but it seemed so easy the next pitch floated in as slow as the first I punched the ball into right it was as easy as if I had tossed it up myself to hit fly balls to my brother. A bases clearing triple.
Still I was not a sure thing. In 8th grade I had a chance to make the varsity xc team for the championship races. It was down to me and another kid. I had beat him in the last two races. It was the first race one of my parents came to. I wanted to be on varsity in junior high. I wanted to impress my dad. A race had never been so hard from the gun. I fought and fought. For the first time that year at a home meet my time wasn't faster than the time before. I was our 8th man. No varsity, no championship races. Our team won our state class meet, the qualifier for the all state championship. I watched. Pressure had come and I had cracked.
Over the next few years I would do better. More and more I would succeed when it mattered. At my first state championship as a freshman it was the first time in my life I finished higher than 5th man for my team.
The next time I failed under pressure was as a senior. My team had graduated and I qualified alone. I needed a win. Nothing else would be good enough. I was a decent runner but two of the best preps in a generation, Andy Powell and Franklyn Sanchez where in my race. Yet I needed a win. I knew the odds but I couldn't give up. By the night before the race I had lost all appetite. I failed. 10th the year before I was in 6th coming into the home stretch and I was done. If felt the whole field went by. I finished 23rd. But I grew stronger.
I was knocked to a slow heat during my only run on a 200m track during the indoor season and was pissed off and over emotional like only a teen can be. I took a deep breath and forced out the anger and ran the best race of my life to that point from the front lapping the field.
Before the state qualifier outdoors my mom and her boyfriend had a roaring fight late into the night. An hour before my race her boyfriend arrived at the meet obviously incredibly drunk. He wanted to apologize for the fight the night before. In his state he didn't realize the scene he was making was far worse than the lost sleep the night before. I didn't even think it weird until after the race. I was in the zone. I ran a PR and qualified for my first state track meet as an individual.
In college I continued to generally run my best when it mattered most unless I was hurt. But I had not met real pressure.
A the day after arriving for my final NCAA cross country championship I got a message. My brother had attempted suicide. He was a few months back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan and I hadn't been there for him. I was wrapped up in my life. He was alive but hospitalized. My reaction was to get to him. However I didn't come from a family with money. The price of even changing my ticket home to go home was not the kind of money I had or I could get. I'm sure if I had asked for it the school would have paid to send me home but I was not the type who could ask for that at that time. I also felt I owed it to my team to run.
In a race in which I should have been in the top 20 I ended up around 50th. I just couldn't dig down and get the kind of effort I needed. I couldn't hold my focus or my drive. It hurt for sure but the effort didn't yield the results. To run a great race you need to drive the whole world out from your head and live your entire life in that race with no distraction. As though you are in a dream and you did not exist before and you will not exist after. I could not drive the world out from my head.
Running after college brought new pressures. Racing for rent money brings a different kind of pressure. Traveling to a race alone when the race pays for your hotel, your tickets, your food, basically spending more on getting me to the line than I had ever had at one time in my life to that point which brings a certain type of pressure to perform. Racing early in the morning after arriving late the night before because of flight delays.
Each of these new things and each repetition of them builds your ability to drive out pressure to let it roll over you like rain. Other pressures arise in life and build the same things. I ran in Lowell, which can at times be a tough town, for many years and my road etiquette is let us say a bit sub par. So over the years I have had a number of confrontations and even a few guns pointed at me. These things are all types of pressure and you must learn to act in a calm and thought out way with these pressures.
In this time frame a small non-running incident sticks out in my mind as a moment in which I grew in terms of my ability to perform under pressure. I rented a room in a house near the UMass Lowell campus and one night I was making some chicken. I put oil in a pan I had just washed and not dried well and as it heated I breaded the chicken. I put an ill fitted top on the pan when the inevitable popping and what not started as the oil heated and reacted to the water on the pan.
I heard it light on fire behind me. I felt the heat even before I could turn to see it. The entire pan was engulfed in flames, you couldn't see it. The flames went fully up the wally and curved out over my head on the ceiling. I knew we didn't have a fire extinguisher, I checked under the sink and on the cellar stairs lighting fast to be sure. I didn't know you could put a fire like that out with baking soda or flour. I knew you couldn't put an oil fire out with water.
I knew by the time I called the fire department and they arrived the kitchen would be gone. Who knew if the guys I lived with had insurance. I opened the kitchen door. At this point less than 10 seconds had passed since the pan had lit on fire, it felt like a lifetime. We didn't have oven mits or pan holders, we were after all a group of grad students or just out of school guys. I calmed my mind and separated myself from my hand. I reached into the flames and grabbed the pan. I carried it the ten feet across the kitchen to the door and tossed it out into the snow. I used my shirt to quickly stomp out the bits of the wall and celling that were on fire. I opened the windows and scrubbed the burns and smoke stains out of the wall and celling and called the kid who owned the house. I knew I was burned badly though I must admit I was a bit shocked as I gingerly tried to was the smoke stains off my hand and wrist to watch chunks of skin roll away.
Pressure takes many forms and each time we do what is needed under it. Each time we face it and manage to pull ourselves together and stay inside our heads we develop the ability to handle it better the next time.
The Olympic Trials is for many, myself included, the biggest race of your life. In the build up to the '08 marathon trials a few weeks out I was dumped by my fiancee at the time. In the long run this was a great thing as I ended up with Melissa, but at the time time I didn't know that. Having something like that happen in your personal life is a huge jump in pressure. Also my shoe contract had only been extended for 6 months to get it just past the trials with the clear point that if I didn't do something there it would be the end of that support. I remember at the time Gary freaking out that I was in such good shape and that this girl could just break things off so close to the biggest race of my life. I was in a place where I couldn't see the big deal they were separate. When the workouts started I didn't have a personal life, when the gun went up on race day I wouldn't have anything but the race.
On race day I was aware of the insanity that is running a race like that. There are just so many huge stars and the TV crews and the crowds. Yet there was an relaxed focus. It would go well as long as my body would work.
Each of these types of pressure are different. What pressure is hardest for you to deal with varies for each person. As you can see from the stories above most of what I had the hardest time with are either life stress or are internal pressure. To be honest I have always put a huge amount of pressure on myself. I always have even as a child. I need to be exceptional and nothing I accomplish is ever good enough. On the other hand I really don't care about most external pressure. In someways this seems rude or embarrassing to say but I generally don't care what other people think of me. Don't get me wrong I care what my boss thinks because I want to keep my job. Things like that. But in terms of feeling like I need to prove myself to others it just isn't something I feel a huge drive for. First I don't feel bad when someone tells me I suck. It just isn't something that bothers me. More over I don't enjoy when someone compliments me or tells me I have done good. Actually I don't believe them. So it has never become something I have needed or wanted.
Now for a few years now there has been no external pressure in my running. Interestingly I have continued to put much of the same internal pressure on myself even though I have not been competing on a high level. Suddenly though I have done nothing to earn it I'm getting interviewed again and being talked about and so there is external pressure again. I actually noticed it only because my foot started hurting and the reality that I might not race Boston came into my mind and here I'm getting all this undeserved attention.
Still I haven't changed. I don't know how exactly to describe it but basically it is like rain on your face. You feel it but it rolls off. It doesn't change anything. From my perspective the only thing I want is to get to compete again and to do these workouts and all that matters is what I want and how I feel about it. Still it has been kinda nice to feel a bit of pressure again. Feels like the running matters a bit more and it is nice.