A smile spread across my face as I jogged out of my friend’s driveway, hitting pavement in the morning hush. The familiar running rhythms spread through my body. I lifted my eyes, surveying dewy cornfields spread for quiet miles. A pink, bouncy-ball sun peeked out above the tree-lined horizon. This is going to be a good run, I smiled, ignoring the fact that I had 18 miles staring me in the face.
Inhaling a prayer of gratefulness, I laughed out loud at the morning’s beauty. Last night’s thunderstorms left a cool breeze and some wisps for clouds. I begged God for more cloud cover as I rounded my first turn, heading west, and the sun rose higher.
A trip to Indiana for a friend’s wedding meant last week’s long run was a bit of a guilty pleasure—flat country roads are my familiar Midwestern playground. I scheduled three six-mile out-and-back loops, setting up a fueling station near my car. That morning, my sentimental gratefulness soon ground to a halt as dark, negative thoughts crowded out my mind’s sunny atmosphere.
This year’s marathon training has hit me pretty hard in the mental game area. Lacking the wisdom of Solomon, I signed up for Ohio’s hilliest marathon for my first 26.2 mile race. I reasoned that since I would be training on hills in Pennsylvania that a hilly race would be no big deal. Besides, several reviewers mentioned that the hills “aren’t so bad” and “break up the monotony.” Several first-timer marathoners also praised the race’s organization and experience, so I thought I was making a good choice. HOWEVER. Let me be the first to say that running/racing on hills definitely takes some practice. The hills I’m training on are destroying my times, not to mention my brain game.
Long runs on hills have been abominable. Besides applying laser-like focus to dynamic stretching, race nutrition, hydration, and negative splits, I’ve been working at developing hill techniques, which include adjusting my stride and ignoring my times (but not too much!) Erg. IT’S SO HARD.
Lacking success in most of these areas, I nearly accepted the mediocre non-progress I’d been making. I was so grateful to just finish 18 miles last weekend on flat roads just to remind myself that I can actually run that distance (on flat roads, that is).
But the mind games! I find it so strange that my body is stronger than my mind! I ALWAYS have more when I get to the end of a run. It’s my MIND that refuses to cooperate, offering these sort of passive/aggressive de-motivators:
“You’ve worked enough, maybe stop running for a bit.” “This isn’t that important of a run.” “In this humidity, it’s impossible to give more.” “If you give everything you’ve got, you’ll run out of steam.” “Careful, that’s too fast.” “See? There’s no way you can keep that pace.” “Hills? That’s for athletes, people who actually run.”
FOLKS, IT HAS BEEN ROUGH!
I’ve been aggressively googling “How to Improve Your Mental Game,” and finding glib little mantras to repeat to myself during my runs. Which, strangely, actually help. Things like,
- “Be ‘now’ focused.”
- “For hills, focus on effort output. Keep the effort the same as straight stretch running.”
- “Being overtime is good, just pull back a bit. Being undertime is good, all you need is a little more. Turn BOTH statements into positive ones.”
- “What you do in training, you will do on race day.”
- “Run the race that you know you can.”
- “Finish every run with a half-mile hard effort, no letup, not an inch short.”
- Plus Christopher McDougall’s mantra from Born to Run, a la Tarahumara: “Think easy, light, smooth, and fast.”
Other bits of advice I’ve been clinging to are:
- “Pessimism is a runner’s top mental roadblock.”
- “Negativity, whether it’s worry or doubt, often leads to self-defeating behaviors including slowing down, cutting a workout short, or dropping out of a race.”
- “Fatigue is simply a sign that you need to put your mind on something positive.”
- “Determine what you want to accomplish the most, and make the necessary lifestyle changes to make that dream a reality.”
- “If you take action, results follow. Do speedwork; get faster. Eat less; lose weight. Stop negative thinking; punch through pain.”
I’m a pretty cynical person. I’m not the type to draw strength from little mantras, quotes, or self-help. But it’s been so illuminating for me to notice how my thought patterns of negativity, pessimism, and cynicism have been affecting my running, effectively destroying my progress! (Not to mention the that I’m sure these thought patterns affect me in more than just running.)
I’m learning to silence the cynic by simply being more positive, celebrating the tiny wins, and, despite non-progress, continuing to make good self-care decisions.
For example, besides the syrup-slow adjustment to hill training, I’m focusing on sleep. Eight or nine hours is the goal at this training volume, but with school back in session (WELCOME BACK TO SCHOOL!), sometimes I’m doing well if I get six hours of sleep a night. In any case, I’m working on guarding my sleep like a dog and I’m honestly turning down social invitations in order to *not die* from sleep deprivation. #whateverittakes
Interestingly, after weeks of disappointing non-progress… after weeks of avoiding friends, fries, and ice cream… and after weeks of mediocre runs, unmet goals, and apathetic eating… I HAD THE MOST FANTASTIC TWELVE-MILE LONG RUN on Saturday!
Leading up to the run, I *ignored* the mediocre, flat 18-miler the week before, and instead carefully trained and hydrated, even skipping a run, choosing sleep over training. Throughout the week, I filled my crockpot with protein and healthy carbs. I bought gluten-free bread in hopes of it curing a fueling problem.
After a solid 9 hours of sleep Friday night, I trudged to my kitchen and calmly ate my peanut butter & honey (gluten-free) toast and sipped my earl gray. The temperature was barely above 60 as I strapped on my running belt full of water, Gatorade, and GU gels. Feebly trotting up the first hill, the dark thoughts returned with a vengeance and never left until mile 4. But by mile 4, I was running faster than goal pace, which I kept inching toward until mile 10, when I just let loose and ran like crazy! I seriously did not start “working” until mile 10. The gluten-free fueling, the perfect weather, the focused mind control, weeks of persistent training, and resolve to GIVE YOUR GIFT resulted in one of the strongest runs of my life. (Pennsylania motorists were probably more than a little curious at my silly grin which I could not wipe off my face.)
I keep forgetting how daily decisions are an investment in the future me. I’ve never been more surprised at digging deep and finding strength. But this week I was reminded how daily discipline is the key to lasting strength. This has spiritual meaning for me beyond running, so while I’m celebrating a somewhat frivolous “win,” I continue to ponder the possibilities of the future me, and how my daily decisions support (or don’t support) that person.
And I’ll work on ignoring that little Cynic on my shoulder.