A couple of weeks ago, during the final miles of my 20 mile race simulation run, I was in pain. It was the kind of pain that you feel in the final miles of a marathon – raw, all consuming, unavoidable. It shocked me a little and it scared me. It scared me so much that I got tears in my eyes and negative thoughts flooded my brain, “Why do I run marathons?” “Why do I even want to do this race?” “Maybe I shouldn’t even run it?” “What if I just dropped down to the half? A half marathon PR sound great and I’m more likely to PR in a half than a full and it won’t hurt so bad.”
I was in a dark place. I was in the middle of some tough training weeks and my mind and body were tired. I had some stressors at home as well which led to some mental fatigue. Suddenly the pressure I put on myself to achieve my goal just seemed too overwhelming. It just seemed easier to give up on this goal I’d been working at for months rather than finish out the training, put myself out there, and feel the pain of a marathon again.
It seems like the universe always sends you the right truth bombs when you need them. Over the course of the next week or so, I found myself stumbling across some really great pearls of wisdom on mental toughness, pain management and the brain’s effect on training and racing. I would love to share them with you, as I know how normal it is for people to have thoughts like mine in the lead up to a big goal. If you’re ever in shoes, I recommend these resources:
1. Real Talk Radio Podcast: Lauren Fleshman on Taking Risks, Enduring Pain, and the Evolution of Relationships.
Lauren Freshman, former professional runner, drops some serious truth bombs during this podcast (I admire Lauren Fleshman very, very much and find her incredibly insightful, honest, articulate, and brave in all her interviews). She explained how she experienced a fundamental shift in how she viewed pain in racing. She has come to embrace the pain and love it, even looking forward to the moment the pain comes.
“Here comes the pain, and it’s your friend. You’re here now, and the work can actually start. Before the pain gets there, you’re not getting any better.”
She goes ton to explain that instead of wondering if you’ll slow down when the pain comes or whether or not you’ll hit your splits – you need to embrace the pain and know it’s making your stronger. Despite the fact that professional runners seem to be running “effortlessly,” she explains, they are all in serious pain. They just manage it well.
I really love Laura’s blog – she’s a mother of two and a wicked fast runner as well as a running coach who offers great advice on her blog. The day after I ran that 20 miler, I was lounging and reading blogs and I absolutely had to read this post she wrote. She recently read two running books on mental toughness and explains one of the things that really stood out to her about racing and training:
“….instead of focusing on the external factors (out of our control), he explores through research and examples that the focus should be more internal.” What I found interesting about this is that she says “External factors include the weather, how well our legs are feeling on race day, fuel strategies and hoping we did enough in training.”
I’m totally one to notice how my legs feel and shift my mindset on how the run will go based on that. I’ve never considered how my legs feel as an external favor but it IS! And I’ve also discovered during this training cycle that how my legs feel at the beginning of a race or a run literally has NOTHING to do with how the run will go. There is no reason to judge how you’ll finish a race based on how heavy or light your legs feel in that moment, because it can change in an instant.
After reading Laura’s blog post, I went out and bought one of the books she was summarizing, “How Bad Do You Want It” by Matt Fitzgerald. There are SO many lessons in this book (in fact I’m only halfway through), but the biggest takeaway for me came at the end one of the stories about a collegiate athlete who was used to winning by a large margin. She entered a race that she thought she’d win easily and instead found that she was being closely followed by an unexpected rival. She ended up ruining her own race because her expectation that she’d win by a large margin wasn’t matching up with the reality of the race.
The lesson learned here is: “You never know how much your next race is going to hurt. Perception of effort is mysterious. You can push yourself equally hard in two separate races and somehow feel “on top of” your suffering in one race and overwhelmed by it in the other. Becuase you never know exactly what you’l find inside that black box until you open it, there is temptation to hope – perhaps not consciously – that your next race won’t be one of those grinding affairs. This hope is a poor coping skill. Bracing yourself – always expecting your next race will be your hardest yet – is a much more mature and effective way to mentally prepare for competition.”
I totally do this. This paragraph was a huge wake-up call for me. I secretly hope that every race I run will be that magical unicorn race that you hear about but rarely happens – the one where everything clicks and even though you PRed, it doesn’t hurt as bad as many of your other races. You negative split and race into the finish line wondering if you actually could have gone harder, despite achieving your goal or PRing. When I reflect on my own PR performances, there is a trend that I have a great day – that there are parts of the race where it feels effortless and wonderful, but there is ALWAYS pain. No matter what. It’s just my perspective on the pain that changes whether or not I let it bother me. And if I dig a little deeper, I remember that even some of my PRs happened on days that I wouldn’t consider my best.
A couple of weeks ago I was in a place of doubt when it came to my fitness and my ability to achieve my goal at CIM. But, after getting some pep talks from these sources and after having a confidence-boosting training week, I’m feeling a lot more confident – and even excited – about race day. One thing is for sure – it will be a successful race if I maintain a positive attitude (mostly) throughout and I give it my all.
Do you struggle with the mental side of racing? What have you found is the best technique for you to get through hard moments in a race?