The race, the marathon, is a renewal of belief in one’s self and the ultimate expression of confidence that you have created the foundation that enables you to go the distance. (Dolores E. Cross, Breaking Through the Wall )
A friend recently asked me whether I always love running. I realized that I don’t love every run, but I do usually love something about the run. Most times, I just love the physical act of running. Sometimes I love getting away from something or someone else that is weighing heavily on me. Sometimes I love the feeling of having pushed myself to do something just a couple of seconds faster than I did before.
Sometimes, I love a run because of what it took mentally to finish the run. In the May issue of Runners’ World, Greg Melville’s article,”Eye of the Prize” talks about a problem that is near and dear to my heart: mental obstacles. I have a love/hate relationship with these things. On one hand, they make a run really challenging. On the other hand, there is nothing quite like finishing a run that felt like a mental minefield.
Have you ever stood at the starting line of a race, and realized that you are not alone? I’m not talking about all the people jammed into the corral with you. I’m talking about the constant chatter that you can’t drown out with any ipod. So I was quick to read Melville’s article. He actually names the voices, and here they are with my experience (and apologies to the author):
- My inner worrywart – This is the voice that says that I haven’t done enough, that I didn’t eat the right things, that I didn’t drink enough water, that it’s going to be too hot (or cold)…You know the one: It’s talking constantly from the time I wake up on race day. (It actually takes over from the voice that has been telling me all night that I’m going to sleep through the race!)
- My inner slacker – I don’t know about anyone else, but I much prefer my long training runs over my speed workouts. At some point in every race – from 5k to marathon – I realize that I have dropped into a very comfortable, very familiar pace. Unfortunately, it’s usually my LSD training pace. This voice seductively tells me to just stay there. It seduces me with such siren songs as “relax—this is a fun race” and “you’re not that fast anyway, so just chill” and “slow down-you need to save plenty for the finish.”
- My inner competitor – I train with some pretty fast people. They help me to improve during training, and I am a much improved runner because of them. But when I listen to this particular voice, I am at risk of not honestly assessing myself. There is no better way to sabotage my own race than to try to run someone else’s!
- My inner quitter – This is the voice that seems to have appeared in the last 10-15% of every run I’ve ever completed. It shows up on the track, on long training runs, on the treadmill, and in every race. Suddenly, I can mentally switch from a “this is a great run” to “why would I ever have thought I could do this?” It can last a second or it can plague me until I’ve finished.
I know that I am completely powerless over all these voices. They are going to come. It’s what I do with them that counts. I had no tools to deal with them in my first couple of races, but – just like most things in life – I had to experience them to learn how to work through them. I can’t think my way into understanding the mental aspects of running; I run my way into that understanding.
In fact, I believe that I can turn these negative voices into my best companions. I now rely on the worrywart to make sure that I arrive early enough to warm up and that I am as prepared as possible so I only have to run during the race itself. I know my slacker’s going to show up, so I have a checklist that I mentally check off during the race, so I can identify the slacker quickly and make the necessary adjustments. That competitor? I try to call on her to counter my inner quitter. I use her to find someone just in front of me and try to catch or pass them. While I’m focused on trying to pass them, I can’t very well quit!
Because ultimately, there is another voice that keeps me moving. Years ago, my mother gave me a gold-embossed leather plaque that simply says, “It can be done.” I can guarantee you that when she bought it, she never dreamed that “it” would mean finishing a marathon. But I can tell you that when I feel like I have nothing left, when my legs feel like lead, that’s the voice I hear. Loud and clear.
So I really do believe that running is a mental game. Everything learned up to the current mile contributes to the success of the next mile. Every run is an opportunity to bring my head and heart into a union with my body. Who knew that would be the goal?