“The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
There is a fine balance – in training and racing – of mental focus and physical preparation. I imagine every athlete has experience unifying these two forces. That being said, this is my struggle lately. At first it seemed my brain needed a pep talk; now it’s time for tough love.
This training cycle is posing quite a psychological challenge. My mind is distracted by its own negative, doubtful opinions. They’re assaulting my confidence. These thoughts convince me to stop running when I can clearly continue. They cause me to question the validity of my latest goal. Rather than feeling emboldened, I’m left feeling uncertain. It’s time to confront this.
Two years ago, Runner’s World published an article about Kara Goucher’s struggles with confidence. While I’m obviously not the same caliber runner as Kara, her experience with self-doubt is familiar. I, too, have a tendency to internalize similar feelings of doubt and fear. By containing and suppressing these emotions, rather than proactively tackling them, they resurface at pivotal moments. In doing so, they demand attention and action. My brain is warning: “You thought you were past this, but you’re not. Deal with it now.”
Part of the problem is difficulty accepting my own progress as legitimate. When I started running several years ago, my runner friends were highly supportive. Some became mentors. They are experienced and they are fast! I devoured their advice, leaned on their support, and assumed I’d never be as fast as them. Thousands of miles and many races later, I’ve caught up to some of my mentors’ running times. Logically, that’s the product of practice and improvement. Emotionally, I find it difficult to believe I’ve worked my way there. I can’t yet pinpoint why I feel this way.
Back to the Goucher article. Something I learned from her sports psychologist is the importance of focusing on my own progress. Advancement won’t come from comparing my abilities to others’. I understand how comparing becomes a hindrance: concentrating on my mentors accomplishments, or other people’s goals, erects a mental barrier to my own ambitions. “How can I push for Boston when so-and-so, whom I perceive to be faster than me, hasn’t yet done it?” See what I mean? Put the blinders on and look inward. If I trust in my training, I’ll see my abilities are within my control. If I examine how far I’ve come, I’ll reaffirm my potential is no accident.
Kara’s psychologist also advocated the use of affirmations. It’s time I start reminding myself I’m worthy of my goals. I am not reaching for some unreasonable, unreachable brass ring. My goals are based on careful consideration and a healthy desire to advance. I mustn’t continue to short-change myself. I will earn my next marathon time on my own merit. Last week a friend told me, “I know you. You’re not afraid of things being difficult. You’re not looking for easy.” True. I need to remember this as easily as friends see it.
To help break down some of my mental barriers, I’m re-reading “Women Who Run With the Wolves” by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. A colleague recommended this book ten years ago. In my 20s, the book was interesting. In my 30s, it’s become truer to my experiences. Estés extols restoring trust in instinct and tapping into a fighting, wild nature inherent in everyone. (Although her book is vastly female-focused, I believe the concept’s applicable to everyone.) By November, I plan to strengthen trust in my psyche – it is strong enough to dismantle self-imposed obstacles and reach goals unapologetically.
One passage in the book states: “So often a woman feels then that she lives in an empty place where there is maybe just one cactus with one brilliant red flower on it, and then in every direction, 500 miles of nothing. But for the woman who will go 501 miles, there is something more…Don’t be a fool. Go back and stand under that one red flower and walk straight ahead for that last hard mile.” This reminds me of the fortitude required for long distance running, and life in general. Don’t be deterred; when it seems there’s nothing left, push through and reap the rewards. It may be a challenge, but the good news is: I can handle it.
Week two of training was a bit slower for me. Wacky schedule and achy hip flexor meant I spent more time resting than cross-training. Probably not ideal, but that’s how the week played out.
Monday: Rest day.
Tuesday: Repeats. Confirmed early morning interval sessions don’t work well for me. Muscles don’t have enough time to warm up. Will look to move these workouts later in the day. Was not able to meet pace this session. Bit frustrating, but it’s early in training yet. Also, 100 V-crunches for core.
- Total = 4.97 mi – 41:32 – 8:21 min/mi avg pace
- Plan = 4 x 800m @ 6:48 min/mi
- Actual repeats = (1) 7:05; (2) 7:05; (3) 7:06; (4) 7:16
Wednesday: Rest day. Did some stretching.
Thursday: Tempo. Enjoyed this run. Comfortably met pace despite heat/humidity. Cut cool-down short by nearly a mile due to terrible incoming storm. Like running in the rain; in lightning, not so much.
- Total = 6.11 mi – 51:27 – 8:27 min/mi avg pace
- Plan = 5mi @ 8:23 min/mi
- Actual splits = (1) 8:26; (2) 8:20; (3) 8:19; (4) 8:19; (5) 8:08
Friday: Rest day.
Saturday: Long Run. Fifteen mile run at marathon pace + 45 seconds. Contended with achy right hip flexor, which loosened up after stretching. Felt stronger toward end of run than beginning.
- Total = 15.01 mi – 2:14.20 – 8:57 min/mi avg pace
- Plan = 15 mi @ 9:08 min/mi
- Actual = 15.01 mi @ 8:57
Sunday: Cross-training. Spin class – 45 minutes.
Total weekly mileage: 26.09 miles
See all weekly training recaps here.
Today’s workout was trying. My legs felt asleep during an early round of 800 meter repeats on a muggy day. I pushed and focused, yet still missed my target pace. Frustrating, but it happens. As disappointed as I felt, I kept it in perspective. It’s early yet in training. The bad workouts still serve to strengthen me. As I wrapped up, I caught sight of someone I find a wonderful role model: an elderly stranger, whom I’ve seen on occasion, running.
I don’t know this man. I know neither his name, his story, nor his motivation for running. What I do know is admittedly superficial: his brisk shuffling gait, his steady pace, his forthright and inward expression. His dedication is obvious. For several years I’ve spotted him on my early morning training runs, regardless of weather.
More than once, this gentleman’s unknowingly lifted my spirits. He’s become a source of inspiration: an undaunted everyday athlete, with slight physical challenges. The sight of him instantly refocuses my mindset. If he can, I can. If he can move without complaint, so can I. If he’s not deterred from accomplishing his workout, then neither should I. His impact lasts beyond the moment he passes by. I think of him often when I’m struggling to make my own body cooperate on the run. Every single time I see this athlete advanced in years, I feel grateful. Perhaps one day I’ll tell him so.
Then Baker mentioned feeling fortunate to be able to swim, bike, and run. He runs in honor of those who can’t. When the pain in a race or training becomes unbearable, he thinks, “I am alive. This is what it feels like to be alive.” I can relate to, and appreciate, his sentiment. Last summer, I witnessed my 93-year old grandmother’s health rapidly deteriorate. To see her in the hospital – undeniably in pain, enduring procedures on her weathered body – was scarring. Despite becoming physically slight, she remained emotionally solid. Regardless of her own ordeal, she was never distracting from thinking of others. Those were the last circumstances in which I saw her.
When I ran my first marathon the following November, this thought was solid in my mind: “When I hurt, it’s a good hurt. I am choosing this pain that makes me stronger. No matter what I feel today, it will not be as awful as what Grandma went through.” And so I continue to draw inspiration from this significant woman.
The incredible thing about inspiration is it’s dynamic. It can come from an experience, a thought, a person – strangers, friends, or loved ones alike. One source of inspiration may last a moment, may help us through a specific period, or persist a lifetime. For me, it’s come from simple acts of kindness, genuine encouragement, other people’s accomplishments. It’s come from ordinary moments that are no less than amazing, and it’s been ignited by people of all ages.
For each moment of inspiration, I am thankful. To each source, I am happily indebted.
“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
An old injury resurfaced on a relatively easy tempo run last week. I wasn’t in pain; but the tight muscle prevented me from adequately dropping pace. The solution was simple: I took a roadside stretch break. While the muscle responded and my body became cooperative, my mind latched onto anxiety. Not surprising, it was now my state of mind that quickly impacted the run.
My mind wasted no time spinning what-if scenarios. “How will I get through 15 weeks of training if this is how I feel now?” “What am I going to do if this injury flares up again?” “What if my goal is completely out of reach and I’m being delusional?” The mind plays awful games. I pulled myself off road again for a silent pep talk. “No negative thoughts. Push them out of your head. Leave them here on the road, Lora, and move on.” A few deep breaths with resolve and I ran the rest of my run at target pace.
Negativity is a manipulative force, which proliferates once we give it slightest credence. It becomes easier to enable a defeatist thought than combat it. This happened at the NJ Marathon. When I was physically tired, my mind said I was burnt out and overpowered my body. I spent the rest of the race fighting myself. Succumbing to that situation felt terrible. I believe the physical discomfort of persisting would have been less painful than the emotion that lingers. The experience made me determined to withstand negative thoughts during training and racing.
A few ideas are helping me:
Hits of Grace – In a recent yoga class, the instructor spoke about “his of grace.” These are moments where we experience sudden ease, joy, peace. They may be equally intense and fleeting. The instructor urged us, as we struggle through difficult times, remain open to small instances of happiness.
I’m quite fond of this concept. During my workouts, I look for surrounding positivity. I search for people, situations, or emotions that inspire and bring joy. I use these simple things to fuel my run. When I see someone else persisting, I supplement my resolve with that energy. The act of looking outward, beyond myself, helps me notice things I would otherwise overlook. Thus it not only benefits my running but enriches my every day life.
Counting – Some workouts are destined to be tough and creaky. Running on concrete legs, for example, or with a mind laden with heavy thoughts. If I can’t shake these feelings, I start counting. As I run, I carefully and evenly count to 100. And start again, and again, for as long as my run lasts. It may sound boring, but perhaps that’s the point. Boring is better than negative. The repetition occupies my mind and allows my body to hit its natural running rhythm. I view it as running on autopilot. Occasionally, a few rounds is enough to clear my mind and feel present. But if that doesn’t happen, I count until the workout’s done.
Think of the Journey – Some days, I simply remind myself how far I’ve come. I recall how I felt first learning to run. I think of when running 90 seconds was a struggle. I remember a conversation with a friend when I couldn’t yet break four miles; or how I felt nervous to tackle my first 10K. I remind myself that I’ve survived summer training before; and that disheartening runs teach more than sublime ones. Sometimes, I need to see I’ve surpassed obstacles to be where I am now. I take a moment to appreciate that I’m still learning, progressing on my own will to succeed. If that doesn’t turn my spirit, I’m not sure what would.
I’m certain experience will reveal other ways to overcome hindering thoughts. Just realizing negative thoughts impact happiness and performance is a big step. Actively countering doubt with appreciation, strength, encouragement, or meditative neutral space takes effort. I view it as an emotional investment – one that will pay off on race day, and beyond.
~ What are some ways you counter negative thoughts in training?
Week one of training went quite well. I’d upped my mileage the preceding week in preparation. My body adjusted to schedule and increased workout intensity. The week is successfully in the books!
Monday: One-hour form review/refresher with certified Chi Running instructor. Great opportunity to brush up on proper running form. Finished with 100 V-crunches for core.
Tuesday: Repeats. Miscalculated target pace. No wonder it seemed easy. At a minimum, good practice executing repeats with even effort.
- Total = 6.4 mi – 54:16 – 8:27 min/mi avg pace
- Plan = 3 x 1600m @ 7:53 min/mi
- Actual repeats = (1) 7:51; (2) 7:52; (3) 7:51
Wednesday: Cross-training. Evening Asana yoga for 1:15. Easy, restorative session. Also, 15-minute core routine using Nike Training Club app.
Thursday: Tempo. Tight piriformis muscle initially interfered with dropping to target pace. Quick stretch session helped alleviate muscle. Also, 50 triceps bench dips and 100 V-crunches for core.
- Total = 6 mi – 49:23 – 8:13 min/mi avg pace
- Plan = 2 mi @ 7:44 min/mi
- Actual splits = 7:42
Friday: Rest day.
Saturday: Long Run. Thirteen mile long run at marathon pace + 30 seconds. Bumped it up to 13.1 to make a proper half marathon.
- Total = 13.1 mi – 1:54.17 – 8:42 min/mi avg pace
- Plan = 13 mi @ 8:53 min/mi.
- Actual = 13.1 mi @ 8:42
Sunday: Cross-training. Spin class – 45 minutes.
Total weekly mileage: 25.5 miles
See all weekly training recaps here.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
I spent much of yesterday contemplating Lincoln’s quote. His words evoke an image of deliberate and unhurried preparation. My mind conjures an introspective Lincoln, honing the blade with which he’ll approach his arduous task. It’s a striking message about the power of patience.
The time has come for me to prepare, as well. Sixteen weeks of training await. I’ll be drilling my body in order to run 26.2 miles faster than before. I’m tempted to let a wave of fresh enthusiasm drive my training. But as I’ve learned through experience, enthusiasm has led me to over-pace, over-train, and burn out. Rather, I will invoke patience.
The first day of training called for cross-training. I intended to do my usual Monday yoga. However, I received a message from my friend Joel, a certified Chi Running instructor. Joel and I have been discussing running lately. He’s aware of my Boston-bound goal. In a wonderful gesture, he invited me to join his evening Chi Running class. The hour-long session served as a refresher on proper running form. What better way to begin training than to return to the basics and reset?
The evening’s Chi Running had a positive impact on my first speed workout. Although my legs felt heavy, I ran my warmup slow and careful. Remembering Joel’s recommendations, I concentrated on foot strike and arm swing. Eventually my legs began to loosen up. I used the recovery intervals to calm my heart rate and practice good running form. In the end, I hit my target pace, and finished feeling strong.
Patience has never been my strongest attribute, but I’m ready to embrace it. As Australian marathoner, Robert De Castella said, “Running well is a matter of having the patience to persevere when we are tired and not expecting instant results.” With my first training run complete, I’m confident this is the right approach for me. It will keep me focused, my body relaxed, my mind sharp as an axe.
“Do not lose heart, we were made for these times…”
Clarissa Pinkola Estés
It is nearly impossible, now being a runner, to imagine not loving running. Technically at some point I didn’t, because we weren’t yet acquainted. This is true. But once a runner, my love became ardent. I love running for fun, running to train, running to race. All these reasons go hand-in-hand for me. Picture my dismay, then, when I began to feel ambivalent about racing. Did these sudden lukewarm feelings mean my fire for running was in jeopardy?
To date, I’ve run 40+ races of varying distances. I built short races into my training for half and full marathons. I’ve raced just for the heck of it. I always showed up feeling that competitive edge. Then I plodded my way through the NJ Marathon. Despite a PR, the race was a classic example how not to run a marathon. I came away disappointed by the experience; and more so disappointed in my execution. After a few weeks recovery, I went out to run a 4-mile race and the NYRR Mini 10K.
The Mini 10K is one of my favorite NYRR races! I couldn’t wait to run it for the third time. Unfortunately, I lined up feeling mentally worn out (just like in the 4-miler). My body was running, my legs were fine, but my brain wasn’t pulling its weight. The competitive drive dissipated. I found myself pushing through to finish and walking away nonplussed about what just happened.
I had no way to explain it other than I didn’t feel like racing. The typical NYRR Central Park course was starting to resemble Groundhog Day. Running the same circles nearly every race was turning tiresome. These park races are so convenient for me, I’d never questioned the repetitive nature of the course. Racing there meant I could be out early, run, wrap up, and easily get on with my day. But recently, I thought, “why bother?”
After considering this lull, I began to talk about it with runner friends. Quite a few, especially the veterans, confirmed this is a normal cycle. The thrill of racing has its highs and lows, they said. They reassured: take a break from racing; run just to enjoy running. The desire to race will come back.
I decided to heed their advice before my next marathon training cycle. I backed out of several shorter races and showed up to spectate instead. I’d never done that before. If I wasn’t running a race, I wasn’t typically there watching. This change in perspective began to help me. From the sideline, I witnessed everyone from professional athletes to back-of-the-pack runners unleash all their efforts. Seeing a race differently – not in the midst of a weaving crowd – made me appreciate the respect racing deserves.
What then occurred to me was how casually I’d been treating racing. I raced to the point of exhaustion countless times after saying, “I’m going to take this one easy.” Why was I utterly disregarding my intentions? Maybe it’s inexperience, or uncontainable enthusiasm. But the effect was clear: I had nothing left to give my most important races. I now realize races need to be assigned a priority. Racing for fun should be kept light and relatively easy. Racing for a goal means having a strategy and heeding it. I need to be more structured here. Striking the balance between discipline and passion will take some practice.
While I’m taking my short hiatus from racing, I’ve reconfirmed the most important part of this story: my love for running. My runs lately have been without time or mileage goals. They’ve been run to enjoy, or to clear my head, or just because I can. I’ve been more open to taking in my surroundings as I go. I’ve spent less time looking at my Garmin for pace, and more time letting my body achieve that rhythm that makes me feel I can run forever. For me, this reconnects me with the basic foundation of the sport.
All this has left me ready to start marathon training feeling fully present. The routine will ensue and strategies will be set. I have some half marathons lined up as training runs only. This time, I’m leaving the racing for the NYC Marathon. So come November, I feel that competitive pulse that tells me, “This is what you trained for. Now’s the time to leave it all on the course.” And I will.
“From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines.”
Mental fortitude. Many motivational quotes allude to the mind’s remarkable power over body. I read one recently: “Your legs are not giving out. Your head is giving in. Keep going!” This made me realize I’ve had both these moments in racing. Ones in which I’ve kept a positive perspective over exhaustion and discomfort; and ones where I’ve slowed to a crawl because I felt mentally defeated. Seeing the effect of these attitudes on my running teaches me the importance of preserving a healthy mindset. Free your mind from its perceived limits and your body will respond.
Perceived is key here, I believe. Balancing realism and a dream is important. I have lofty goals. Does it mean I’m physically capable of all of them in the near future? Not necessarily. One day, perhaps? Hope so! It’s a process: Have a dream, set a goal, practice and strive, reassess, and move forward. Goals are dynamic for a reason. They change as we evolve.
So, in order to help me achieve my marathon goals – any life goal, really – I’ll be working on my brain as much as my body. I give myself permission to dismiss unfounded doubts and demolish perceived limits. I must remember discomfort is not evil, it is the sign of growth. I will remind myself that being scared or afraid to fail means I’m on the verge of incredible change.
Still, none of this will prevent people from sharing their opinions on the matter. I value solid advice and constructive feedback. My mind is open to adapting and considering alternative methods. That doesn’t mean I’ve compromised my goals. I simply need to remember that no matter the advice, or the person sharing it, they are not an authority over my abilities. Only I can accurately interpret how that information fuses with my personal motivations and ambitions.
Though I may hear the NYC course is “too crowded” or “too hilly” to attempt a Boston Qualifier, I know how the city’s powerful energy affects my motivation. I know I’m not afraid of a hill; it actually provides relief. I know the emotional charge of seeing that finishing incline in Central Park, where I’ve run thousands of miles, is a homecoming.
I’m ready to wage the war in my brain. The doubtful thoughts will come. The negative opinions will surface. No big deal, right? What seemingly limits me today shall be beneath my feet tomorrow, lifting me to a stronger version of myself.
“All endeavor calls for the ability to tramp the last mile, shape the last plan, endure the last hours toil. The fight to the finish spirit is the one…characteristic we must posses if we are to face the future as finishers.”
Henry David Thoreau
It’s time I return my focus to NYC Marathon training. I’m happy being on a training plan; the structure of a schedule and building toward an end-goal suits me. A new chapter begins as I plug workouts into my calendar, calculate training paces, and dust off lessons learned from past marathons.
The Furman-based training plan from “Run Less Run Faster” will be my constant companion for 16 weeks. I used its beginner version for NJ Marathon. This time, I’m using the advanced plan. Built around three key runs per week, the biggest difference will be higher mileage of the long training runs. The plan calls for five 20-milers. Yes, five! I’m interested to see how my body responds to this. I feel confident in my decision to use this plan, and am reassured knowing I’ll adjust training, as required, to stay healthy and injury-free.
When I ran NYC Marathon last year, my goal was to finish the race feeling well. I did that easily enough – never bonking and finishing with energy left to burn. This year, I’m aiming for a time goal. While I’m still nailing down specifics (yes, this close to training), I know I’d like to PR. That means clocking a finish time faster than 3:53. That’s my “safe” goal. But the dream goal? To be Boston-bound!
My long-term goal is to earn a Boston Qualifier. Hinting at my age here, I’ll need to run a 3:40 or faster. Can I achieve that in NYC? The drive to BQ in my hometown is strong…crazy strong. I’m aware I must account for factors like the crowded course and the inclines. Having run a flat course (NJ) and the NYC course before, I prefer the challenge of the inclines. I find they help provide some muscle change, rather than taxing the same muscle groups continuously. They also provide concrete mini-goals during the race: “Make it over the Queensboro Bridge and you’ll soon see First Ave!” “Put the blinders on, Fifth Avenue Hill and then you’ll be in the park – home stretch!” Keeping all this in mind, I need to focus on my mental fortitude to push through. Though there’s a need to be realistic and constantly re-evaluate during training, I’ll fuel the fire with thoughts of Boston.
A big factor in training and racing successfully will be making adjustments from “lessons learned.” It’s not the most fun part of training – digesting past mistakes – but it’s critical. I made my fair share of errors in the NJ Marathon. Fortunately, I was aware they were happening. Don’t ask why I knowingly went ahead with mucking up – that’s another story. The positive outcome is I learned more about what worked for me in terms of pacing and gear.
Some things I’ll be working on:
- Ditching the fuel belt and using fluid stations instead. Became an easy choice, really, when I threw my fuel belt away on the NJ Marathon course. But, I won’t replace it!
- Pacing for a negative split. I accomplished this in last year’s NYC Marathon; I blatantly screwed it up in NJ. A return to conservative, smart pacing is unquestionably in order.
- Pacing slower on long slow distance training runs. With five 20-milers looming, I need to pace smartly on these longer runs. I want to finish feeling stronger, not depleted.
- Limit additional racing during training season. Last season I scheduled quite a few shorter races during training. While I don’t necessarily think that’s such an awful idea, racing each one on the verge of “all out” took a toll on my training. Specifically when I raced the NYC Half Marathon to a huge PR, without recovery time. A host of injuries arose after that, which compromised my full marathon potential.
Other modifications will come as I move through this next training cycle. My key things to remember are: train hard; train smart; be flexible with my plans and expectations; and enjoy the excitement that envelopes the city during NYC Marathon season. It’s an amazing experience; I’m fortunate to find myself here again!