Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Mental Game

Yogi Berra is credited with saying the game of baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical. A similar percentage is true for a competitive runner on race day. Prior to toeing the starting line, the runner has invested countless hours physically training. But the training is now done. On race day, the challenge becomes more mental.

I think the mental part of the race is where we often fall short. Somehow we find it easier to train the body than to prepare the mind. And of course some runners neglect mind preparation altogether. Then when our race results fall short of expectations we almost always look back at the running portion of our training plan for answers. Rarely do we even consider the problem to be mental preparation.

For me, I’m normally mentally tough in races up through half marathons, but marathons and ultras test me. I cured my mental weakness issues in ultras years ago. I quit running them. However I still occasionally run marathons, so I’ve developed a mental tool to help me get through the last 6 – 8 miles. Sometimes, around 18 miles into a marathon, my body starts sending the message that it has had enough. By 22 miles, the message can be screaming loud. Although this doesn’t happen in every marathon, it happens enough that I know I need to be mentally prepared. So I plan in advance exactly what I’m going to think about if the race gets difficult. This year, I picked Greta. I’ll assume the 2 or 3 people who might read this blog know her last name.

For a little history, back in 1978 Greta ran her first marathon - New York - even though her longest training run was just 12 miles. She was in a lot of pain during the late miles but pushed through to the finish. In doing so she set a world record. She had no idea she had set the record. She only knew she had pushed through the pain. The pain did not win. She went on to become the “Queen of New York” winning 9 times and setting additional world records.

Greta had always been an inspiration so it was an easy choice to pick her to help me through my marathon. Prior to the race, I read several articles about her. I read the RW's article about her first marathon several times. The more I read, the more I got inspired. I admired her toughness and knew I’d made the right choice.

As it turns out my marathon didn't go to plan. I didn’t feel well and was tired early. The last 8 miles were extremely painful. Had I not been mentally prepared, I may have stopped. But I didn’t. I focused on Greta. I thought about her toughness in that first marathon. I saw her image in my mind’s eye. And I kept going with everything I could possibly get out of my body. I missed my goal but I pushed hard the entire way and still ran a respectable race. I didn’t allow negative thoughts to enter my mind. The pain did not win. I was mentally strong because I was mentally prepared. My body didn’t live up to my goal, but my mind was a big time winner. I finished proud.

Yogi is also credited with saying "If you don't know where you are going, you might end up somewhere else". Maybe he was talking about mental preparation.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Marathon

On Saturday, November 12, I ran the Richmond Marathon. My finish time of 3:08:04 was good enough for 143rd place out of over 5200 starters - in the top 3%. My time was also good enough for 2nd in my age group and good enough to beat my Boston Qualifying time by nearly 37 minutes. Problem is,,,, my time wasn't good enough for me. I missed my goal significantly.

The few people close to me know I don't care anything about awards for beating other people. And I don't care much about Boston either. Just not my thing. Instead, I set time goals for myself - times that are challenging yet achievable. At least when I set them I believe they are achievable. At Richmond, I had a goal of 3:00:00. I also had a back up "I can live with goal" of 3:05:00. I bombed on both goals.

A 3 hour marathon is a 6:52 pace. At my age and ability, I knew the 3 hour goal would be difficult. But after I had run the Davidson Half Marathon in 1:25:00 and the McMillan calculator verified my 3:00:00 goal was achievable, I decided to go for it. I felt I had trained well with multiple pace runs at a 6:45 pace, so I was confident. However, on race day I was behind my goal times from the start and struggled throughout the entire race.

So what happened? It's hard to say.
Maybe it was health. I had a pretty rough cold leading up to the marathon and had to take a heavy dose of medicine the night before in order to get any sleep. However, I felt better race morning.
Maybe it was stress. My work has been a nightmare over the last month.
Maybe it was ability. I've never been a great marathoner and although I've run a few under 3 hours, perhaps those days are behind me.
At this point, I don't know exactly what happened. I know it wasn't my mind. My mind got me through the last 8 miles when my body was screaming to stop.

Probably more importantly, where do I go from here? Do I make another attempt at a 3 hour marathon? I'm aging with limited marathoning ability so maybe I should lower my expectations. But I struggle giving up on a goal I think I can meet. So like all marathoners, after a few days of recovery, I'll most likely analyze what went wrong and how to fix it. Then I'll decide where to go from here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Approach

What??? You're telling me a guy in our running group has completed 168 marathons? And another guy has run 140 ultramarathons. That's insane!

Prior to the last 2 years in North Carolina, I lived most of my adult life in Denver, Colorado. Several of my friends regularly ran Leadville's 100 mile run and some also ran Hard Rock, Western States, and other similar crazy runs. They were hard core. They pretty much dedicated their lives to training. But they trained for a very small number of specific races. No one ran 168 marathons and no one ran 140 ultras. No one raced excessively at any distance.

But eastern runners seem to be different. With significantly shorter driving distances between the cities and states, a Charlotte runner can enjoy the best races throughout North and South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and even up into the DC area. And with so many options, people here tend to have the "so many races, so little time" attitude. Consequently, a good number of eastern runners race more and train less.

The "Denver Approach" served me well as a young competitive racer. I targeted and trained for a specific race or race season with a goal of peaking at the exact right time. And that formula still works for me today. However, the "Eastern Approach" has me contemplating a change. Why push myself to the verge of injury for one big race? A lot of things can go wrong. I'm not young anymore and I have nothing to prove. Why not enjoy some of the many popular eastern races I read about while living in Denver? Life is short. So many races, so little time.

But I question whether I could be happy with my racing times knowing I could have run faster with better training. I don't really enjoy racing people any more, but I do enjoy racing the clock. And I love setting and meeting challenging goals. So in the end, I'm probably not ready to completely abandon my "focus and train for one big race" approach. However, I do need to make baby steps toward the "so many races, so little time" approach. I need to relax and enjoy more runs rather than racing them all. But have I changed my attitude toward running 168 marathons and/or 140 ultras? Nope. That's insane!

My apologies to my friends Jeff and Bobby, but you guys are nuts!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Blog # 1 - The Nerves

There are plenty of running blogs out there - possibly more blogs than people who read them. But not all running blogs are the same. In this blog, I won't be writing much about workouts, personal achievements, or race recaps. Instead, I'll be offering my thoughts, feelings, and opinions. I hope you find it entertaining. Either way, I will enjoy writing it.

In this first blog, I want to talk about pre-race nervousness. I set fairly challenging goals for myself and consequently feel a tremendous amount of self-induced pressure. Accordingly, I always get nervous the week prior to a race. Even if it's just a small hometown race, I experience anxiety. On race morning, I'm so nervous I'm jittery - really jittery. As I write this, I'm finishing a marathon training program where once again, I've set a challenging goal for myself. Four full weeks prior to the race, I started getting nervous. Not just a little nervous but stomach turning nervous.

I've often wondered whether this is normal. Is it excessive for a recreational runner like myself to apply "unnecessary" pressure and get so nervous? After all, it's not like this is my life line. And nobody else really cares how I perform. So why do I do this to myself? Do other runners experience such pre-race anxiety?

Wanting to know, I recently polled three of my running buddies. While one runner said he never gets nervous at all, the other two said they only get a little nervous. Although the sample of runners was relatively small, not a single one experiences a high degree of pre-race anxiety. Does this prove my level of nervousness is abnormal? Or is it possible I just polled the wrong people? I still don't know for sure. And it makes me nervous.