I’ve struggled the last few years with my races. Even when I haven’t been injured, if I’ve trained well I feel like I’ve either peaked in training or the mental game has gotten to me. I know I’m not alone. And I don’t feel right writing about the topic considering my mental game hasn’t been where it should be in quite some time. But my amazing friend Jennifer from JBirdRuns is someone who knows a thing or two about the mental game in running. I don’t want to tell her story for her so I’ll let her take over, but I wanted to welcome her to the blog today and thank her for the contribution!
First off, I’d like to say a huge THANK YOU to Jess for having me guest post on her blog. She is someone I have admired for a long time from afar, and it is so wonderful to be able to count her amount my social media running friends! Jess asked me to post about the mental game in my marathon journey, so I am going to jump right in!
My first marathon was the California International Marathon on December 6th, 2015. As I toed the line with the 3:30 pace group that morning, everyone stood in a circle, introducing him or herself. Each person stated how many marathons he or she’d run, what number BQ (Boston Qualifying) attempt this was. It dawned on me (for about the thousandth time), that I was probably in way over my head. What was I thinking, going for a 5-minute cushion on a Boston Qualifying time in my FIRST marathon? Why did I have to put that pressure on myself? Why couldn’t I just enjoy the experience? I squeaked out that this was my first marathon and I was hoping for a BQ with a 5 minute cushion, but then quickly rushed to say I knew that was a lofty goal. The circle got a lot of round eyes and the pacer, bless his heart, agreeably said he was sure I could do it.
I gave myself a mental shake at that point. I picked the 3:30 goal time because that is what I had trained for. It was the time that seemed reasonable considering the paces I was running during training. I told myself to STOP IT.
My mental strength in the marathon all comes from my training. One of the things that I love about running so much is that you just cannot fake it. If you did the work, you will have the fitness, you will be up to the task. Of course, there are things that happen – injuries, GI distress; sometimes you just have a bad race day. That said, if you ran 20 miles at X pace, you put in the miles, time on your feet, and effort – no one can take that away from you. Not even a bad race day. You have already won by getting to the start line.
And that was exactly what I told myself that morning. I told those bad thoughts NO. NO, you will not take this away from me. NO, I trained for this. NO, I can do this. NO, you are wrong, I am right, and this race is MINE.
I have a lot of experience with nerves from showing horses. If you get nervous, your horse will pick up on that, and it will make them nervous as well. You have to present a calm, confident leader to them. Horses are a pack animal, and they are usually happy to follow you if you confidently show them the way. Same thing goes when I am taking my dog into the hospital as a therapy dog to visit sick patients. He needs to know that I have a plan and I’m going to take care of him. He is much more likely to roll with the punches and stay calm and paying attention to me that way.
I carry over a lot of the mental game to running. Keep it transactional. Create a successful environment for yourself. What are the steps you need to take in that moment? Give yourself small, manageable goals to hit as you prep race weekend. Arrive, check in, lay out your gear, take a perfect Instagram photo with your race bib – haha! As you achieve each one of those tasks, you are successful.
A routine is helpful, but try not to be too rigid about it. I don’t believe in lucky talismans, because I don’t want to feel dependent on them. If I pick out the same outfit that I wore in a good race, I will purposefully change it just to keep myself from thinking of it as lucky. If I wear an outfit and have a really bad race, I will wear it again right away. Objects do not create luck, you do.
Back to the CIM, as we headed into the last 10k of the race, I started feeling pain like I never had before. My body was shutting down and it scared me. That is something I am still working on embracing. Obviously, it is going to hurt every time. The faster we get, it might even hurt more. The trick is to learn to accept that feeling and move forward. Don’t let the pain distract you from your plan. What is your job in that moment?
I also know that all of this takes practice! I am not perfect at the mental game of the marathon and I don’t expect to have it perfected, ever. The physical challenge is a wonderful thing, but I think the mental challenge is what keeps us coming back.
A couple of great books that I have learned from:
Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence – Gary Mack & David Cassteven
How Bad Do You Want It? – Matt Fitzgerald
The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg
Thank you for reading along today! You can find me on my blog, Instagram and Twitter. This year, I will be training for and racing (hopefully!) Boston and Chicago, along with some half marathons and other distances. I hope to get to know you all better and hear about your running journey!
Jennifer is an avid runner since college, a dog lover, blogger, and clearly a natural talent to the sport. She is passionate about healthy eating, horses, family and life. When she’s not running, she’s likely talking about running or running out of peanut butter.