Monday, September 30, 2013

Getting Out Of My Mind ... The Mental Approach To My Best Year Ever

Finishing a nice relaxed 10K PR recently in Illinois
I've always been a worrier.  Since as far back as I can remember, I've played out "worst case scenarios" in my mind over and over before every big event.  But I've actually turned it into a positive in some aspects of my life, like for example in business.  I'm usually never under-prepared before a big presentation or report simply because of the fear of failure.  My stomach will churn weeks in advance about speaking to a group of architects or engineers to the point I'm almost physically sick.  But it forces me to study my subject matter inside and out, and the meeting usually ends up goeing okay.  And in some ways all of this psychosis has translated positively to running as well.  I know without a doubt when I'm standing at most starting lines very few of the runners standing around me have prepared like I have.  But unfortunately, all too often when the gun sounds, the preparation is wasted and the mental game I play with myself turns from a positive into a huge negative.

Most of you who read my blog know that my "ultimate" marathon goal (besides running one in every State ... hence the namesake) is to run a sub 3-hour marathon.  Even though my age is creeping towards "half-a-Benjamin", I've always felt like I had a marathon personal best that started with a "2:" somewhere inside me.  But to date, I never really been close.  My personal best is 3:20:03 at Tulsa a couple of years ago.  It's not like I haven't trained my butt off in an attempt to whittle down that time.  But for most big races, I've simply stewed and fretted over the details to the point that I locked up on race day ... making them bigger in my mind than they needed to be.

Stress ... The Great Energy Thief
Exactly how much energy does pre-race stress steal from you performance?  Well that's tough to accurately quantify.  But my wife, Michael, helped me put it into perspective.  A few weeks ago while walking Jack, she said look at this way ... "Think about those times when you had a big speaking engagement and you stressed over it for days, and sometimes weeks in advance.  And then think about how relieved, and more importantly ... how physically exhausted you felt immediately after it was over.  That's the same thing you're doing to yourself before races.  You're literally wasting a TON of energy before the race even gets underway."  And she was right.  Man, that gal's pretty smart!

Last year's Prairie Fire Wichita Marathon is the perfect example off this.  Y'all remember Project 3:09 don't-cha.  I trained like a warrior all summer with hopes off breaking 3:09 in October at that race.  I hit all my splits during training.  I had perfect shorter races leading up to the event.  And it was the perfect flat course to simply blaze a new PR.  But on race day in Wichita, I fell flat and ran my second worst marathon ever ... and I SERIOUSLY thought about not finishing that day.  It was the biggest race day disappointment and flat out failure I had ever experienced.

Looking back now I know there were two main causes to the race disaster.  One, I over trained a little in the summer and was simply fatigued standing at the starting line.  That was a HUGE factor and will be covered in a later post.  But the other, and more important reason, was that I stressed over the race like no other before.  I was so nervous going into it, and remember standing there at the starting line so tense that my neck and shoulders were hurting ... over a dumb race!  For about three weeks before race day, I had ran every mile, and recalculated every possible pace combination to meet my goal, over and over and over and in mind.  It was mentally exhausting.  I built it up and made it a lot bigger than it needed to be.  And when I didn't make my goal at the end of the race, I had never felt so dejected, and actually went into a minor bout with depression for about a month afterwards ... all over a dumb race!!!  I vowed at that point never to make running a race THAT important again.  This was my hobby.  It was supposed to be fun.  But I had turned it into a real self-induced pressure cooker.

First PR of 2013 in April at Rock The Parkway Half
Fresh Point Of View
So this year I've taken a completely different approach to training and especially racing.  After the blow out at Wichita, I decided that I was making racing way too difficult.  It was obvious if I was going to improve, I had to change a few things with my training, but more importantly with my mental state of mind toward running.  I needed to stop stressing and run free and relaxed on race day like I knew I could.   I needed to stop leaving my best performances on the training room floor and excel when the gun went off.

More than ever before, I've made a conscious effort to RELAX leading up to race day.  I've been able to focus on the positives and not worry about failing.  I wouldn't really call it "not caring", because I obviously do - but I've just been able to compartmentalize and put the race in the proper box in my mind and not worry about it excessively.  As a result I run with confidence and know that if I train right, and plan correctly, I can hit most of my targeted times at the finish line without building them up into some unobtainable goal.  Mentally and emotionally grinding over them to the point it made me physically weak was just ridiculous.  And so far this year, it's worked great!  With my new approach to running, 2013 has been my most successful and speedy year yet.  I've set three different PR's, won the Master's Division in a race twice, and placed at the top of my age group six times.

More importantly, racing has just been more fun.  I'm more relaxed and enjoy the experience knowing that I gave a much better effort.  I try not focus as much on the time results.  I just tell myself over and over that it's "no big deal" and that there will be many other races after this one.  I put the other competitors out of mind and just run my race.  And I smile.  More than ever before you'll find me smiling before a race.  I've really just began to keep it a little more in perspective.

Okay, I'll come clean on something ... putting this new mental approach into practice has really all been in preparation for the Chicago Marathon in two weeks.  I'm in the best long distance shape of my life and feel like I have a giant race in me.  But amazingly, this time I'm really not focused on the finish line. I'm simply locked in on a good taper period, and fresh legs at the starting line.  I'm not even taking a pace chart into this race.  I'm just gonna relax, and run, and what happens happens.  Seriously.  I know that if I chill out and just enjoy the experience a little more, I''l run free and easy like I'm capable of, and good things will fall into place.

It's definitely a work in progress.  And there are times when the butterflies start to dance a little.  But it's not the distance or the pace that's the biggest hurdle for me in these races, it's my own mind.  And the more I learn to get out of my own head, the more I'll succeed on race day and accomplish more and more of my running goals.  Who know, maybe even a sub 3-hour marathon some day.
... be great today! 


  1. Very interesting indeed, thanks for sharing! I do a lot of runs for mental training. Luckily they combine the physical with the mental but without a strong, positive head we are lost. I am also lucky that I never stress. I'm an incredibly relaxed and calm person. This helps with a lot of things. The main lesson for me has been when I don't reach a goal I just relax and move onto the next one.

  2. Great post Jim. I never really starting racing to my potential until I was able to learn to relax. I'm sure I've shared this with you before but my mantra going into my first sub-3 marathon was "Act like a horse, be dumb, just run." Running is just a very small fraction of who we are as people, it does not define us, it is something we do for fun....and there will always ALWAYS be another race. I'm really glad you've learned to chill the heck out. :):)

  3. I totally get where you're coming from being an A+ worrier myself. Before my only marathon I had to walk around for almost an hour to keep the butterflies at bay. Not the best way to start a race that requires all your energy. No wonder I felt so bad by 35k even though I'd run 36k training runs at a faster pace. I too am trying to be a lot more zen about my upcoming race. It's not that it doesn't matter or I don't care about it - it's more that I'm just so grateful to be able to attempt the distance. Whatever happens on the day I'm going to happy with.

  4. It sounds like you have the mental approach you need for your important race. You do a lot of races so you are right - there is always another race. But I hope Chicago is a great race for you in all ways.

  5. This was a good read for me, too, Jim. I had a similar experience in Eugene last April--very disappointing, and I was psyched out before I ever crossed the start line. My goal in Chicago (while of course I'd love to BQ this time) is to run smart, stick to my plan as set up by my coach and enjoy myself. My training has gone well--I've earned myself a good time in this race.


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