Breaking 19:00 with a Mental Breakthrough

Runners love two things:  running and round numbers.

We don’t like to run 7.98 miles.  We like to run 8, so we’ll take an extra few steps past our destination to get that 8 to appear on our watches and our Strava logs.

And just like a sale for $1.99 seems like a way better deal than $2, getting just under that round number you’ve chosen for your race goal is so much more satisfying.

Last year my goal was to break 20 minutes in the 5K and I did that in all three races I entered.

Of course, that meant the new goal became breaking 19.

But so far this year, I hadn’t been able to even break 20 again even though I had been focusing my training on speed. Each race felt harder than the last and I was wondering if I was moving backwards.

Doubts about my ability and progress started to cloud my normal optimism.  Had I reached my peak already?  Have I set my sights too high for my ability?  Am I just kidding myself here?

So I stopped racing for 6 weeks.  You can’t fail if you don’t try, right?

All this because of a number on a clock.

I wasn’t having fun and I didn’t want to keep putting myself out there just to disappoint myself.  The marathon is where I want to focus my training and the red-hot speed necessary for a great 5K is barely relevant to the marathon.

But I still had this last 5K race on the calendar.  It was technically my “goal race” for the spring.  I wondered if I should even do it.

Then my friend Veena who ran it with me last year said she might go, so that was enough incentive for me to hit the register button.

The Downhill at Dusk 5K, as the name implies, is downhill, but not the entire time.  The first mile has a short but steep descent, the second mile is flat, and the finish is an annoying uphill.  My watch calculated it as 45% downhill, 45% flat, and 10% up.

Last year I got a nice 21-second PR in 19:33 (6:17/mile pace).

It is not an automatically fast course for everyone since downhill running can beat up your legs more than you think if you are not prepared for it.  It’s also very easy to go out too fast on the first downhill without realizing what you are doing to yourself, coming back to haunt you later as you crawl up the final inclines.

Which is what I did last year.

In 2016, I certainly went out too fast and remember feeling the struggle start in mile two.  By mile 3, my pace had slowed by an entire minute per mile and the last tenth of a mile was a painful stagger, nearly two minutes per mile slower than the start.

Pretty much the opposite of what you want to do in a 5k.

But this year, I had no goal.  After flatlining on my progress this spring, I decided the time goal simply didn’t matter.  All I wanted to do was race hard and get it over with as soon as possible.

Getting below 19 minutes never entered my mind.

But here’s what did:  calmness.  Clarity.  Relaxed focus.  And even a little fun.

Call it the elusive “runner’s flow.”

I was even relaxed enough to say a few words mid race to the guys running around me, which is usually impossible when you are in the red zone.

I have been practicing getting into the right frame of mind while racing and running hard and it certainly paid off on Saturday.

I only glanced at my watch at the first and second mile splits and instead focused on how I felt.

Mile 1 felt easy and light.  I ran it 3 seconds faster than last year at 5:44, but my breathing was calm and smooth so I wasn’t worried about it being too fast.

I was expecting to start hurting in Mile 2 at about the same spot as last year, but that point never came.  There were no other women ahead of me to chase this year so I focused on the men, pretending they were women and making myself smile at the idea.  The water station at the end of Mile 2 seemed to arrive much earlier than I anticipated and again, I was three seconds faster than last year at 6:08.

I was actually feeling good and repeated that fact to myself over and over again.

But Mile 3 is where this race really starts. I knew what to expect this year and just focused on staying strong.  I wasn’t doing the math and didn’t bother looking at my watch anymore because it didn’t matter at that point.  I remember thinking as I turned the corner to start the uphills, this is the last 5K you have to do for a while.  It’s almost done. Just get there, just get there, just get there.

I later found out the Mile 3 split came in at 6:24 vs 6:43 in 2016.  The hills slowed me somewhat, but they were not a struggle this time.

The finish line is in a parking lot and the course makes a sharp right turn off the road with about 50-75 meters left to the finish.  As soon as I turned, I saw the race clock ticking at 18:45.

Huh?

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!! 

I had no idea that I was so close to my dream goal and just pumped my arms and legs as fast as they would go in a desperate attempt to beat that clock.  I ran at full speed across the timing mats not stopping until I was well past them to be sure that I gave it my very best shot.

I made it by a literal split second: 18:59.2.

I closed the final tenth of a mile at a 6:16 pace compared to my exhausted 7:36 last year.

Veena also did awesome, knocking out a PR for herself after a long break recovering from injury, earning her a second place finish!

I plan to go more in depth about the mental work that I have been doing in future posts.   I credit staying calm and focused as equally important, or perhaps even more important, as the physical training.

This race felt better and less intense but yet was faster than last year.  Sure I’ve logged a lot of miles in the past year, but the breakthrough was more in my mind than in my legs or lungs.

Naturally, this begs the question, am I now reconsidering 5ks and going for an even faster goal?  18:45 or 18:30 perhaps?

As enticing at that sounds, I think the lesson I’ve learned here is to hold those time goals a lot less tightly.

Training with a goal in the back of your mind is probably a good thing.  But maybe racing without one is better.

The Breath: The Simple Way to Improve Your Running Right Now

Breathe.  Just breathe.

It seems like we shouldn’t have to think about breathing.  After all, our bodies are designed to breathe involuntarily without a conscious thought from us.

Yet while running, being able to focus and control your breath can be a powerful tool.

And if you think about it, controlling your breathing is a powerful tool in the rest of your life as well.

Think of the last time you were in a stressful situation.  Maybe your puppy decided to devour your new running shoes or your toddler drew her latest masterpiece on the living room wall in permanent marker.  Taking a deep slow breath won’t get you a new pair of shoes or magically erase your wall, but it instantly helps diffuse the internal stress signals going off in your body and helps you remain calm.  The better you get at remaining calm during stress, the better you can manage the situation.

The same is true while running.

(And to be completely honest, I need a lot more practice at this.  Both in life as well as running!)

One of the most popular episodes of the Runners Connect Run to the Top Extra Kick Podcast that I’ve done was Episode 23, focused on breathing.  During that episode, I explained some breathing patterns and techniques that you can use while you run at different intensities that help you gauge effort level.  Memorizing your own breathing patterns at different speeds will help you become better at pacing yourself, which is key to racing well.

I will get more into the specifics of breathing techniques in future posts, but I have found that if I focus on my breath, the rest of my body tends to follow along.

It works in two paradoxical ways: it’s both a distraction and yet precise focus at the same time.

Finding a way to distract yourself from the discomfort of racing or running hard is essential to running your best.  If I am focusing on just this one aspect of running, I can forget about my legs.  I can forget about how much further I have to go.  I can forget about how hard it is and how much I want to stop.  All I have to do is think “in, in, ouuut, in, in, ouuut, in, in, ouuut,” and let the rest of my thoughts melt away.

Focusing on my breathing is something that I have absolute control over.  I can’t control the weather, the conditions, the competition, or countless other factors.  But I can control my breath.

The concept of focusing on your breath is simple. But like many simple things in life (world peace comes to mind), it’s not always easy.

Anyone who has gone to a yoga class or tried meditation knows that focusing on just your breath is hard!  Your mind is a scatterbrained chatterbox that needs to fill every space with thought.  You’ll try to concentrate on your breathing and before you know it, you are wondering if you remembered to pay the water bill or what’s in the fridge for lunch.

I wish I could sit here and say that I’m great at meditation and staying present, but I’m not.  I need to continually work on it.

So does everybody else.

That’s the reason yoga or meditation is called “practice.”  Focused breathing is a skill that takes consistent practice to be most effective.

But the great thing is that you don’t have to be a zen master to use it or benefit from it.  Every time you take a moment to focus on your breathing during your run, you are improving the quality of your run and working to manage negative thoughts.

With practice, those moments become more and more frequent and begin to last longer and longer.  The negative thoughts begin to lose their grip on your mind in times of stress.  When they resurface (and they will), you can bring your focus back to the breath and let all other thoughts slip away.

I believe that the mind-breath connection is so important that I am making it a major part of my training.  I am working on more techniques and tools that I plan to share with you in the coming months that you can use to improve your training as well.

We breathe every minute of  every day.  Harnessing the power of that simple, involuntary action can be one of the most effective tools we have to improve our running.

And our lives.

 

 

Stop Listening to Your Body! It’s Lying to You.

I inwardly cringe whenever I hear the phrase “listen to your body.”

I realize the spirit behind the message is to be aware of your body’s signals and adjust your behavior accordingly, but there’s a big problem with that.

Your body is a liar.

And not just a liar.  It’s a paranoid helicopter mom liar with OCD, paradoxically tempered with a pinch of stoned hippie and a healthy dose of stubborn toddler.

Your body craves equilibrium, safety, and protection.  If you’ve ever tried to lose weight or speak in public or look out over the edge of a cliff, you know that your body will fight your brain every step of the way to prevent what it has determined as mortal danger around every corner.

It is a hoarder of energy, anxiously squirreling away every extra calorie for doomsday like a conspiracy theorist preparing for armageddon in a bomb shelter in the hills.

Your body hates change and wants everything to stay exactly the same always and forever no matter if it’s healthy or not.

Does your body want to push harder and harder in the last 5K of a marathon?  Hell, no!  Your body is absolutely convinced that YOU ARE GOING TO DIE!  If you decide to “listen to your body,” you will stop immediately or at least slow dramatically, dashing any hope of finishing the race strong.

Does your body want to get up and run at 5 in the morning when it’s dark and cold and lonely?  Of course not!  It wants to stay in your warm bed where it’s nice and warm and safe.

How about after a long day’s work when you’ve got to squeeze in a workout before dinner?  Do you think your body is going to tell you how great that plan is?  Nope.  Your body wants to sit on the couch with a family-size bag of Doritos while mainlining merlot.

Your body thinks running is a TERRIBLE idea.

“Listening to my body” with chips and chocolate! After the race…

Now, I know what some of the long-time runners are saying:  “I feel better after a run!” or, “running makes me stronger which is good for my body!”

Yeah, that’s like telling a five-year-old to eat brussels sprouts with the oh-so-convincing argument that they’re good for you.  It doesn’t matter if running is good for your body.  It will not be convinced.

At first.

And for all of us that feel better after a run?  We’d be lying if we said that were true every single time.  A lot of times we feel better simply because we have stopped.

But what about those amazing runs where everything goes perfectly?  The weather is gorgeous, our strides feel effortless, and we run without a single complaint from our lying, whining bodies?

Those happen because we’ve gradually tricked our bodies into believing that running is a good idea with consistent, progressive training.

Just like the little kids who eventually help themselves to an extra helping of broccoli on their own, we can convince our bodies to crave running.

We can over-ride our bodies’ signals of protest: sore muscles, tired legs, burning lungs, and reach of level of fitness and accomplishment that we never could have even dreamed of.

It just takes patience and practice.  And a little trickery.

When you don’t want to run at 5am, but you do it anyway, you are not listening to your body.

When everything aches the first two miles of an easy recovery run, and yet you keep on going until you feel better, you are not listening to your body.

When you get to Mile 20 of the marathon and your quads are screaming and the soles of your feet are on fire and even your fingers hurt, you are definitely not listening to your body, which left to its own devices would never have even walked to the starting line.

Now I would never recommend anyone run through true pain (or fall into the deep fatigue of overtraining).  True pain is very different from discomfort and you need to experience both to be able to differentiate between the two.  It’s like learning to tell the difference between when a child is truly hurt or just crying for attention.

You have a relationship with your body and if that relationship is healthy, it is not one-sided.  There is a give and take and while there is certainly some listening going on, your body needs to be told what to do.

A lot.

And like a child, you need to love and care for your body and be amazed and grateful for all that your body can do.

But you also gotta to teach her how to love her vegetables.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Goal Conforms to the Individual

The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important.

—Hunter S. Thompson

I am eight days away from my goal marathon in Charleston.  With a lot less running on the calendar, I’ve been reflecting on how this goal feels different from my last.

I’m not planning to achieve my big dream of a sub-three hour marathon this time because my perspective on that has shifted.  It’s not that I’ve stopped wanting be be a member of the sub-three club; I still do.  But as I have gotten closer to it, I’ve realized that I need to have a bit more patience with it.

I still firmly believe that I can and will do it.  Just not this time.

The irony is that I’ve never had a better shot at achieving it than now.

I subscribe to an excellent running newsletter called The Morning Shakeout by Mario Fraioli.  This week Mario talked about a beautiful letter written in the fifties by Hunter S. Thompson to a friend about goals and the purpose of life. “Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience,” Thompson writes.  “As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes… Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.”

I’ve had a year of training and trying for this goal and for various reasons, I have not reached it.  I am stronger, fitter, and faster than I have ever been in my life, but each attempt at the elusive 3-hour mark has shifted my perspective on why I want it and how I plan to get there.

“We must make the goal conform to the individual,” Thompson writes,  “rather than make the individual conform to the goal.”

My race goal this time is to finish well within my abilities.  This is not to say that I believe it will be easy since I’m setting the bar a little lower.  It will still be the fastest I’ve ever run 26.2 miles if all goes well, so I know it will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done no matter what the time clock says.  But this will not be a break-three-at-all-costs event.  Not that I consciously had that in mind before, but I was so sure that I could do it that I didn’t prepare myself for what would happen if I didn’t.

I have learned a lot since my DNF in Richmond that I can almost see it as a gift.  I learned that I cannot handle much caffeine on race day.  I’ve learned how to make a far better fuel for my body than sugary gels.  And I’ve learned that quitting, even when it’s the right thing to do, hurts far worse than the pain of racing itself.

I will have a new mantra on marathon day.  I’ve been using it quite a bit lately when things are getting tough and I want to slow down.  It’s “make yourself proud.”  I’ve experienced what it’s like to cross the finish line knowing I gave it my best.  It’s a feeling of pride and accomplishment like no other.

That is my new goal.

 

 

 

It’s Not the Legs or the Lungs; It’s the Brain

Running hurts.  That is the main reason most people don’t do it.  Sure, if you start slowly, incrementally increase your pace and distance, and choose to only run when it’s sunny and cool, you can avoid all but minor discomfort.  But if you want to achieve something meaningful, you are going to have to push beyond what’s comfortable.

So you train your legs and lungs with a steady diet of easy runs, long runs, and speedwork.  And you throw in a decent strength training session a couple times a week.  But how do you strength train your brain?  You can be in the best shape of your life physically, but if you neglect to actively work on your mental fitness, you cannot reach your full potential, both as an athlete and as a human being.

At the ZAP running retreat I attended last weekend, Sarah Crouch led a powerful class on mental strength and what it takes to push past your perceived limits.  Sarah is a 2:32 marathoner sponsored by Reebok who was the second female American finisher in the 2016 Boston Marathon.  She knows what it means to be mentally strong.

Each athlete has a different mental outlook and most fall somewhere on a spectrum of acceptance and avoidance.  Accepters understand on the starting line that pain is coming and they will find ways to push themselves through it.  Avoiders tell themselves that everything is great, they are strong and capable and all will go well.  Neither style, Sarah said, is better than the other and most of us have elements of both.  Knowing which side of the scale you spend more time on is very helpful in finding effective techniques to override the brain’s pleas to slow down.

For me, I have elements of both, but probably lean towards avoidance.  I always toe the line feeling like a badass ready to conquer the world.  I use positive mantras to keep myself even and on pace.  When things feel tough, I repeat things in my head like “calm,” “deep breath,” “you are light.”  Near the end of a race, I lock on a runner in front of me and pretend he or she is my prey that I am reeling in.

But I don’t always feel like this. Negative thoughts creep in that seem perfectly reasonable at the time.  “You can just stop, you know.”  Or, “No one cares how fast you run this.  It’s okay to slow down.”  Or, “you are going as fast as you can and you are still not going to get your goal.  Give up, already!”  The tough part is that all of these statements may actually be true and logical.  But they are sabotage to my race or workout.

So to combat these thoughts, I have given them an identity and her name is Nancy.  (It’s like the opposite of Beyonce’s stage alter ego, Sascha Fierce.)  I know that negative Nancy and all of her baggage are coming with me on the run (acceptance!).  She will show up at the worst time and gently tell me that everything is okay and it’s perfectly reasonable and smart to slow down.  She’ll remind me that I can get a ride back to the start at anytime or that I could even pretend to fall and end up in the medical tent.  Nancy is sweet and kind to me and she means well.  But she is pure evil.  When she comes, I can say hello and then shut the door in her face.

There are as many exercises for your brain as there are for your legs and I plan to continue working on them and writing about them.  We learned several more in Sarah’s session that I will definitely practice as I continue to get stronger.

At the end of class, Sarah asked about our goals and I got called on.  My A goal, as many of you know, if the stars are aligned and the weather is good and everything is perfect, is a 2:59:59 marathon.  Sarah looked at me, knowing my strengths and my progress over the last two years, said, “that should be your B goal.” My jaw dropped and I think I forgot to breathe for a moment.  To have someone of her caliber believe in me like that is something I will always hold with me.

Which means I have a new mantra:  “B goal.”

What about you?  Any mental strength tips that get you through the tough times?  Let me know!