It was there that my coaching journey began, although I didn’t know it at the time.
It’s hard to believe that a year later, I returned to ZAP this time as a coach for Runners Connect.
Many of the attendees from last year were able to return again this year, which made it seem even more like the summer camp I remember.
Camp friends become forever friends.
I feel incredibly lucky that I get to run and geek out about running as a job. Over the four-day weekend, in addition to lots of beautiful miles with some amazing people, I led exercises on goal setting and strength training and had several one-on-one personal coaching sessions.
I’m learning that it’s not always the technical running training advice that matters the most. More often than not, the athlete already has many of the answers she is looking for and it is a joy to discover how to tease those answers out together.
As the weekend came to a close, there were hugs and exchanges of email addresses.
And just like the last day of summer camp as a kid, it was a bit sad for it all to end, but we knew we’d made memories and friends that are much bigger than a single weekend.
Just one day later, most of us are already looking forward to next year.
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!
It’s written on the back of all their coffee mugs: the mind is the athlete. And right now, my mind is racing trying to absorb everything that I learned this weekend at ZAP Running camp. Strangely, I think most of what inspired me this weekend has very little to do with actual running.
ZAP is an elite training center near Blowing Rock, NC, less than a two-hour drive up the Blue Ridge mountains from where I live in Asheville. The coaching program I follow, Runners Connect, offers a 3-day running retreat twice a year and I signed up this spring along with a couple dozen other runners I had never met. We lived dormitory-style, sharing meals, runs, coaching sessions, and pieces of our lives.
I arrived Thursday afternoon and met the coaches and my roommate, Laurie. We unpacked and got ready for our first run in Moses Cone Park, a beautiful trail system that includes a flat mile loop around Bass Lake. We were told to run whatever pace and distance we wanted to and then meet up for a ride back to camp. I fell into step with a group of three other women going the same length as I was and we circled the lake and headed up the trail called The Maze.
Now when I say “trail,” I actually mean smooth packed gravel road wide and gentle enough for a car to drive with ease and closed to cyclists. These are not the rocky and rooty single-track trails that I am used to back home. We could run 4 wide and the only obstacles we had to avoid were those left by the horses that share the paths.
Dinner each night was created by Chef Michael who clearly knows how to fuel elite runners. Choices like roasted beets, homegrown tomatoes, veggie paella, roasted parsnips and carrots, beans and rice, and enormous salads filled my plate every night. Bowls of fresh fruit were always available and there was always something sweet for dessert.
After dinner, we introduced ourselves around the campfire and got to know each other a bit. There were runners from all over the country as well as two Canadians. Everyone there had different training goals and backgrounds but we were all there because we are passionate about running.
The next morning we headed back to Moses Cone for our run of the day. I had a ten miler on the schedule with the middle 6 being close to marathon pace, so after a warm up on some of the hills, I stuck to lake laps on my own with my headphones on. I was surprised at the effort I needed to give in order to crank out those fast miles. Granted, we were at 1000 feet higher elevation than I’m used to, but still, I was expecting it to be easier. I’m happy that I hit my splits, but I knew that the 18-mile fast-finish on the books for the next day was going to be challenging. But that was the whole point.
After our runs, the afternoons were filled with strength and stretch classes, visualization techniques, video gait analyses, nutrition for runners talks, individual coaching sessions, and mental strength training classes. I could write a separate post on each one of these topics and I probably will. There were moments of inspiration in every single one of these sessions. I was not expecting to learn so many real, tangible techniques that I can use in my running every day, especially on race day.
Saturday’s long run was back at Moses Cone and I joined the group that headed up to the fire tower. I knew that the climbing would make the three fast finish miles harder, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the 360 degree view at the top. I ran mainly with a woman named Andrea and we talked non-stop for two hours about our lives.
This is one of the magic moments in running. It is not very often that you can have a deep conversation with someone for that length of time. Even though we had just met, we shared personal details of our lives with each other and by the time we had reached the top of the fire tower, we were friends.
Back at the lake for my fast miles, I struggled to hit my times and didn’t, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
On our last evening, with our classes done and runs completed, we piled in the vans after dinner for ice cream and beer in downtown Blowing Rock. Jeff Gaudette, the owner of Runners Connect, said that this was the first time everyone in the group had come into town together. Our group had really connected in a way that not every one does.
In the morning, we hugged and went our separate ways, wishing each other well on our upcoming races. I have no doubt that many of us will see each other again.
Over the next days and weeks I will unpack some of the truly meaningful experiences I had at ZAP. I am inspired and motivated in a way that I haven’t felt since I got my first PR. Lately, I have been hitting a mental point where I’m struggling to get to the next level in my training. Now a have a few more tools that will help get me there.