long run mental tricks

Molly, all thumbs-up and smiles, in the final miles of her debut marathon (with Sideshow Bob, a.k.a. me, by her side for a bit)

Let me start by oversharing: The idea for this post came to me as I was making one last pitstop before heading out to run 20 solo miles on Saturday. As my intestines rumbled and gurgled, I thought about how nerves can mess with your mind as well as your gut before a long run.

Let’s use my good friend Molly as Exhibit A: Last year, Molly crushed her first marathon, literally cracking jokes at Mile 20 and smiling much of the route. But in 2010, before she had to drop out of marathon training due to a knee injury, she admitted the mere thought of long runs almost paralyzed her with fear. Molly would wake up with dread in the pit of her stomach, leaving her feel nauseated and barely able to climb out of bed.

Tying the drawstring on my capris, I thought about what a leap of faith it takes to set off on a long run. I can’t count how many times I’ve run ~20 miles in training (suffice to say, a lot), yet even I feel a few butterflies banging around in my stomach as I strap on my Garmin 210 and take a final swig of nuun. As I covered 20 miles, I conjured up these mind games to share with all the Mollys and other mother runners out there.

Chunk it up. This is the key to any run or race (or child’s birthday party, scrapbooking project, or big work assignment): When you try to contemplate it all at once, it’s overwhelming. You can slice-and-dice a run in countless ways, e.g. instead of thinking of it as 13 miles, tell yourself it’s 5 miles + 5 miles + 5K. Sure, you have to complete the entire distance (13 miles), but only focus on the segment you’re in. (Trust me: It eases the mental load.) Or break it up by roads. On Saturday, I focused on going around the riverfront. Then getting to the St. John’s Bridge, followed by covering a stretch of Willamette Boulevard. Then…. Dimity sometimes needs to parse things even smaller, counting out 100 steps or making it to the next street sigh. Whatever works for you.

Switch up entertainment. If you listen to an iPod or your phone on a run, “channel surf” your way through a run. I usually start with the previous week’s episode of, “Wait, Wait….Don’t Tell Me,” then shift to “This American Life.” Mock me, but I often then tune into our own podcast to have Dimity along for the ride for three or so miles. Finally, I switch to music. Sometimes a playlist, sometimes a random shuffle from Spotify. Anything to keep things fresh.

Have company. This is an obvious one: Recruit a running buddy (or two or…) join you. And don’t skip this suggestion just because no one you know is running long. I’ve had friends join me for the final half of a 20-miler, the first 5 of 15, the last 3 of 18, you name it. And I’ve also had friends ride their bike alongside of me (thanks, Pelmas!). Get creative in who you ask, and where you go. No law against doing multiple mini-loops to ensure your pals can join you. (Oh, and if you can’t recruit any foot soldiers, follow my lead and stop at a friend’s house for a cold bottle of water–plus a few cubes in the sports bra. Salvation!)

Let nature brighten your mood

Enjoy bright moments. Let’s just admit: No matter how lovely the scenery, a long run can be a grind. Well, call me a Pollyanna, but I look for little pick-me-ups wherever I can find them. The scent of pink roses climbing up a trellis. A friendly interchange with a cheerful mail carrier. The view from a bridge. A tasty GU.

Don’t reflect back on previous miles until the very end. This weekend, in the later stages of my run, I found it tempting to think back on the ground I’d covered. But whenever I did, I felt like a car running out of gas. Instead of feeling inspiring, I found it daunting. But, let me tell you, sisters: The second my feet hit our driveway, I let out a whoop and let all the images of the miles come rushing into my mind, filling me with pride.

Don’t confuse boredom with exhaustion. This mantra-like phrase came to me around Mile 16. Late enough in the run to know I had the distance well in hand…but well past the point where I was b-o-r-e-d with running solo. When you’re “hurting,” ask yourself if your body feels extreme discomfort, or if you’re just wishing your run was over. I suspect it’s usually the latter. (In which case, suck it up–and remind yourself it’s better than playing Sorry! for the fifth straight time that morning.)

Do mental scans of your body. Not only is this a way to keep track of tension and potential trouble spots in your body and running form, but it also helps pass the time (and remind you that you’re really not as hurtin’ as you think you are). I do like a “CSI”-like scan, starting at my feet and working up. Along the way, I shake out my fist-like hands, drop my hunched shoulders, loosen my clenched jaw, and try to get the corners of my mouth to turn up. Because, when all is said and done, I love running long.

Now you tell us: What long run mental tricks keep you going when the miles add up?