This past weekend was one of the most challenging workouts of the entire Train Like a Mother: How to Get Across Any Finish Line - and Not Lose Your Family, Job, or Sanity Marathon: Own It plan, which I’m following for the Boston Marathon: 17 miles with 12 at race pace. I’d been fretting about it for weeks, especially since I had to tackle it the morning after flying more than halfway across the country. (A ham sandwich on an airplane and a bag of Sunny Seeds does not good carb-loading make.) Yet all my concerns were for naught: I nailed it! I was aiming for averaging 9:10-minute miles. Instead, somehow, I cranked out miles ranging from 8:38-8:53, with a lone 9:00 in there. I was jubilant and triumphant; I had gone from worrier to warrior. Woo-hoo!
Replaying the run in my head afterward, I realized it was a prime example of mind over matter. I’d managed the run in my head, so my body could handle it. Here are a few of my secrets for success on a long run:
Enjoy the planning. Attending to the details of an event—whether a wedding, child's birthday party, school auction, or long run—can either be daunting and draining, or it can add to the festivities. Maybe I’m an oddball, but I love mulling over possible routes for runs. This weekend, for example, I ran a familiar 12-mile loop, but tacked on a scenic 5 miles in the middle, when I knew I’d need an emotional boost. Use your long runs as a way to explore parts of town you don’t usually get to on your daily jaunts, or tack together a few loops that take you by the homes of friends who can stash water bottles in their front yard for you. Make it an adventure instead of a chore.
Chunk it up. Every time I thought about having to run race pace for “almost a half-marathon,” I got a bit queasy. Once I set off, I mentally divided the run into segments: 2 miles of warm-up. Up to Mile 4, when I could walk to eat a Roctane and drink some nuun from my Amphipod. To Mile 6, when I’d be one-third done with the race pace miles. To Mile 8 for another energy gel. To Mile 9.6, where I could turn around on the scenic, riverside loop I’d added….you get the idea. The few times I mentally lifted my head to stare down the entire 12 miles, let alone the whole 17, I could feel my pace drop and my legs turn leaden. Instead, I stayed in the moment, focusing on short-term goals.
Fuel properly. This might seem like a physical detail, but when your brain screams, “Stop!” “Slow down!” “This hurts!” “Walk, you moron!” what it’s really telling you is, “I’m starved of glycogen, the stuff that makes me work.” By ingesting about 100 sugary calories every 45 minutes or so, your brain will stay on a more even, rational keel. On my 17-miler, I sucked down a gel at Miles 4, 8, 12, and even 15: It was a gradual, but steady, climb from Mile 14 to 16, and I wanted to stay strong to the finish.
Give yourself an out. When my mile splits kept staying about 20 seconds faster than I’d planned, I reminded myself I had that “cushion” of time to fall back on. I also told myself I could bail on the final few race-pace miles if I burned out. “Ten miles of 8:50s are basically as demanding as 12 miles of 9:10s,” I rationalized. Yet, in a deeper, more rational part of my brain, I knew I’d never allow myself to cash in that option, to fall short of the required work. Simply telling myself I could kept me pushing.
Recruit a friend. I didn’t employ this strategy this weekend, but I’ve run with friends a bunch of times during this training cycle. I used to think I had to have a friend run the whole distance with me, but my pal Molly made me realize having a friend for part of the run is often better than none. Focusing more on 10Ks this winter, Molly’s not up for long distances, so I’ll run, say, 5 miles, then meet her for 10. Or I’ll pick her up for the first half of a run, then finish up solo.
Now it's your turn: How do you tame the mental monkeys when you're running long?