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Training for my First Marathon: The Mental Game

Pam after setting her 5K PR. The special is El Super Pam. Coincidence? Think not!

[Follow—and cheer for—Pam, a #motherrunner of two in Decatur, Georgia, as she trains for her first 26.2. Previous entries.]

Last week Sarah and Dimity addressed my question on mental preparation for training to run a full marathon on AMR Answers, and Dimity suggested I discuss the mental aspects of my own training. As I begin tapering for my fall half marathon—hello, energy!—this seems like the perfect time.

Coming off the DC Rock ‘N Roll Half Marathon this spring, I ran a 25:57 5k, which is far faster than I ever could have expected. What was even more incredible was that my first thought, post-race, was that I could have run even faster.

To quote Joey from the 90’s sitcom Blossom: Whoa.

Elation, disbelief, doubt, and pride all fought for top emotional billing. I immediately texted Coach MK to both share my news and to ask, “What now?”

For someone who always limited the view of her own potential to somewhere in the middle of the pack, this sudden ability to run with what I consider great speed was both confusing and overwhelming. MK suggested a one-on-one session with sports psychologist Justin Ross (of Perform Like a Mother fame) to examine my feelings and learn how to work past them to achieve whatever my full potential may be (ahead of mid-pack, apparently!).

Justin helped me recognize that my biggest challenge is believing in myself at the starting line. I trust the plan enough to dedicate myself fully to training six days a week. I believe enough to set goals and to tap into the depths of my reserves in the final kick. My doubts set in at the starting line, and sometimes in the very middle of the race. Knowledge, however, truly is power!

My biggest takeaways from talking with Justin via Skype:

Create the habit of “putting away my run.”

After completing any training run or race, he suggested, I should take a moment to intentionally examine the workout, acknowledge what went right and what could use improvement, and tuck it away.

Doing so trains the roots of my running to grow both deeper and broader in order to build a solid foundation.

Before I walk in the door to greet my family, I pause for a moment and consider my run: How did the run feel? Did I get what I needed, regardless of how strong I felt? What is at least one“win” the workout yielded?  More recently, I’ve been writing that information, along with basic stats such as splits and average heart rate, in my COMPETE journal.

Work on finding the place between anxiety and excitement at the starting line.
He encouraged me to practice finding that sweet spot that will during the recovery intervals of a hard workout. Yesterday in preparation for the Cape Cod Half Marathon, I ran a series of 20 one-minute intervals at half marathon goal race pace (somewhere around the 9:00/mile range), interspersed with one minute of easy running (I hovered somewhere in the 12:00/mile range).

During the race pace intervals, I let a grin spread across my face as I settled into sustainably fast speed, focusing on my breath and my footfalls.

In between, I slowed enough to catch my breath, and let my mind relive what my body had just done: the turnover of my feet, the even and steady breaths, how I drew my shoulder blades together and subtly leaned forward.  At the same time, I visualized myself going through these same motions on race day, creating a well of inspiration and experience on which to draw both at the starting line and mid-race when things begin to get tough.

The requisite post-Peachtree selfie.

Later that summer, I ran a 3+ minute 10k PR—my first sub-60!—at the storied Peachtree Road Race on the 4th of July. My wave began a little after 8:00 am, and with the sun beating down on the asphalt, conditions were already brutal. In addition to the heat and humidity, Peachtree runners have to fight the crowded course of the world’s largest road race.

Standing on the starting line, trying to find that sweet spot, I decided I would not waste energy zigging and zagging and fuming. Instead I tucked in behind whoever was ahead of me, scanning for openings.

I was in the zone as my “Run Fast” playlist—think punk rock covers of showtunes by Me First & the Gimme Gimmes—blasted into my Trekz Air headphones. I barely registered the crowds , both on and off the course. Every other mile or so, I’d look down at my watch as it buzzed to display my splits, but overall I ran entirely by feel, slowing for notorious Cardiac Hill, trying to fly without pushing on the downhills.

As soon as I rounded the curve onto 10th street and into the final half-mile stretch, I turned on the gas, and crossed the finish line in 59:37, about 96% spent.

I remember reading somewhere that a marathon is simply a 10k race with a 20-mile warmup. I look at a half marathon much the same way: I spend the first five miles getting into my groove, the following five slowly picking it up, and really dial it in that final 5k.

Considering the marathon that way also gives me perspective on the roots I’m expanding as I tuck away run after run.  I’ve put in close to 1,000 miles so far in 2018, and I’m going to put in several hundred more before February 10, 2019.  My roots are deep, and they are broad, and they are solid. They are roots worthy of a Mary Oliver poem.  I trust absolutely that week by week I will build to 20 miles.

And after that? I will put my head down, keep a smile on my face, move my feet forward, and call upon that well of experience and inspiration to take me through that final 10k and past the finish line.

3 responses to “Training for my First Marathon: The Mental Game

  1. “My roots are deep, and they are broad” Yes they are! Have a wonderful race in Falmouth and thank you for sharing your journey (and adorable pic of you with your daughters) with us!

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