“What do you think about?” – March Newsletter
When I first got into running I wore headphones on every training run and during every race. I had a playlist to pump me up and motivate along with songs to sing-a-long to during the middle of the race. But when I signed up for my first 50 mile trail race I noticed one rule stood out- NO Headphones. Most races frown on headphones for safety reasons but trail racing deems it a serious safety concern and you could be disqualified for wearing them. Thus began my education on running in silence.
So what did I learn when I went out without my music? It really didn’t change much. I hadn’t ever noticed but even with music my mind would wander. The simile I use is that running is a lot like a long car trip alone. At some point you start daydreaming and your mind just wanders. With a race coming up you can not only use that time to figure out life but to prepare for the race.
Using that time to strategize
When I got back from my Ironman my friends were all nice and congratulatory but I was surprised by the number one question I kept getting- “What did you think about?” And I was even more surprised because they weren’t just asking because they would be bored. No, they were asking because they thought it would suck to have to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a marathon (26.2 miles). They weren’t asking how did I keep myself occupied; they were asking how did I not feel like quitting. Truthfully it never crossed my mind. And here are two strategies I used in training to keep that from happening.
When training for an Ironman you’re sometimes out on the bike for 6 hours, running for 3 hours or swimming for 2. To keep myself motivated I’d visualize myself in that particular part of the race. I’d visualize what it would be like to cross the finish line. To hug my friends and family. I’d visualize swimming my best race and feeling great the whole time. I’d also visualize small stuff like when I’d eat, drink, and even go to the bathroom.
Sometimes I’d try to think about past events in my life that went well and made me proud; high school football, my first marathon, school functions. Anything that left me feeling a surge of energy like I could do anything.
The main image that I kept focusing on was that of seeing my friends and family along the race course and at the finish. I pictured what they’d say after the race or what they’d shout as I ran past.
During the actual race I had moments of real pain and of pure exhaustion. But I had made one promise to myself before the race, every time I saw my friends and family I’d smile.
The picture above is from my Ironman around mile 18 of the marathon. I slowed my run and hugged my mom, sister and brother-in-law in succession while they laughed their heads off. Why? Because it wasn’t that serious. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s a test of athleticism for sure but if I’m not enjoying it and showing others that then what’s the point? I high fived little kids I didn’t know. I laughed at funny posters. I cheered on other runners. My friends and family had been out there for 10+ hours too. I made damn sure they didn’t travel all that way to see me suffer.
I’ve had races where I’ve failed, where I’ve let the pain get to me and been pissed at myself and everyone around me. When I look back it isn’t a poorly executed run that embarrasses me. It’s the way I handled it and that others saw me respond with a bad attitude.
Standing at the starting line of Ironman Boulder my focus was split between looking for my family in the sea of spectators and looking around at the crowd of athletes surrounding me. At some point those two focuses converged into an anxiety-inducing thought. What if I freak out in the water and my race is over almost as soon as it began?
My entire family was here, my parents, both sisters, my brother-in-law, along with my friend Alex and her two kids, and Amber. If I freak out and the race is over after an hour I’ll be so ashamed. I could feel my heart start racing and panic start to set in. Then it hit me, ‘get to the other side. Don’t look at your family and get away from the inside lane.’
I had prepared for this. Leading up to the race I’d thought one question over and over, “What if…?”
What if I freak out in the water? What if my bike gets a flat? What if I go out too hot on the run and have to walk?
We call these negative thoughts but they can be extremely helpful. Thinking about the what if’s are only bad if you don’t answer them. During training answer each of those questions with a plan.
- If I freak out in the water I’ll get away from the crowd and backstroke until my heart slows down.
- If I get a bike flat I’ll stop and take my time being careful not to pop the spare. (something I did twice in training)
- The big one- What if I go out too hot on the run and have to walk? So what?! You’re still moving forward. Do I want to cross the line sprinting and yell ‘F*$% YEAH!’? Of course I do, but if my body shuts down I can only do what it allows.
Like I said my entire family and friends were there. No way would I let them see me lose it because of something outside of my control. Which is something I had to realize.
“What am I truly in control of in this race?”
The ONLY thing I can control is my reaction to what happens. I can follow the best training plan, get the best gear, have the nutrition down to the gram and everything could still go wrong. How you react is the only thing you can truly control.
Since my Ironman and ultra’s I’ve gone back to wearing headphones during training and races on occasion but my mind still wanders. I still visualize the plan coming together and also everything going wrong and how I’d handle it. And I always remember to look around and smile.
*Not to mislead everyone into thinking that happy thoughts, visualization and planning came easy for me; I’ll tell you about my mistakes and the race I dropped out of (at mile 22) in the next newsletter.