First published in Canadian Running, September 2012
By Margaret Webb
It did not take long for pre-race enthusiasm to ratchet up to high anxiety. We had already accomplished what we thought was the hardest part of the Boston Marathon — qualifying under the tough new standards for 2012. So what was there to sweat, other than the 1,200 training kilometres to get to the start line? Yet when we met for dinner to discuss race goals, our hearts started pounding like we were already pushing up Heart Break Hill.
Expectations began piling on top of expectations. The Beaners, as we came to call our training foursome, thought personal bests were within reach. At the very least, we wanted to requalify for Boston at Boston, something fewer than 40 percent of racers do. And two Beaners were celebrating 50th birthdays so we wanted to run fast and happy. Remembering the pain and occasional misery of past marathons, running happy seemed the biggest challenge of all.
During a recent half, I spent the last five kilometres mentally lashing myself for falling short of my time goal, even as I grunted out a personal best. The abuse I’d heaped on myself had left me deeply shaken, and I was determined not to let my fierce inner critic ruin the racing highlight of my life. Indeed, after another bottle of wine, we all determined to be at our very best at Boston, in every possible way.
“I think we’re going to need therapy,” pronounced Phyllis Berck, 60, the most experienced runner amongst us 50 somethings. “I’ve been in rough spots in races before, and I wanted some inner resources to help me through.” Well connected to athletics since working on the organizing committee for the Calgary Winter Olympics, she drew on her contacts to make that happen.
Two months later, 75 members of our Runner’s Shop club in Toronto packed a nearby pub to hear Peter Jensen, one of Canada’s leading sports psychologists, address what many recreational runners neglect: the mental side of preparing for a race. Jensen, who has coached some 60 Olympic medalists as well as executives at Fortune 500 companies, says mental conditioning can not only make the difference between a great and subpar performance but also increase enjoyment of running and even help athletes excel in other areas of life. “We know physical energy is deeply connected to what the mind is thinking, yet we don’t train the mind as we train the body, to unpack energy.”
A life-long runner, Jensen had to dig deep into his own bag of tricks to get back to his sport after a battle with throat cancer. And though we did not know it then, The Beaners, who became even better friends after adding “group sports therapy” to our training runs, would rely heavily on mental conditioning to face the blistering heat of the now infamous “water station to water station” Boston Marathon that 4100 runners opted out of, sent 260 runners to area hospitals for treatment and had 2,500 seeking medical treatment for heat exhaustion and dehydration on site, including two Beaners (one received two IV bags and the other was packed on ice like a fish – her words).
But things could have been worse. The mental conditioning we did worked, though the emphasis is on “work” because, while Jensen’s strategies may sound easy and maybe even obvious, they don’t work unless you practice them.
Visioneering: Imagine the future by setting clear goals and developing a realistic plan to achieve it.
Most long-distance runners are pretty good at this. We follow training plans to prepare for specific races or join clinics to get faster. After spilling our guts about our fears — of pain, falling short of goals, post-race let down — The Beaners determined to become mentally stronger and happier runners. And that led us to seek out Jensen. “You have to set a specific, realistic goal or you can’t see what comes into your world, to help you,” says Jensen. “It might be an article, a course, whatever. When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
Imaging: Develop positive images for each stage of the race and practice them in training.
“Your body speaks imagery, not English,” says Jensen. “As far as the subconscious is concerned, the imagery playing in your mind is real.”
Long-distance runners must build up a slide-show of imagery to endure the sport’s unique challenges: staying focused for hours and managing the fatigue curve. Jensen says runners need imagery and a corresponding mood word to conjure up that positive imagery to help them through each stage of the race: conserving energy at the beginning, tackling hills, focusing on technical aspects, pushing through fatigue and unpacking energy for the finish kick. “You can’t have a single focus. The marathon is too long. The mind gets bored.”
He urged us to tap into the “huge running IQ” of our club to discuss what imagery we found helpful. “Asking others what they do is so obvious it’s ridiculous,” recalls Phyllis, “but very useful.” And fascinating. Winter training miles flew by while picking each other’s brains on that one. Turns out, conjuring up sexual imagery and chasing a great pair of legs are common strategies for pushing through fatigue. To get up hills, runners admitted to being carried by eagles and horses, pulled by T-bars and winches, and pushed by running heroes and mentors.
A crucial part of Beaner Danielle Beausoleil’s pre-race preparation is imagining herself running tall and strong at the 20 mile mark, “when the marathon begins,” and also sprinting the last 400 metres. She works on the imagery and corresponding paces during training runs so that when she hits those marks in a race, the imagery — and energy — “switches on.”
For the third Beaner in our group, Mary Speck, talking about imagery with fellow runners filled up her imagery bank. “You have these little things of your own that are helpful, but sometimes they stop working. Being a skier, the image of being pulled up a hill by a t-bar really spoke to me. It can be embarrassing talking about this stuff, but you find others are thinking about it. When you get tired, the worse aspects of self come out. That’s helpful during a race. Using imagery made me a mentally stronger and happier runner.”
Energy Management and Active Awareness: Check your altitude and your attitude to find the appropriate energy level and focus on being present, before and during the race.
Energy management, says Jensen, is usually about controlling pre-competition jitters. “It’s almost always trying to bring your energy down, but there are certain days when you have to get more engaged and move up a level, maybe to put more effort into a training session or a hard set of hills.”
Active Awareness, “the foundation of it all,” is “about noticing your experience at the body level (what’s it going through), at an emotional level (how are you feeling), and the mind level (what you are thinking about and how you are thinking about it).”
If either energy or mental focus drifts out of an optimal zone, runners can readjust with centering techniques — deep breathing, relaxing the shoulders, positive imaging, reviewing goals.
Jensen helped hurdler Sarah Wells readjust her “altitude” as she struggled back from injuries to try to qualify for the London Olympics with an incredible PB. In the months leading up to the games, Wells had to hit a number of time standards. Jensen says she was focusing on “externalities” rather than her actual performance. “It was throwing off her arousal level, big time.” For recreational runners, worrying about work or family problems instead of being in the moment of training or racing can also zap energy. To help Wells refocus her energy, Jensen jotted that day’s date on the bottom left corner of a piece of paper and the date of the Olympic trials in the top right hand corner then connected the two with a straight upward line. “I said, none of that external stuff matters. You have 40 days to prepare for your race. Imagine improving a quarter percent a day, how fast you’ll be. In her first race, she blew away the standard and PBed.”
Hurdler David Hemery told Jensen about making a similar adjustment to attitude just before setting a new world record in the1968 Olympics in Mexico City. While pulling on his cleats, the British athlete saw an American runner blast past him and caught himself thinking, “wow, he’s fast.” Says Jensen: “David realized that wasn’t a productive thought an hour before he had to perform, so he thought back to a time when he felt fast. That was when he was recovering from injury and running in water. So David took off his cleats and ran bare feet on the wet grass on the infield, to relive that positive thought. That’s noticing how he was thinking in the moment —is this helpful or not? — but in a relaxed way. He was taking care of business.”
Jensen recommends mentally preparing for a race two weeks ahead, by reviewing goals and training logs to “remind yourself you’ve done the training, you’re prepared” and check anxious thinking with positive imagery. “Runners can get caught up giving hills or competitors or the race too much respect, then anxiety and negative thoughts creep in, and it’s like trying to row a boat with a hole in it and water’s gushing in.”
During training, the Beaners practiced “active awareness” or what we called “running in the moment,” especially during a brutally hilly half marathon to prepare for Boston’s notorious Newton Hills. Danielle describes the state as “having a clear mind, and the body and mind being synchronized. It’s a level of awareness that makes you extremely free. I’m not thinking about the big goal, just my body moving in the moment. I’m really enjoying the moment. It’s a powerful way to be.” But to achieve that, she laughs, you have to practice it. The day before that race, she flew home from vacation and didn’t prepare mentally. “I failed completely at running in the moment. I was thinking about the next hill, the next loop, and I suffered the whole way. I was more sore after that race than after my first marathon.”
My goal was to enjoy being the moment. I focused on the ease of my turn overs, the wind on my face, the stunning winter scenery, the camaraderie of racers. I flew up wickedly steep hills, carried by eagles and horses, imagined myself a Crazy Canuck skiing the down hills and thrilled on the speed. I had never enjoyed a race more, until the abrupt uphill finish: I had no positive imagery for that. Rather, I imagined struggling on the hill and that’s exactly what happened.
But instead of beating myself up for that mental lapse, I determined to learn from it.
Perspective: Define what success means to you — and time should not be the sole definition.
“Getting a healthy and realistic perspective on a race,” says Jensen, “is akin to how a friend might advise you, and that’s what you give to yourself.”
He recommends defining success by other measures beyond time. Think about why you run — health, enjoyment, thrill of competing? Determine things to work on in a race — sticking to strategy, using imagery, enjoying the experience, giving yourself positive self talk.
As for time goals, he suggests having three — a “bare minimum” you can be satisfied with, one that’s “good enough” and an “oh-my-god.” But using only time to measure success will ultimately lead to disappointment. “Ten minutes after a race, you’re always going to think you could have run faster.”
The Beaners worked hard to get a “healthy” perspective leading up to Boston. But, if anything, the race had become even bigger in our minds. We had pushed each other hard in training and supported each other as intensely. Barely a day went by without a flurry of email exchanges to check in on tight hamstrings or shore up fragile confidence. We had done group sports therapy together! We were primed, physically and mentally, to have the races of our lives.
And then we arrived to that withering dangerous heat wave. Race organizers urged runners to drop out by guaranteeing them a spot in 2013 and cautioned those still determined to race not to race — it was not a day for time goals.
Mentally recalibrating was not easy. Danielle says she let go her goal of requalifying “intellectually, but not emotionally. I crossed the start line not knowing why I was there. If not for time, why was I racing? I suffered immensely those first 7 kilometres. All these bad thoughts came in. Then Phyllis told me, there’s 35 k left. That’s a training run. We can do that. After that, not one negative thought came in. I redefined success and it was a lovely race.”
Mary tried a requalifying pace for five kilometres before adjusting her perspective. “If you only use time and you can’t meet that pace, then you’ve failed before you even finish. If I couldn’t requalify, what did I care about time at all?” She shifted her focus to enjoying the experience and stopped to wait for us.
Phyllis and I had less trouble letting go of time. Two weeks before the race, I wrote out ten measures of success — time not among them. Even before the race, I could put check marks beside most — got in best shape of my life; learned to become own best friend, to keep me running happy, hopefully, for life; forged fantastic running friendships. And a key goal was to soak up every second of my first Boston, something best done at a more relaxed pace. And as Phyllis pointed out, the heat wave delivered a beautiful opportunity: to set aside individual time goals and run as we had trained, as a team.
Searing hot as it was, I glided along with my running pals, chatting with other racers, high-fiving Wellesley College gals, even cheering and high-fiving the amazing fans who cooled us down with ice cubes, water hoses and spray guns.
By Heart Break hill, I realized I had poured too much energy into reveling in the circus-like hoopla. I jammed ice cubes into my cap, but could not feel them against my head. I could not keep liquids down, and my calves were cramping so bad I feared pitching forward on my face. Then my dream of the Beaners finishing together fell apart as Phyllis and Danielle held pace and pulled ahead.
Cue dark thoughts but I stopped them. Instead, I thought back to my measures of success and determined to run with gratitude in my heart, for qualifying and running Boston on my 50th. I got to the top of Heart Break Hill, where Mary was celebrating her 50th by downing a shot of beer handed to her by a fan. Though she had energy left for a decent finish, her new goal was to bring me home, and I was truly grateful for that.
Phyllis and Danielle finished seven minutes ahead and were whisked into medical tents to be packed in ice bags and administered IVs. Over the final miles, Mary and I passed runners who had started well ahead of us, in the first and second waves, but had been reduced to a staggering walk or had collapsed, while we jogged haltingly, triumphantly, to our slowest ever marathon finish.
Mary Speck, Danielle Beausoleil, Phyllis Berck and me