My fourth half-marathon began much like my third — inauspiciously. I was forcing myself to eat after a terrible night of sleep (NOLA neighbors decide to rage from 3:30-5AM? awesome), dry-heaving nervous at the prospect of towing the line again. It felt like an effort to just point my feet in the correct direction. Was I really going to do this again???
In one of those races, I effectively quit at Mile 6 and spent the next 7.1 miles hating myself and everything. In the other, I forged ahead, hit mile 10 with a smile and the finish line proud.
It would be simplistic to say the difference was that I just decidedNew Orleans wasn’t going to be like the last time (Philadelphia), and then I went out and made sure that it wasn’t. So let’s just say I learned a lesson about mental strength and the importance of determination, in the good, real-smile-in-the-postrace-pictures way.
I mean no disrespect to say that I’m skeptical about mental training in general. I don’t have a mantra. Sometimes I visualize upcoming runs, but with very mixed results. I would have definitely put it in the “optional” category before Sunday, but now, I’m not sure.
My training for New Orleans struggled along similar lines to Philadelphia’s; I started out energized and gung-ho, but self-doubt chased me at every turn. Over and over I would go out for long runs and hear myself bargaining to cut them short almost from the beginning. I doubted whether I would ever be able to get in better shape or faster. Even a few of the short runs became a mental battle, and I emphasize mental, because I wasn’t really getting slower; I was talking myself out of stuff. So I didn’t hope to PR in New Orleans. I reframed my goal to be crossing the finish line feeling that whatever happened, I had given 100 percent and it wouldn’t be because I didn’t try.
And that isn’t sports team boilerplate. That’s what actually happened the last time I tried 13.1 — I didn’t try. I knew it during the race and I knew it afterward when I looked up my splits. It wasn’t fun for me to realize that! As the great Ron Swanson reminds us, it’s better to whole-ass one thing.
From my 30 seconds scanning the race map I recalled that the first 10 miles of the Rock’n’Roll Half were an out-and-back in the Garden District, and decided to focus on getting through those before I thought about walking or breaking. (This isn’t quite true, the “back” portion also included the French Quarter, but it was close enough.) I tried to recall that Patton quote about making the mind run the body. I hung back in the first few miles, letting people pass me even when they were having really eavesdroppable conversations. It sounds cheesy, but I thought about my life a lot? But not in the way that made me want to jump off course, hail a cab home and hide under the bed, so that’s good.
The turn-around snuck up on me, and from there I walked through the water stops, focused on taking in the scenery (did you hear New Orleans is really pretty? It’s really pretty) and steadily batting away the negative thoughts that crowded me in. There were a lot of them, but they were all familiar. For every “start walking,” another “keep going.” For every “it’s funny that you think you can do this,” a “you’ve done this before, you can do it again.” In a perfect world I could have used those thousand microbursts of energy to run faster — but that’s okay, because I didn’t quit. In fact I started to feel pretty good around mile 8 because I wasn’t already a mess! Look at me, doing this running thing!
I felt great enough to take beads and Kool-Aid cups from little kids in the French Quarter (seriously, great parenting) and saw rfgr26 facing the water around Mile 9 (though there’s no pictures to prove it) At the 10-mile mark I actually felt pretty great, because how many times had I run 3.1 miles after work when I was tired and didn’t want to? A lot of times. It also reminded me that at 10 miles into my first half, I thoughtholy shit, I’m going to finish this, this is really happening. It’s good to be reminded that this thing used to seem impossible.
That’s not to say parts of 10-13.1 weren’t a slog… the temperature was warming up and a lot of people around me were walking, so then I also had those voices saying “hey, you could also walk right now.” I took a few breaks but mostly I just pushed my feet forward. At 12.8, a stroke of luck: I saw a woman from my running team in New York walking in front of me and decided to motivate her in while nudging myself to the finish line. (This was mighty uncommon; there were 10 or 12 of us out of 22,000+ runners and the only other teammate I saw was on the “back” portion when I was on the “out.”) I don’t even know her last name but I owe her big time for helping me pick up my feet at the end there.
As I walked away I knew even if I hadn’t PR’d (and I didn’t), I didn’t quit. I even did better than my secret goal of 2:37, proving that whatever improvements I need to make in racing, I have maintained more fitness than I was giving myself credit for. “I’m back, baby!” I jubilantly wrote to the folks at home.
If my biggest problem is the one in my brain-box… well, at least I know where it was all along.
tl;dr Fourth half-marathon since April 2011, love running, frozen Hurricanes are not that good, all sunshine.