Last year a friend and I were chatting about my marathon training. I had just done my 20 mile run and was preparing for the 22 miler the following week. She asked how my run had gone and commented that it must be so hard by the end to finish.
I thought about it for a moment and then had a great realization. It was a bit rough at the end, but every run pretty much ends that way.
As the weeks had progressed during my training I started noticing something that really helped carry me through those long runs. It started with a 16 mile run. I knew I had completed that distance before, but it had been awhile and I was a bit apprehensive about how it was going to go down. I felt relatively good almost all the way through and around mile 15 I started to feel tired and really looked forward to finishing. I remember thinking that 16 miles was tolerable but based on how it ended with the last mile, next week’s 18 mile run might be a struggle.
The following week as I did my 18 mile run I felt good and strong until mile 17, and then I started to tire and mentally was ready to be done with the run. Again I thought that I had done surprisingly well but lamented that 20 was going to be hard based on my minor struggle from mile 17-18 that weekend.
Wouldn’t you know that the same pattern occurred with my 20 and 22 mile runs? I felt great until about the last mile each time. Each week as the miles continued, I made it further and further before these struggles occur.
You could attribute this to my training and the fact that a proper plan and base miles allows you to continue pushing your body and improving. That was certainly a contributing factor but something else was going on…..
During the week I had several 6-12 mile training runs in addition to the weekend long run. I remember one particular Monday when I was rather happy to have only six miles on the plan for the day. It felt great, I felt strong, and it is just awesome when six miles becomes a “short” run. But then as mile five beeped on my GPS and I only had one mile left to go I started to feel tired, mentally and physically. I started looking at the watch a lot. Half a mile to go, a quarter mile to go….you know the drill.
That’s when it clicked for me. Our minds and bodies are amazing mechanisms. They have the ability to adapt and adjust to just about anything we throw at it within reason. Somehow with each training run my mind was able to prepare me mentally for whatever distance I was planning for the day. I had properly trained my body to handle the additional mileage and my mind took over to help me make it through.
Years ago I was reading an article in Sports Illustrated about endurance athletes. There had been a study that showed if you send a group of runners out and tell them they are going to run a mile and you actually have them run two miles without their knowledge, their minds begin to wander and they struggle near the end. If you send that same group out and tell them they are running two miles, they will run a strong solid two miles. They were all physically capable of running two miles but the mental struggles were what made the difference.
The actual article was very heartbreaking piece about an elite runner who was caught in a riptide with her toddler. As she struggled against the waves she held her tiny boy on her chest and pushed him above the water so that he could breathe. She continued doing this until help came and rescued the boy out of her arms. As soon as the rescuers took him to safety, she fell under the waves and succumbed to the tide. It was as if she was mentally able to hold on only until she knew he was safe and then could no longer continue; a bit like one’s mindset during a race.
This is of course a tragic situation but it was used to help prove what a lot of exercise scientists and sports psychologists believe about endurance athletes. We have an incredible ability to adapt and push onward. If we tell ourselves we are going to do 20 miles, our minds will mentally prepare and adjust for that distance.
This is a great lesson for all of us runners and especially those who are preparing for a distance event. Never doubt your ability or endurance. With a proper training plan your mind and body are always capable of finding a way to the finish. Remember that every run is hard towards the end whether it is short or a long. But don’t allow that to question how far you can push yourself. Today’s 5 mile struggle might be tomorrows 26.2 mile win.