Accessing you mental toughness

635204708462443579It’s interesting to see and hear what my clients succeed and struggle with, and how that relates to my own struggles as an athlete. One thing a few athletes voiced struggling with in 2014 was mental toughness, which is a topic many of us know all too well. I’ve been thinking about my own relationship with it, and think I may have some ideas, tips and experiences that may help you and your running goals – especially in the marathon.

We are all incredibly strong. Sure, we have varying degrees of the tough stuff, but very few people are truly weak. However many people perceive themselves that way. The good news is that we can always change how we handle those hard moments and our perception. In running, clocking long miles like a marathon tend to really test our mental toughness. Mentally, I think anyone can get through a 5K. I can talk myself into doing anything painful or taxing for 15-25 minutes. Mentally, I’ve got that. That doesn’t mean I won’t hurt, fight towards the finish line and feel mentally spent at the end – because all of those things will definitely happen. But mentally I can always get myself around a 5K. A marathon is a whole different game. And here’s where we get personal:

I am going to assume that every poor soul taking the time to read my blog as experienced some form of hardship in their lives – maybe many. I’m talking the dark, ugly, painful shit. Divorce, loss of a loved one, being bullied, fighting substance abuse, physical setbacks, being mentally or physically abused, experiencing a horrific trauma and suffering from PTSD, rising above prejudices, or simply being told your entire life that you were weak. If you haven’t experienced any of that, you are extremely lucky and should probably start buying lottery tickets. For the rest of us, we have all had to cope with that crap at some point or another, most likely multiple times. Hopefully you have all processed these things in a healthy way. If you haven’t, talk to someone. Anyway, I’m not a therapist, but I do know the power of rising above bad experiences. If you are planning to run or race a marathon, or a distance that is new and/or terrifying to you, use those bad experiences. Why? Because you have forged your way through them and are here today and ready to run. That takes guts. And a hell of a strong brain. That strength is your ace in the marathon.

Personally, I’ll freely admit my triggers. For my first marathon, I used the determination to prove to myself and every girl who bullied me in high school that I was a strong fighter, and a Boston Qualifier. I wanted to prove them wrong. I wanted to prove to myself I could survive an ugly divorce, a sexual assault, and a suicide attempt. I wanted to prove to the world that I was no longer weak, unstable, unhappy, or capable of crumbling when shit got hard. And so I trained hard. I trained with fire in my heart and blinders on my eyes. I trained through plantar pain, long work hours, and rain storms. When I’d reach mile 16-20 of my long runs, I’d fight through to mile 22-23. No, I was not training to be a pro or win awards, but I knew my goal was there if I worked hard for it. When I crossed that first marathon finish line, I wanted to shout up to the clouds all kinds of happy profanities. Not because I had surpassed my time goal, but because I had proved to myself that the weak, uncomfortable, insecure me was gone. Gone forever.

Now I realize that I had a list of really shitty things to propel that first marathon (blessing in disguise?), but use what you have. Dig deep, and find that strength. If you dealt with a messy breakup, had to balls to walk out of a bad relationship, use the strength that action took. If you were ill and needed surgery and pushed through the recovery and rehab, use that. Whatever you have surpassed, overcome, walked away from, fought head on – access that. Don’t be scared of it. Use your demons, and suddenly a marathon doesn’t seem so daunting. I mean yes, you still have to do the work and it’s a LONG ways, but I think you get it.

So if you experienced a long distance race that fizzled thanks to your mental state, go back to the drawing board on those long runs. Truthfully, even the most conditioned athlete can fall apart in the marathon if they lose their head. I’ve seen ladies who finish 7 hour marathons, putting one foot in front of the other slow and steady, refusing to quit. I’ve also seen ladies who aim to run a 2:45 marathon, lose their heads and throw in the towel. What we have going on in our brains has nothing to do with our physical strength, though we are at our best when our brains and bodies are both trained for race day – whatever that means for you.

You are stronger than you realize. All you have to do is accept that and dig deep to that place of strength. It takes practice to access it, so hop to it.

The Balance Beam

img_6690-editI am asked all the time by my clients, family and friends how I balance my coaching obligations and my own training. My response is always the same: it’s a challenge and a balancing act. In fact, I have had to change my own personal goals this year to accommodate my coaching – which has been fine. It’s my choice. My own experiences with balancing work and running made me think of my clients and everyone I know balancing their careers and everything else in their lives.

Balancing training for a goal like a marathon is all about choices. I suppose it’s like anything in life. There are some folks who will prioritize a specific running goal above almost all else, while others barely train and hope for the best. Many of us fall somewhere in the middle. We’re smart enough to know you can’t cheat your way through marathon training, but also have other priorities and the marathon doesn’t make the top of the list. Running is something many of us do, and we are indeed runners. However that’s usually not the only thing we are or identify with.

So how does one balance goals if priorities swing one way or another?  Perhaps some years personal running goals need to take the back burner while something else moves to the front. Or perhaps the type of running goal you have changes – maybe you want to try an indoor track season or an Ultra – both completely different sports from the marathon. If I had all the answers, I’d be bestowing that wisdom upon you right now. Instead, I’ll admit I struggle to keep my balance sometimes. The silver lining is that when my own goals need to take the back burner, it’s usually because I am helping others achieve their goals – which is a pretty awesome job.

If you find yourself struggling to keep balance, figure out why. Perhaps you have been training for marathon after marathon, signing up and training for the next the minute the current goal is history. It’s natural to burn out, both physically and mentally. I’ve been there, and hard as it may be, sometimes a break is the best thing. The thing to keep in mind is that the marathon will always be there, whether you come back to it in one year, five years or fifteen years. Yes, your body may react differently to training if you wait fifteen years, or it may be extremely frustrating to build back fitness you know you had a year ago, but our bodies and minds are pretty darn amazing, and will indeed bounce back.

Personally, I am struggling with that right now. This past year I took off from pretty much all of the training I had done the last few years. No track work, tempo runs, hill repeats – none of what I had been doing to make me “fast.” (My fast is turtle pace compared to some and probably speedy compared to others, so I think it deserves quotations.) Instead, I focused on Ultra Marathon training, which made sense with my coaching schedule. It was incredibly easy to tally up high-mileage weeks, all done at an easy pace. Ask me to run a 6-minute mile, and I would be left dry-heaving on the side of the road. My body had changed, thanks to what I’d asked it to do. Yes, I’d run 15 miles per day, 6-7 days per week and feel great. But could I race a 5K with any dignity? Nope. But that kind of training fit my schedule best. It was the easiest choice – which I realize as I say that sounds pretty insane. Like me, you may find yourself training the way that best fits your current life – be it work, family, etc. The hard part is then trying to change that.

How does someone go from running easy 90-100 mile weeks to suddenly asking their body to run “hard” again? It’s incredibly humbling to be huffing and puffing to run at your marathon goal pace from a year ago. But again, our bodies change based on the training demands. Can I get my body to run 7:05s for 26.2 miles again? Absolutely. Would it take a lot of work and patience? Sure. But it can be a goal if I decide to work for it.

I suppose I have two points to this blog:

  • As long as you give yourself the time and the proper training, you can change your running goals and absolutely succeed at the goals you have carved out for yourselves. Try something new. Aim for that PR, that BQ, that OQ. The worst that happens is you fail. And so what? It’s not like you are losing a cash prize if you don’t achieve your race-day goals, right?
  • The second is that I am excited as an athlete to switch focuses and see what I can do with shorter distances. It will be a challenge to balance coaching miles and training miles, but it’s all about choices and priorities. It may mean I need to be creative with my quality workouts and my rest days. But just like anyone with a job and other things in their lives, it’s all a balancing act. I’m never going to be training full-time, so just like you, I need to be both focus and ambitious but also flexible.

If you have tips for how you manage your training, race goals and life – please leave a comment. I know I could use any tips – and I am sure I am not the only one!

Post-Marathon Blues

img_6945Post-marathon time is often a time of riding the high of your accomplishment, reflecting on what went wrong and what went right, resting those tired legs, and perhaps deciding to retire from said marathon distance or perusing for future races. You may also find yourself feeling a little lost without all those training miles, and perhaps still eating all those yummy carbs. It’s natural after your 26.2 mile journey to go through a few weeks of transition.

Despite your enthusiasm to get back out and running, allow your legs to rest. Even though you may feel decent, many little micro tears in your muscles are healing. Your body and brain will thank you for the break. A few weeks of rest or easy cross training is the best thing you can do for your legs.

Spend this time going over your marathon experience. There are lessons that can be learned from every marathon. I find the greatest lessons come from the marathons that disappoint than those that go according to plan. Mistakes are the greatest learning lessons, as long as you LEARN from them. Perhaps you didn’t take the proper taper, or you wore something new on race day and it backfired, you made poor fueling choices, or you abandoned your plan and took the early miles too fast – those are all common mistakes, and mistakes that shouldn’t be made twice.

The “off-season” can be a great time to work on your weaknesses. Strength training, rebooting your nutrition, shedding a few pounds, rehabbing a nagging injury, trying a new sport or hobby – don’t view this part of training as a bad thing, it’s the chance to improve.

If you are eager to sign up for a new race, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to recover and build some base mileage before hopping back into intense training. Being too eager can increase injury risk. Your body and brain both need to be on board – not just your brain. When searching for a race, think about what you loved about your recent one and what perhaps you wish it had. With all the race options these days, you are bound to find the perfect fit. When searching for your next race, think about your goals and how to find the perfect complement to your needs, goals and race-day dreams.

Marathon Preparation – what to do now

img_7073Marathon season is in full swing. Whether you are preparing for your first marathon, your one-hundredth marathon, or a goal personal best, there are a few things you should start to practice and plan NOW so that race day goes smoothly!

  • Finalize accommodations. Race weekend can become stressful. You will naturally be a bit anxious or excited. Having your plans for the weekend – including where you are going to eat, stay and how you will get to/from the race ironed out now will equal minimal chance for added stress on race weekend.
  • Practice in what you’ll wear. Everything from your shoes to your hat – wear your “race outfit” for a few long runs. This will minimize the risk of blisters, chafing, overheating, or simply annoying or uncomfortable race-day issues. If you plan to buy new shoes for your marathon, buy them and break them in on a few long runs in the weeks leading up to the big day.
  • Practice how you will fuel on race day. Everything from what you’ll eat the night before and morning of to how often you will refuel with water or GU on the course. Leaving nutrition to chance is a good way to guarantee you’ll take a tour of the porta-potties mid-race.
  • Start looking at your race course and elevation. Make note of landmarks, turns, water stations, and other useful points on the course. You don’t want to feel “lost” on race day. Know the course, and you’ll be prepared for success.
  • Set a few race-day goals. It’s impossible to predict what will happen with 26.2 miles of running, and setting one ambitious best-case scenario goal may set you up for a whole lot of heart ache. A few goals means you may have fall-back goals you can still achieve if the star’s don’t align.
  • Look at your training paces and come to terms with your strengths and weaknesses. Runners who know themselves often have a better chance of handling the tough moments and getting back on track. Revisiting your training should also give you some confidence. The proof is in the numbers, and so try not to doubt your training while you taper.
  • If you are going to have friends/family cheering on the race course, discuss ahead of time exactly where they will be. It takes a lot of energy to search a crowded block while trying to stick to your paces. Knowing they will be on the northwest corner of Chestnut Street, wearing blue and holding a sign is a million times easier than looking for someone “at the intersection of Chestnut Street.”
  • Make clear and definitive plans for what to do and how to get home, to the hotel, or to find family post-race. Be realistic and give yourself extra time. Marathoners move notoriously slow post-race.

No matter how your race weekend goes, try to have some fun and relax. There is always something positive to take away and learn from every race. If things don’t go your way, at least you know you were prepared. That should narrow the possibilities for making the same mistake twice – and hopefully you’ll have a kick ass race and will cross the finish line with a smile from ear to ear, feeling awesome.

Endurance Nutrition

Post-run pancakes, pumpkin butter, maple syrup, and beer.

Post-run pancakes, pumpkin butter, maple syrup, and beer.

During marathon season, many questions come up regarding nutrition. Today I’d like to go over some nutrition tips for marathon season, including basic nutrition, mid-run fueling, and pre-run/post-run nutrition.

It’s no secret that running a marathon is a pretty easy way to lose weight. You simply are burning thousands more calories than the person sitting on the couch. I am frequently asked about how to diet while marathon training. For most runners, this is not a smart idea. Your body and brain are put through a lot of stress during marathon training months, and depriving yourself serious calories can leave you feeling tired. You can also accidentally cut nutrition you need, leaving your body weak and unable to improve for your task at hand – 26.2 miles. Therefore, I suggest eating a sensible and well-balanced diet while training, and any extra body fat will probably disappear due to training, as long as you aren’t suddenly overeating. Instead of going on a diet, think of your body as your machine and yourself as an athlete – because you are. It doesn’t matter how fast you are going to run on race day, you are preparing your body for a marathon. Eat nutrient-dense foods. Foods that give you the fuel and nutrients you need to feel good, energized, and fueled for training. Fresh fruits and veggies, lean proteins, complex carbs and lots of water should make up most of your diet. Focus on eating well and don’t make anything off-limits.

For your long runs and race day, nutrition can be what makes or breaks your morning. Mid-run fueling can be tricky, as everyone has different sweat-rates, and everyone’s stomach and nutrition needs are different. Personally, if I am running a 3:00-3:30 marathon, I’ll consume 1 GU every 30-40 minutes (usually 4 GU per marathon), and I grab a cup of water every 20 minutes and take a few sips. For me, this is usually enough to get me through a marathon without feeling too zapped, but also not water-logged or sick. If conditions aren’t ideal, I may take more nutrition. I’ve sometimes used GU with caffeine and other times without. Whatever I end up training with most is what I go with on race day. That’s one example. The longer your out there for your race, the more fuel you’ll need. Other runners prefer Gatorade or Blocks over Gu-like products. On your training run, try to practice what you’ll do on race day. Nutrition is recommended for runs lasting about 90 minutes or more. Any runs of less time shouldn’t require mid-race fueling as long as you are hydrated pre-run and refuel after your workout is complete.

  • A word about mid-run nutrition – yes, there are calories in nutrition – about 100 calories per serving. These calories are very much-needed on your long runs, so DO NOT skip them because you are watching your figure. However, if you are using GU for every run you do, even easy 3-5 milers, you may end up gaining weight. Those supplements simply aren’t necessary for short runs and are therefore empty calories.

What you eat before your long run can lend itself to a successful run – or can make you suffer. Just as you should think about your general nutrition fueling your body as an athlete, you need to be aware of what you are consuming pre-long run. You don’t need to go crazy with the carbs (your body can only store so much glycogen, and the rest will simply be wasted), but you DO want to make sure you eat simple carbs. The night before a long run, I may eat pasta, pizza, rice, or potatoes. The morning of my run, I eat a bagel or toast with a little peanut butter, a banana with oatmeal, or pancakes. Just give yourself a few hours between your meal and your run. How much time you’ll need is going to vary per person. It is also very important to be consuming water the day before and the day of your long run. Just as it takes a little time to digest and process carbs into glycogen, it takes our bodies some time to hydrate. Chugging a liter right before your run will not help you.

Post-run, it’s important to get nutrition into your system as quickly as possible. Your body, depleted of nutrition, will go into recovery-mode soon after you finish your run. Therefore, consuming something with carbs and protein and some sugar is great. You will also need to drink some water and perhaps a bottle of Gatorade. Personally, I love a tall glass of chocolate milk, a bottle of Gatorade, and a big glass of water as soon as I’m finished my long run. After that, I’ll eat a meal. Unlike some runners, my stomach is rarely a mess post-run and I always have an appetite. I’ll eat anything from a burger with fries and a beer to a big salad topped with some form of protein. Other times I’ll opt for a big plate of pancakes or a bagel with cream cheese and lox. I go with what I’m craving. If your stomach is sensitive and you don’t have an appetite, at least get water and something like chocolate milk into your system. That’s far better than nothing. Remember, in order for your legs to recover as quickly as possible, you need nutrients to do so.

Again, this is just a starting point. I could dive into the different components of endurance nutrition in a far more detailed and nerdy way, but at least you hopefully have some sort of understanding of why certain choices should and shouldn’t be made. Remember that what works for one runner may not work for the next, and so you should always use your long runs as your “dress rehearsals” for race day. Good luck, and happy running!


Report from the Trenches: NJ Marathon

Carb-loading with a sundae and a side of fries for lunch!

Carb-loading with a sundae and a side of fries for lunch!

Over the weekend of April 26-27th, I packed my bags and hopped the train to Long Branch, NJ. I was en route to this cute beach town to pace one of my athletes during his marathon debut. The NJ Marathon and Half Marathon runs through residential neighborhoods with many twists and turns, with the marathon heading on an out-and-back to Asbury Park, ending with a mile or so run along the beach and what would have been the boardwalk if Hurricane Sandy hadn’t destroyed it, finishing with the ocean on your right and screaming crowds and hotels and condos on your left.

If you are looking for a springtime race, this might be one to add to your calendar. The weather turned out to be practically perfect. Cool and sunny, low humidity thanks to rain showers the night before, and minimal gusty winds as beach marathons go. The Half Marathon started 75 minutes before the Marathon, giving way to a race course that never felt crowded after the first mile. The race is small by city marathon standards, and so logistics were easy. Instead of navigating race morning around 20,000+ runners, only 2113 runners completed the marathon.

Wearing a trash bag pre-race to keep warm. Yes, its ghetto. But it works.

Wearing a trash bag pre-race to keep warm. Yes, its ghetto. But it works.

The race course was very flat, with only a few very tiny elevation changes in the first 10K. Bag check, parking, and porta potty lines were never very crowded. The race expo was also never very crowded, and easy and free parking made the process a breeze. The race organization also sent emails (I think I received 10 emails?!?) with race-day information as things changed, and in an effort to guarantee a great race weekend for everyone.

There are a few restaurants in Long Branch serving the needs of carb-loading marathoners, but the Italian restaurant we chose filled up quickly after 6pm. Luckily we sat down right before the restaurant got slammed, so consider this when strategizing meals. I find its often best to eat an early dinner the night before a race, as this gives you the opportunity to rest, sleep and digest without feeling rushed or full when trying to sleep.

The volunteers were great, but if you are looking for a race with lots of energetic spectators, this isn’t a big city race and doesn’t have those big city crowds. There were many quiet miles, though the folks who were out and cheering were much appreciated by the runners. Both the Marathon and the Half offered pacers, a tool many runners take advantage of, especially when they have a specific time goal. If a small, flat, no-nonsense and fanfare race is what you crave, I highly recommend NJ Marathon.

Starting line. A thin crowd 40 minutes before the start.

Starting line. A thin crowd 40 minutes before the start.

Report from the Trenches: Philadelphia Marathon

Saying I was nervous about the Philadelphia Marathon would be an understatement. I am sure Chris, friends and family were beyond tired of hearing about it by the time we got to race weekend. Yes, I always have nerves before a goal-race, but I had made Philly 2013 into this epic come-back chance for myself. After being plagued by four bad marathon experiences in a row (Boston 2012, fighting a stomach bug and the heat was a combination I couldn’t push through, causing me to DNF. NYC 2012 was canceled. Harrisburg Marathon 2012 was a nightmare where I injured at mile 12, and SHOULD have DNF’ed, but was too stubborn. Boston 2013, for the obvious reasons.) – THIS was my chance to get that PR I so badly wanted, and I craved a GOOD marathon morning.

I knew that the original goal I had set of a 3:00 marathon at Philly just wasn’t in the cards. My training and mental state just weren’t ready. So I reassessed and set new, smarter goals.

The new goal time: sub-3:10, seemed possible. I had been on track for it a year before in Harrisburg before my foot and ankle ruined that race. I knew stepping up to the Philly Marathon starting line that I had to keep my head, and let my body do it’s job.

Race morning was a cool 51 degrees at the start, but also a suffocating 93% humidity. I do not race well in humidity, but knew my only choice was to give it my all. As the sun slowly rose over my home town, I found myself in a packed corral with other nervous runners. I wondered how many of them would be an intimate part of my 3+ hour journey. I gathered myself for a few quiet moments in my head while announcements were made, and before I knew it, we were off!

I had two plans for this race: Run smart, and negative split. I had NEVER run a negative split in a marathon before. That was my weakness. I decided I was going to see if I could change that, so I started out conservatively. As runners flew past me, I settled into a 7:14 minute mile groove, and told myself to settle. I also decided it was smart to hydrate early and often, especially with the humidity.

I remember being annoyed in the early miles because my damn sunglasses were fogging up. It was distracting, until I told myself to not let it be distracting. I had a long day ahead of me, and I was going to need my energy later. I relaxed, enjoyed the music that streamed through my ipod, and smiled at corny signs the spectators held. I had a few very emotional moments in the first few miles, but told myself to get it together. Crying and running, especially in humidity, don’t work so well.

As I merrily trotted down Chestnut Street, I cheered on a few wheelchair athletes as I passed them. I kept my eye out for Chris as I approached the 10K mark at 18th street, as he planned to cheer me on from the corner. Not only did I see Chris, but our good buddy Alex was with him! A big surprise! I squealed, smiled, and was so thrilled. That energy carried me the next few miles.

Coming up Chestnut Street and spotting my cheering section!

Coming up Chestnut Street and spotting my cheering section!

Right around the turn onto 35th street, my trusty Garmin decided it was done for the day. This could have really thrown me. I almost never run without it, and I ALWAYS race with it. I quickly had to accept that the rest of the race would be without my watch.

I should note here that I did indeed run the Queens Half Marathon a few years ago without my Garmin (not by choice!), and ended up with a big PR – even in the hot and humid July weather. Perhaps that experience kept me from panicking.

As I approached the two biggest climbs of the marathon, I relaxed my pace a bit. I reminded myself that I wanted to go out conservatively, and that this technical part of the course was where I needed to pull back. I still had a long way to go, and I was finding it hard to breathe in the heavy air. I felt as though a weight were sitting on my chest and I couldn’t get a full breath. Relaxing the pace helped. A brief stop to fix a shoe lace that had started to loosen chewed up a few minutes, but I kept my head.

The few miles before the Half Marathon mark were mentally hard. I began doubting my ability to run a smart race without my Garmin. The clock on the watch still worked, so with some simple math I had rough estimates of what pace I was on. Still, I mentally struggled here. I looked for Chris at the next spot he was supposed to be, but I had missed him. Slightly defeated, I trotted on.

Then something happened that made me shift to a second gear. I don’t know if it were seeing some friends along the course, or if I just told myself I had come too damn far to not give this race my all. I shifted into a slightly fast turnover, telling myself to relax and that this was easy. Miles quietly went by, as the field had thinned out significantly after the Half Marathoners split ways to finish.

It was along this out-and-back second half that my ipod decided that it was done too. I couldn’t believe my luck with electronics. This was unreal. Too much sweat had made it unhappy clipped to my sports bra, and I was left to run with no Garmin and no music. Not the race day plan I had in mind, but I’ve raced without music many times before. Ironically, I settled into an even faster pace with ease, sans music.

The energy near in Manayunk, at the turn-around mark and a long 10K to the finish, always gets me going. Mentally, its a blur of energy and I can barely remember specific signs or costumes at this point, but there were the frat boys handing out beer, like they do every year. I recall thinking that beer at the finish line would be good, but there was no way I was grabbing a cup mid-marathon!

I dug deep and kept pushing forward. I took whatever energy I could from the spectators around me. I focused on a mile at a time, slowly chipping away at that long out-and-back. I somehow missed a few friends and team mates out there running, but I did get words on encouragement and a high five from Cip – my lovely friend and team mate with whom I’d run Boston. She told me I looked good, which was clearly a lie. I was around the 24 mile mark, and I was hurting. My strides felt labored, my mind felt fuzzy, and it was all I could do to keep my eye on the prize. Cip’s lie was enough to help me finish what I started.

Based on the clock on my watch, I knew if I just kept one food in front of the other, no matter how hard it felt, that PR was mine. What the time would be, I didn’t want to guess. Those last few miles were hard. At the 25 mile mark, a photographer yelled that I only had a mile to go. I told it would be the longest mile of my day. Plus .2, of course.

Thankfully, I knew Chris would be standing at the 1/2 mile-to-go mark, near Lloyd Hall. What surprised me was the crowd of support that was with him! My parents, his parents, and some friends from NYC were all there, yelling for me. Being the work-horse that I am, I surged up that final incline, using anything I could to finish strong. I noticed that I was running with my arms like a mad-woman at this point, but I don’t think I was capable of correcting my form.

The slight down-hill finish, through a chute of screaming people, it was amazing. I wanted to kick, but I had nothing left. There was no kick. And to my shock, the clock time was reading a time I never thought was in the cards today: I finished in 3:05:27. I could not believe it. I still cannot believe it.

This marathon reminded me a bit of my most recent Broad Street Run. Back in May, I didn’t PR, but I somehow pulled off a time that physically I NEVER would have thought was in the cards. It’s not that I always doubt my training, but back in May I had barely done any speed training (thanks, heel injury!), but I still pulled off a 6:33 mile pace for 10 miles. At that race, I remember mentally being so fired up over Boston, that something mentally snapped and I refused to do anything less than my best. At this Philly Marathon, that same grit and refusal to accept defeat had kicked in again. Man, I wish I could summon that mental state all the time!

As I slowly walked away from the finish line, my mind never went to Boston bombing flashbacks. Perhaps my shocking finish time was so much for me to handle that it pushed out the possibility of any other thoughts. I couldn’t believe it. I had achieved a finish time I didn’t think I’d had in me, on a day when few things went right. I suppose the lesson here is that through your training for a marathon, your body adjusts to a natural rhythm and internal clock that we can’t always see on our Garmin’s face. Sometimes we are stronger than we think we are, but we rely on tools to dictate our potential. And support, support from folks on the course can greatly change the game. My new Philadelphia Marathon PR is proof of that.635204711723558107

Taper Tantrum

Philly Marathon 2011, and my current marathon PR of 3:15:46. Time to step it up and crush it.

Philly Marathon 2011, and my current marathon PR of 3:15:46. Time to step it up and crush it.

With less than a week to go before my goal race, I am deep into tapering. For those of you who don’t know what tapering is, it’s the few weeks leading up to a marathon where mileage and intensity is cut down in order to give the athlete time to rest, recover, heal, focus, and be ready to hit the pavement hard on race day. While tapering can sound delightful while in the middle of marathon training, actually doing it is rough. As an athlete, I despise it.

Realizing that perhaps many of you have dealt with tapering, I decided I would share my own experience this time round – in case it helps you. The truth is that tapering never gets easier.

If you are like me, you handle stress one of two ways: eating and exercising. Well, since my mileage has gone down, and I am no longer allowed to strength train until after the marathon, all of that pre-race stress goes into eating. My dreams have also been flooded with race-day visions. My mind is going wild.

During your taper, it s a good time to go back over previous races, how paces fluctuated, how training went up until that last big race, how you handled race day, etc. It’s also a good time to reaffirm your goals. I always advise my athletes to have three goals for a marathon: the goal that is the reach (everything may need to go perfectly to achieve it), the goal that seems tangible as long as they keep their focus and don’t do anything stupid, and the goal that is the totally achievable unless something goes terribly wrong. After all, it is easy to lose your head out there if things fall apart or don’t go according to plan. Having different goals gives you the opportunity to salvage the day and refocus quickly.

Here are my three goals:

The safety net goal: BQ. Unless I get injured out there, my training indicates that a sub-3:35 will be easy to achieve.

The possible with hard work goal: PR, ideally with a sub-3:10 (7:13 minute miles)

The reach: As close to 3:05 as possible. (7:03-7:05 minute miles)

My original hope for Philly was the 3:05 area and faster, but my training and mental game simply don’t show any sign that I’m there. That’s okay, and I’ve abandoned that goal. It can be saved for another time.

That’s not to say I am cutting my expectations short. My top two goals are ambitious, and I need to play it smart.

The positives: I am healthy. No plantar issues (that’s rare for me!), and no posterior tibial tendon issues, like I had last year. Last year I also battled the norovirus for a week, three weeks before Harrisburg Marathon. Plus, I know the Philly race course like the back of my hand. Knowledge is power. And it looks like I may have some crowd support from friends and family. These are all good things.

The one thing I may do this year is run with music. I generally prefer not to, but since Boston, I have had a hard time keeping my head in the game on long runs without it. Negative thoughts kick in, and I need to avoid that from happening on those quiet miles on Kelly Drive. It doesn’t look like I’ll have any pacers hop in, so I am going to be alone with my own thoughts – which I know is my weakness right now.

I am excited for Philly. I am ready to race again, healthy, and ready to leave it all out on the course. I am not going to Philly to have fun. I am going back to my home town to leave my blood, sweat and tears on the course, and to do my best.

Until then, I’ll keep eating my nerves. Mmm. Carbs.

Marathon Mind-Games

elizabeth_corkum-5810web-320x444If you’ve ever run a marathon, you know that the journey is a mind game. While it’s a given that your body will scream for you to stop – no matter how great your months of training went – your head is what will make you or break you on race day.

Personally, I’ve had marathons in my past that rank as “best day ever,” and I’ve also had a few that count towards “worst day ever.” While for me the “worst day ever” has unfortunately always involved an injury or illness, it’s also always a mental struggle. Do I push through and just finish? Do I DNF? What’s smart? At the end of the day, the decision when injured is never easy.

On the “best day ever,’ marathon, the journey is still something of a mind game. Honestly, it’s the hardest mental test I can think – perhaps second to Ultra Marathons. Ultra Marathons are a completely different mind-game.

Here’s an example of a “good” race day:

Mile 3 – I feel awesome. I can go on forever!

Mile 6 – Man, I have 20 MORE MILES?

Mile 10 – My legs feel tired, but I CAN DO THIS!!!

Mile 13 – I’m only half way there?!?

Mile 15 – Come on, trust your training. This is LIVING!!! Remember, you love this!

Mile 17 – This sucks. Why did I think a marathon was a good idea? This is AWFUL. What other bad life choices have I made?!?

Mile 20 – Jesus Christ, how can I keep this pace for another 10k?

Mile 22 – Focus and get this shit done. You are stronger than this.

Mile 24 – Oh hey, this isn’t so bad! Man, I cannot wait to enjoy a nice cold beer as soon as this is done!

Mile 25 – Dear God, everything hurts and everything is tired. I just want to lay down and sleep.

Mile 26 – Total euphoria. THIS IS IT!!!! Focus is back in my eyes, as are sometimes tears. Push through and finish strong! This is the best moment ever!!!!!

Folks, in my experience, that’s often how a good day goes.

A bad marathon looks too scary to document. If you’ve been there, you know.

The good news is that if you train properly, the mental strength you’ve wielded and mastered on your long runs prepare you for your race morning mental challenge.

It’s funny, you always expect to feel physically spent after a marathon. You anticipate walking like a broken person, having limited range of motion, dealing with chafing and blisters, and having to rehydrate like a camel. The biggest shock to me, every time, is how mentally drained I am after the marathon. Your brain feels like mush, even when euphoric after succeeding at said goal. It reminds me of how I felt after taking the SATs or GREs. My brain feels completely drained.

So, if you are nervous about your looming marathon, you should be. It means you care. It also means you respect the marathon, and that you realize that a whole lot can happen within 26.2 miles. Take heart, your training is preparing you. And yes, on race day you will struggle to keep focused and to keep your brain in a positive place. But keep putting one foot in front of the other, and I promise you it won’t take long until your head shifts into a different space.

Ride the Highs

img_6399-editBest. Workout. Ever.

You know the feeling. You lifted more than ever before. Sweat out a terrible day. Ran a hard track workout strong. Conquered that 20-mile training run like a badass. Whatever the accomplishment, you know the feeling. I LOVE that feeling. It’s the feeling of progress. Of success. Of pay-off.

While that feeling doesn’t happen every day, or even every week, it’s one that we relish in when it happens. It’s what drives us to push through those tough or mediocre workouts. There’s always the chance that this could be the day for that great triumph.

When marathon training, these workouts are what keep us sane. Months of training not only wears on our bodies, but also on our minds and spirits. Injury and burnout are potentially knocking on the door. When a workout goes wrong, we question or abilities. When a workout goes right – we dream of progress, and what we are truly capable of.

The best thing, and what we all hope for: come race day, we have that awesome “workout.” That its the day we feel optimistic and focused in the eyes of fatigue and hitting the wall. That we push through, knowing it can get better. Our training, the combination of good days and bad days are what mentally prepare us for race day. We’ve learned when to push, and also learned when to settle and relax.

The marathon, just like most goals, are about the journey. We wouldn’t truly appreciate the highs without the lows.

So the next time you have a terrible workout, remember that you are just setting yourself up to really enjoy the thrill of a fantastic workout in the future.