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.

One Year Since Boston

A race I will never forget.

A race I will never forget.

It has been a year since the Boston Marathon bombings. A year since the shocking and unthinkable became reality in front of my eyes. I realize of course, that I am far luckier than many people who were at the finish line that day. My scars are purely mental and emotional, and my life has arguably been far better than it could have been. I am very lucky.

For many, many days and nights my mind was plagued by flashbacks. Sleepless nights, and shooting out of bed when a siren broke the silence became routine. I lost my love for running, and in general for most people. I lost my sense of self, my outlook on life, and my ability to control my emotions. Over time, PTSD is no longer part of my daily life. It slips in here and there, and I do my best to handle it.

I suppose on some level, my struggles to cope post-Boston are similar to the grueling mental demands of the marathon itself. When your legs hit mile 17-22, and your legs are screaming to stop, it is your mental strength that forces you to forge on towards the finish line and to never give up. Many people use the saying “Life is a marathon, not a sprint.” Let me tell you, my last year has been a marathon. The good miles where you cannot help but smile and run with such joy and focus, and the miles where you do all you can to hang on.

This year I have many friends and team mates who will toe the line in Hopkinton and take their journey on the best marathon course in the world, crossing the iconic finish line on Boylston Street. Part of me wishes so badly I were ready to go back. I want to be there to cheer. But I also know I am not ready. The scars are too deep, and I know going back would most likely lead to a mental spiral into PTSD. I want so badly to be stronger than that and to share the “Boston Strong” chorus every runner has decided to sing. But I can’t. Not yet. Unlike most of those runners, it was personal. Really personal. While so many runners wanted to make it about themselves and our “running community” as they watched the news from the safety of their own homes, I would have given anything to have been anywhere else. But we don’t get to make those decisions.

Socially, my life has changed a lot in the last year. Many friends who I used to consider close, or part of my social circle have dropped off and stopped including me. I get it. I have turned inward at times and perhaps repelled acts of concern. But honestly, most haven’t stepped up or cared enough to realize that this year was the year I needed friendship the most. Sure, it hurts. But I keep my big girl pants on and remind myself that sometimes events like this show you who your real friends are. That being said, other people in my life have stepped up and been incredibly supportive, when I know it took extra effort on their part to break me down. I am eternally grateful to those people. On my own, I probably would have gone crazy. Even the smallest gesture of a caring text message goes a very long way. To those who have made the effort, know that it means the world to me.

729950-1045-0028sI recently looked at photos from my race last year, and reread the three-part blog for the first time in over six months. Just rereading my own words made me feel ill. It also made me feel excitement and gratitude as I read about the great moments that day, the moments before the blasts. I am hopeful that I will be strong enough to take my spot in the 2015 race. I know that there’s a good chance I’ll emotionally fall apart on the course, or have to fight off panic attacks, since that has been my race norm this year. But I am going to do my best to overcome those mental hurdles. I know if I can train and race marathons that test every fiber of my mental and physical being, I can run Boston again. Logically I know that. Putting it into practice is the hard part. Thankfully, I have another whole year to work on healing.

In an attempt to not have this blog be a total downer, I hope that those of you training for a race do it with joy. Running is perhaps the simplest, most organic full-body expression of happiness. It doesn’t matter if you run fast or slow. If you do with with joy in your heart and a smile on your face, you are doing something right. Be grateful you have a body physically capable of running and celebrate that. While we all run and train for different reasons, at the core there has to be a love for the act or running, or why do it? Your relationship with running may eb and flow like the tide, and that’s perfectly okay. If you love it, the tide will change in time and you’ll never lose your love for the sport. On days where running wears me down, I remember that. I got into this sport because I loved it, and I will continue to be part of this sport as long as I love it – and hopefully share my love and inspire other runners along the way. Just put one foot in front the the other. Simple.

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.

Coping with Burnout

Models: Pipko and Jasmina, Assisted by Jesse Rosenthal and Andrea HeapBurnout often comes from setting goal upon goal – and before you know it months (maybe years!) have gone by, and at some point you just don’t want to run. This is normal. Especially if you often train for the same distance, or the same annual races, and have little physical or mental change.

Take comfort in knowing that what you are going through is totally normal. Also tell yourself that maybe some time off from running will help. Whether you take a few days, weeks, or months, this time off is important. if you try to power through for the next six months, things often get worse. Taking the break NOW means you will come back mentally and physically recharged and refocused, and unless you stop all exercise, your fitness will not suffer much.

Find something else that you enjoy to do with your time. Yoga. Beach Volleyball. Swimming. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be active. Arts and crafts. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Just do something that mentally excites and interests you.

If you loved running before, you’ll love it again. And if you are worried about that hopeful PR on the horizon, relax. Autumn Marathon warriors still have plenty of time to take a break, and still build base mileage before the hard work begins. Remember, your training plan does not have to fit into the cookie cutter 16, 18, or 20 week sizes, though they certainly are popular. Adjust for what you need in order to get to the starting line mentally and physically ready to race. Perhaps a break from running is just what you need.