In the past five years, I’ve done five stand-alone marathons – seven if you count the marathon that is within the Ironman. It’s not like I’m an expert or anything, but I have been around the block a few times (and not just marathoning…I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination).
Over the years I’ve gotten a crap load of advice (both solicited and unwanted) from millions of sources. What to eat. How and where to poop. How to avoid excessive gas. How to be mentally strong. What to wear. What not to wear. How to pace. How to avoid chaffing. How to pose at the finish line (don’t look at your watch). How to avoid hitting the wall.
Yet within the plethora of advice that has been offered to me via books, blogs, articles and experienced runners, I’ve come up with my own list. These tips are mental, not physical in nature. That’s because by the time you get to the start line of a marathon, you should have trained enough that your body can go the distance. What is left is how you cope with your mind. Believe me when I say it is your best friend or your worst enemy.
1. Know pain is temporary. Before my first marathon I had no clue if I could go the distance. I was terrified. I had never even done a half marathon. I searched everywhere for inspiration. One quote that stuck with me was “Pain is temporary, quitting is forever.” We are miserable in a marathon because we are pushing beyond our limits. We have all been at that point of agony where we are DONE and SICK of doing what we are doing. We want nothing more in the world than to stop. We wonder if it is worth it. We wonder why we are doing this. This is the exact time when I bring the above quote to mind.
I think about the miles and minutes I have left in the race. I tell myself that I can do anything for an hour. I tell myself that I have only two 5Ks to go. I visualize myself at the end of the race, medal around my neck, hugging my family. I remember how I want to feel in that moment. Proud. I push on.
The end of the Colorado Marathon when I got my BQ. Hugging my mom.
2. Change it up. When you are really struggling - to the point where you are not sure you can push on, do something –ANYTHING - differently. Change up something in your form such as increasing or decreasing cadence. Try an orange slice from a spectator. Walk for a few seconds. Put in your music. Notice the scenery. Grunt hello to a fellow runner. I use this “change it up” technique all of the time. It works because it distracts you from the pain and the many miles you have ahead. It also alters your physical and mental statuses ever so slightly, but enough to give a boost.
3. Embrace the Suck. Expect to be uncomfortable and don’t let it psyche you out. It must be something inherent in the human condition that when we feel discomfort, we think we need to quit. We think something is wrong. I would argue that the opposite is true. Discomfort is a signal to us that we are pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone and that can be a beautiful thing. That push is the reason that our sense of accomplishment is what it is after a race. My guess is that the most successful runners have learned how to accept suffering. They expect it. When the agony comes, and it will, acknowledge it but don’t let it break you – “Yep, here you are you mother f&cker. I knew you’d show up. Let’s finish this thing.”
4. Don’t get ahead of yourself. One of the worst things we can do at the start of a marathon is think about the 26.1 miles we have left to go. The brain simply cannot accept that kind of distance and it will want to tell you that you cannot do it. It will play tricks on you such as “Dude, you are only at mile 3 and you are already breathing hard. You’ll never finish this race.” When I am in a long distance race like a marathon or an Ironman I have to stay in the moment in order to survive. I’ve got my strategy in place for the race, but every mile is its own mile, its own set of successes and challenges.
5. Be grateful. I know I say this all the time, but I believe gratitude is the emotion that can change your attitude and perspective in a split second. Take in your day. You have worked hard to be here. Know that you are in the top .17% who has completed a marathon in the U.S. (541,000 out of 316 million people in 2013). Your body is letting you do this. Your family and friends support you. Your mind is strong. Be thankful for all of it. In that moment when you are suffering and you think you might not make it to the finish, quietly whisper (or scream) “Thank you”.
The end of Ironman Boulder. My form sucks. Who cares.
I’m grateful I can still move.
What’s your best marathon tip?