The Mind is the Athlete

My lungs heaved. My shoulders strained. My breath came in ragged gasps. I was wrung out but I churned on. When I cleared the stop sign, my watch buzzed marking the seventh mile repeat. “6:09.” Fuck.

Rather than the exclamation point I had hoped for with this workout, I left it with more of a question mark – the questions being what happened? What was that? Why?

You see, I was supposed to run 7×1 mile starting at 5:40 and working down to 5:30 (reference 6:09 above). The workout had been a bear from the start. And though I recognized the pile of adversities stacked against me (lack of sleep, stress at work, still sick), a trickle of doubt began to seep in. I started a down trodden cool down back to my house when I then asked myself: “Why are you running today?”

It’s a question I’ve asked myself every morning of this Boston buildup as a I dress for a run, pop my contacts in, or lace up. I don’t ask out of wonder, skepticism, or dread. Rather, I ask out of necessity. And the answer is always: “I expect to run 2:35 at Boston.”

It has to be.

Admittedly, when I first began this ritual some 10 weeks ago, I’m not sure I believed it, or at least not every day. But the shift has been subtle. In buildups past, I might say, “I want to run 2:35” or “I hope to run 2:35.” That simple one-word substitution has ignited a massive mindset shift in how I approach mental preparation for this marathon.

I embraced the concept after my coach recommended that I read Dr. Stan Beecham’s, “Elite Minds” earlier this winter. Beecham is a sports psychologist that ZAP’s athletes have used in the past.

Beecham says that the “future is primarily determined by what you tell yourself about the future; the beliefs one has about the future can actually dictate behavior in the present.” In other words, if you set yourself up to run poorly by believing that will be the outcome, why should you expect any alternative?

Confidence, though, can be like glass. It can be impenetrable and bulletproof or it can be delicate and fragile. Harkening back to my days as an ice hockey goaltender, that area between my ears could be a scary place, full of demons of doubt, where I second-guessed and forced every movement and reaction (mostly pulling the puck out of the back of the net). While other times it was a place of peace, of synergy, of flow. There was no past, no future, only what was happening immediately in front of me, and all I had to do was react. In that flow, there’s no thinking, no worrying, no second-guessing.

And I’m trying to find that place of stillness with my running. Because believing that I will run 2:35 gives me the permission to not obsess about running 2:35, and it frees my mind to focus on the here and now, to only execute my race plan, and find that quiet mind.

On those particularly bad patches, in workouts, in races, in low moments, I repeat “be calm, be present, trust yourself” even though doubt is starting to eat around the edges of my confidence, the glass starting to spider. But practicing this, I’ve come to realize, is just as important as getting the miles in, hitting the splits, and dialing in the nutrition. When I went to running camp at ZAP many years ago, the shirt laid out on our bed read, “The Mind is the Athlete.” We can hone, sharpen, and temper the body, but the mind must be strong as well to propel the vessel forward.

That dog-doo 7×1 mile workout was nearly a month ago now. I won’t lie that I let it linger in the back of my mind and that alone has caused me to force a few of the sessions that followed. But, I also know that “expectation dictates performance,” according to Beecham. “How you function on a bad day is the true test. How you function on a good day does not define your character.” So I focus on getting the best out of each day, whatever that means, and with whatever circumstances I’ve been dealt. Then I can work with what I have, rather than exerting force against what isn’t working.

Tonight, I sit on the precipice overlooking tomorrow’s tune up race, the Rock and Roll DC Half Marathon. I know that I am the collection of every run and every workout that I’ve compiled over the last few weeks, months, and, hell, even years. I am not defined by one crappy workout and I will do my best tomorrow with what the day gives me. Why?

Because I expect to run 2:35 at Boston.

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