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Think positive!

November 28, 2008 - Erik Brown
Distance running is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical. OK, I stole that pearl of wisdom from Yogi Berra, but it holds true for our sport too.
In his best selling book, The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey observed that all things are created twice. “There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation to all things.” Covey used the analogy of building a home to make his point. He said, “You have to make sure that the blueprint, the first creation, is really what you want, that you’ve thought everything through. Then you put it into bricks and mortar. You begin with the end in mind.”
In my October 22nd post I wrote about the training I did to prepare myself for the second or physical creation of my 50 mile ultramarathon. As I trained, I worked on the mental creation. At first that led to quite a bit of self-doubt. Frankly, I was worried that I just wouldn’t be able to hack it for 50 miles. After all, I had run six regular marathons and had pretty much the same experience each time: I “hit the wall” at about 20 miles, had nausea at the finish line, followed by severe leg cramps and an unhappy spouse. So, how was I possibly going to go nearly twice as far?  
The answer to that question wasn’t all that complicated, but looking back now I can see that even though I was a “veteran marathoner” and a former XC coach, I still had a lot to learn to about being a successful distance runner. Thankfully, I found my answers by doing some reading, heeding the expert advice offered by my “coach”, and learning from past experiences. The result was that my ultra-day in the Rothrock State Forest was nearly perfect. The secret to my success boiled down to three obvious things:
1.) Training, training, training – see my October 22nd post.
2.) Disciplined re-fueling during the race – I’ll have more to say about this in my next post(s) and...
3.) A positive attitude!
Consider this. If you randomly selected a group of people and asked them to lay out a training schedule to prepare for a 50 mile run, most of them would probably plead ignorance. You’d get a similar result if you asked that group to talk about re-fueling during an ultramarathon. Even a group of experienced runners might struggle with those topics if they hadn’t previously run an ultra. Of course, that’s not a surprise. Training for and re-fueling during an ultramarathon requires a certain amount of specialized knowledge.
But, who doesn’t know what is meant by a positive attitude? Those two words form a concept so simple that even a child could explain it. Yet, anyone who’s ever run a race longer than 200 meters knows exactly what happens shortly after the starter’s gun is fired. The brain begins to protest. “Slow down!” “Why are we doing this?” “Stop!” In short order, the brain becomes like a fidgety child in the back seat of the family car on a long trip. “How much further is it?” “Are we there yet?” During a marathon, the brain alternates between fidgety child mode and skillful negotiator mode. “Let’s just walk to the next utility pole. No, not that pole, the next one!” Things quickly go from bad to worse when the body begins to hurt. The more your body hurts, the more the brain complains. The more the brain complains, the more you notice the pain. It can become a vicious cycle of physical pain and mental exhaustion.
I knew that maintaining a positive attitude throughout the entire 50 miles of the Tussey Mountainback was going to be critical to having a successful race. I had to keep my brain preoccupied with pleasant thoughts for as much of the day as possible.
I also know myself. One of my most obvious faults is that when I get nervous, tired or hungry, I get cranky. You can see how that could become an issue while running an ultra. So, I actually spent a great deal of time before the race thinking about what I should and shouldn’t think about during the race. You high school runners might want to go back and read that last sentence again.
I made a short list of mental do’s and don’ts for the race. Here is what I came up with:
  1. Focus on the beauty of the Rothrock State Forest, NOT the pain and fatigue. Mother Nature cooperated on this one in spectacular fashion. The weather that day was nearly perfect. There were practically no clouds in the sky. The overnight low was about 50 degrees, and the high temperature later in the day topped out in the low 70’s. Best of all, the leaves on the trees were at the peak of their fall beauty.
  1. Keep things in perspective. Think of the race as a mini-adventure. There’s a lot of real pain and suffering in the world that is far, far worse than anything I am going to experience. There is nothing to dread. I am doing this of my own free will, and I’m blessed to be healthy enough to attempt it.
  1. Think of the race as 12 very manageable stages (from TZ to TZ), NOT 50 miles. When you pass the halfway point of a 10K, it can be motivational to think “only 3 miles to go.” That thought doesn’t have quite the same effect at the halfway point of a 50 mile race. So I tried not to think about the distance to the finish line. I actually did pretty well with that, even though it was completely out of character for me. You see, I have a bad habit of crunching the numbers while I run. When I pass a mile marker, I compulsively look at my watch and start computing my average pace to that point and, of course, my ETA at the finish line. Truth be told, I do this on practically every training run and I’ve discovered it can be quite annoying to your training partners.
  1. Positive self talk. “I feel fine. I’m doing great!” I probably told myself that a hundred times during the race. Of course it helps if you say it to yourself in a convincing way. Seriously, this worked for me. We’ve all heard inspiring quotes about positive thinking and positive self-talk. They’re true! For you high school runners, here’s a suggestion: think of your own, short, self-pep talk that you can repeat over and over to yourself during a race or even a workout. It should match your breathing cadence. Then try it!  
  1. Pray. Nothing calms the pre-race jitters better. I always say a prayer at the start line of the races I do. For the Mountainback, I prayed during the drive to the race in the morning, at the start line and intermittently during the race. My prayer of choice for the ultra was a Catholic prayer I learned as a kid.
I employed all of these positive attitude tactics during the race, along with a disciplined approach to re-fueling, and they really worked like a charm. I still felt all of the pain and fatigue that you would expect - those were unavoidable, but I never got discouraged.
I had two goals for my Mountainback race: finish, and finish in less than 10 hours. I crossed the line in 9:51:36. Better still, I had no nausea, and the inevitable leg cramps weren’t as bad as I’ve had from the regular marathons I’ve run. All of which made for a much nicer drive home with the wife. Not bad! Not bad at all!

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