"It's very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants you to quit."
- George Sheehan
In 3 weeks, the Mercedes Marathon will be run here in Birmingham, Alabama for the 12th year. I have participated in all 12 and in many other marathons and ultras. These are amazing endurance events to finish. To accomplish crossing that finish line takes a lot. The obvious is the physical. Everyone always thinks of the physical strength every marathoner must have and use in order to make sure they finish. My scrawny Coach when I ran High School Track back in the 60's (the 1960's, not the 1860's), Mr. Babbitt, was the first person I knew that finished the Boston Marathon. He certainly didn't look strong..."How the heck can he run 26 MILES?". Of course, back then, I was running the 440 and wondering WHY anybody would want to run the insane distance of a mile. What folks don't realize is how much willpower and mental strength is also needed, and at times, it's like Yogi said, "It's 50% physical and 90% mental".
A perfect example is almost every endurance event I've ever run. You start the race convincing yourself that you feel great. You brush aside any of the nagging feelings in the legs or doubts you may have. The gun goes off and for me this is easy through the first 5 miles. I am running a little slow, but assure myself that this is the smart way to begin.
My perceived invincibility would slowly slip away over miles 6-9 as the miles stretched on. Mind you, my pace is still the same for the first third of the race, but I could tell things are tightening up as I close in on halfway point. I have a theory that your body will dole out just enough energy to get you to the goal you have mentally set. In a marathon, you can't help but be looking for that halfway point, and in a two-loop course, like Mercedes, it is doubly true. You have to get to 13.1. There is something about that number, just the same as 26.2, or 50k, or 10k, or 100 miles, that I absolutely love reaching. It is a mental goal that you have to dig up the "ummph" for. Once I take one step past that 13.1 mile marker, I know that I have less than half the course to go! Woohoo! But, this is a strange part of the race, because despite the momentary surge of endorphins, or whatever it could be that pumps you up, the wind also lets out of the sails as you realize you just lost 75% of the folks around you as they head for their Half Marathon finish line! It's sheer willpower that pushes me through to mile 14 and in the back of my mind I would start wondering, "Will this race ever end? Man, I feel like I am going so slow". How do you go from "Yes, done with half" to "What the...?".
Finally, mile 15. Now, I always get a boost at 15 because my cloudy mind will say "only 11 miles to go" and no matter what training program you're following, 11 miles is a short Sunday run. Is that 16 up ahead? One step past that 16 mile marker the mind begins to say "Now you have only single digits to go". I would have less than 10 miles to go. Yes! But, let's face it, it's not just around the corner.
Then my self-fulfilled prophecy hits 19 miles and I ALWAYS get kicked here. For some reason, 7 miles now registers as a lot more than 11 miles did a few miles ago. What's that all about? All I want is for this to be done. It would feel so good to just stop and sit down. Eat something. At this point I always begin to wonder why I would ever decide to sign up for a marathon, or worse, why did I already send in my registration for Oak Mountain 50K? I mean, what kind of sadomasochist am I to willingly put myself through this? Mile 19 usually comes as my lowest point in the marathon, I am usually hating life as I struggle to maintain a steady zombie shuffle. After all, I am certainly not a lead gazelle...I am no Kenyan...I simply very seldom can run a marathon with ease. It is usually a struggle for me, no matter how much training I've done. It happens, and I almost always struggle. And I hate that. Shouldn't it be smoother? No, not really.
But something begins to turn around at mile 20. It is that in between mile for me. The mile right after I had hit the low point. David Goggins once said "When you hit the wall, don't try to slam through it. Mentally, ease up and slide along the wall and you'll find a door to go through", and I've learned to do that. Just on the other side of mile 20 I know we'll just click these miles off one at a time. My mantra has always been "Every step is a step closer". Late in the race, you know you'll finish, but dagnabit, you still have to do the work. Crap!
I know my legs are tired. I know that my calves hurt. I can tell my muscles feel like cramping and that I am starving and low on energy. But, the end is finally in sight. With every passing mile it becomes less than 4 miles...less than 3 miles, etc. Whereas miles 16-20 seemed to take forever, miles 20-26.2 just tick by (although slowly). I move. I continue to move. And with every mile marker I now know that I am "a step closer".
Any race is always a magical experience. I actually enjoy the wall, after the fact, of course. It always puts me in my place and shows me that I am doing something very difficult. Invariably this always happens to me. What has changed through the years is that I know to keep going on. I will almost always begin a war with myself, berating myself for trying to do something that is much grander, something that is much more powerful that I am capable of...believe me, it can even happen in a 10k race. That mental battle will mean the race, right there. But the race is not grander than me. I am trained, I am experienced. At every marathon, you will have to struggle with yourself, but it is what makes the marathon so tough, and the reason why mental strength is needed just as much as physical strength.
Is it worth the momentous struggle during those miles? Without a doubt it is. For the struggle is but momentary, maybe a couple of hours, but the joy and the feeling of accomplishment at the finish line cannot be measured. I've now finished 79 marathons and 53 ultras and I can say without a doubt that I have felt these ups and downs at every single race, and at the finish line I am always smiling and am already (sort of) impatient for the next one.
Everyone's body is different of course. Maybe you don't run into these problems the same way I do when I come to a daunting part of the race and wonder, "How will I get around this?". But I would wager that there is a mental battle that begins as you lead up to that tough set of miles. If you know that it is there, it won't clobber you. But, don't plan to clobber it either. Accept it as part of the race, run many races and that experience will eventually learn to be the referee between your body and your mind to get you to that finish line. Run long and prosper my friends.
I'll see you all on the roads - AL
PS - If you're training for Mercedes, next Sunday at 6:30, we will meet at Boutwell Auditorium for our 2nd 13 mile run (8.6 for half marathoners) on the Mercedes course. Any questions, contact me
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