Monday, February 26, 2018

Mental Toughness - For When Things Don't Go Your Way

Last weekend I raced a half marathon.  Back in December, I had a huge PR at the 10k distance which sparked a pretty big stretch goal of a sub-two hour half marathon.  So much work went into Saturday's race, but yet, the stretchy goal wasn't obtained.

I'm usually SUPER tough.  I thrive when things get hard. I'm good at suffering and enduring the hurt because that means you're crushing your race and getting after those goals.

Saturday just wasn't that day. The few days leading up to it were a bit emotionally draining and I just didn't have much energy left to get my head on straight. Going into this race, I knew that sub-two was going to hurt. There's a bit of a disconnect though - while I wanted sub-two, I hadn't convinced my brain that it was actually possible.  And I hadn't been able to do the mental prep before race day to get my brain ready for 2 hours of hurt.  Sure, I had a plan and I knew how to execute, but when the time came, there just wasn't a whole lot of fight in me.

The race is pretty flat (255 feet) but it's a gradual downhill out with a gradual uphill back.  I've been working SO hard on hills for the past year that I usually do really well on long steady slogs back.  That wasn't the case on Saturday.

The 6+ miles out to the turnaround were pretty damn good.  If you look at my Strava, there's a whole lot of YES YES YES (and then NOPE NOPE NOOOOPE).  I was aiming for a 9:07 pace and looking at those early splits, it looks like I went out too hard but my HR was right where it needed to be and the effort felt GOOD.

Then I turned around and was hit with the long slow grind uphill. Basically, my emotional toughness bucket was pretty seriously depleted going into the race and it showed in where my brain was.  At mile 8 I actually wanted to curl up in a ball, have a good cry, and hitchhike home. I even had to take 2 walk breaks to give myself a chance to get my head back on straight (ish).  I was unable to race with my usual happiness and it showed. 

So many excuses were going through my head.  I was literally writing my sad-panda race report to my coach in my head as I was trying to run and pouting.  It was COLD.  It was WINDY.  My stomach HATED ME.  Serious excuse-city for not making my sub-two goal.

Words are a powerful thing and I really think that word selection can help shape your mental outcome and almost "trick" your brain.  So I'm writing this excuse laden race report in my head as I'm suffering and it hit me.  Instead of using these things as excuses, I should be writing my report about how I had a PR DESPITE the wind, cold, and stomach issues. DESPITE THEM. As in I was tough enough to overcome these things and still performed. That helped to restore a bit of my edge - or at least it ended the pity party.

Then, anytime I tried to pick up the pace, my legs and stomach started to protest.  I was getting grumpy from this thing being hard. Or really, I was upset that my mind and body wouldn't respond to hard.  Then I got in a mental spiral where EVERYTHING seems HARD.   The word hard and struggle were so predominant in my mental chatter.  So I flipped it.  I told myself to just run easy.  All you have to do is maintain an easy pace and you'll still PR.  You can run 4 miles easy....  EASY is EASY so just keep running easy and you'll get to the finish.  Anytime my head went to the negative, I fought back with the word "easy."

Fortunately, I knew my legs would still run a bit faster than my true "easy" pace, but it was so much easier to trick my brain into going "easy" than to try and push it and run into a wall of struggle-bus. 

For the last 4 miles, I had 2 x 10 min repeats of "easy" and then another 4x5 min repeats of "easy".  The minute repeats are a good mental trick - I train by intervals often and find that, especially when things are tough, you can do damn near anything for 10 or 5 minutes.  And while there was no rest interval after each effort, seeing a new interval gave me a new focus.  Just keep moving, 10 minutes, 5 minutes, easy easy easy and you will STILL PR was pretty much my entire thought process for the last 4 miles. 

Based on my 10k split, my projected half marathon time was 2:04, so that was my "realistic" goal.  My PR from May 2014 (!) was 2:08.  I ended up finishing at 2:02.  With FIVE MILES OF EASY running.

I should be celebrating, and maybe after a few days I will.  I did make some really good mental choices.  And also: I had a 6 MINUTE PR WHILE RUNNING "EASY" THE LAST 5 MILES.  Craziness.  But there's also the part where my legs weren't as shattered as I hoped they'd be, that my legs had those 2 minutes in them but my heart didn't.  That's a bit hard to get past right now.  The body was able but the mind wasn't quite there.

I can pretty much damn near guarantee that the body and mind will be ready at the end of April when I try this again. Good thing there's always another race and another opportunity to try again.....