Not sure who said it first, but I've often heard that running is 90% mental and 10% physical. Whether the percentages are exactly correct or not, the overall message speaks a world of truth. No matter how physically prepared you are for a race, if your head isn't "in the game" then the outlook for the race is not going to be good.
There will be race days when everything possible that can go wrong will go wrong. But, if your head is in the game, you can still be unstoppable.
Case in point..... back in 2007, I trained for the Chicago Marathon. My goal to qualify for Boston. This was when they had relaxed the qualifying times and before they toughened em back up again. Seems like I needed a 3:30:00
If you recall, that was the first year the Chicago Marathon race date was moved to early October. It was also the year of the freakish heatwave. It was also the year that they ran out of water. And it was the year they shut down the race at 4 hours and bused-in all the remaining runners.
This was also the year that a Chicago taxi driver took me "for a ride." An expensive ride from the race back to the hotel that was twice the cost because of the scenic route I experienced. It was also the race where I experienced my first-ever post-race calf cramp where the muscle tied itself into a knot the size of a softball. It was also the race in which a goodhearted Chicago Samaritan heard my screams of pain and came to my rescue helping me hobble over to the massage tent where "Greta" and "Helga" worked some severe pain on me, but somehow managed to reduce the softball to a golf ball before leaving on my scenic taxi ride.
There was another goal associated with this Chicago race other than BQing. I had trained for Chicago back in 2000. Even went to the race. But I got sick while there and wasn't able to run. Two months later, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, the cause of my sickness in Chicago. I wasn't going to let UC conquer me and Chicago was unresolved business. So 7 years later I found myself yet again in Chicago ready to resolve this unfinished business.
Back to 90% mental and 10% physical. A week before the race, all the Chicago participants received emails encouraging them not to come due to the predicted heat wave. 10,000 runners actually did heed the warning and didn't come. So, I already had in my mind that it was going to be a difficult race. But, living and training all summer in hot/humid North Carolina, I thought I'd be good to go.
I had my BQ goal. I knew my race pace. I knew my race strategy of starting conservative and building as the race progressed. But standing there in the start corral and noticing that I was already wiping beads of sweat from my brow and not from nerves but from the heat and humidity I knew my original strategy was about to change. I was a bit perplexed. This was the "Windy City", right? No wind. This is Chicago in October, right? Supposed to be chilly, right? Nope. I knew I needed to revisit my strategy. I stuck with my plan of starting conservative, but I put on hold whether or not I'd pick it up as the race went on.
The dew point was in the mid 70s and the temp was in the upper 80s. A recipe for disaster. Disaster it was. Even with 10,000 runners not showing up, they still ran out of water and sports drink. I was lucky enough to be fast enough to have had water the entire way, but I couldn't seem to get enough. Even with a conservative approach I still felt the wall at mile 20. I knew the BQ was not going to happen that day, but I persevered and actually still managed a new PR. Not what I wanted, but I still felt good about the run.
You can train for 3-4 months, but it still comes down to race day. Anything can be thrown at you. The trick is to be able to evaluate the situation and get your head in the game. Sometimes that means altering your original plan of attack. And....that's okay.
More ways to get your head in the game when racing.
1. Visualize It: While racing, think about your training runs. I find this particularly helpful at mile 20. You have basically a 10K left. So, I visualize one of my 6-mile training routes. Instead of thinking "I've got to get from mile 20 to 26" I think, "Wow, I've just got my Lake Jeanette Rd Loop Route. I can do that!" Then, I actually mentally take myself through that route while running the last 6 miles of the marathon. It's a great distraction.
2. Chunk It: Instead of thinking of the race as 26.2 miles, break it into more manageable chunks. I like breaking mine into 6.5 mile chunks. That's a little more than 4 chunks. It's really helpful to tick off the chunks as I go.
3. Absorb It: Distraction is a great tool when running an endurance race. You have to be careful though. You don't want the distraction to be so much of a distraction that you lose touch with your body and what it's telling you. Some research shows that runners that listen to music in marathon races, hit the wall earlier and more frequently than runners that do not listen to music. Researchers think these runners can become so into the music that they're not in touch with the signs the body might be trying to send them regarding fatigue or dehydration. Try using other external stimuli such as the cheering crowds, the landscape, the runners around you.
4. Keep It Up: Sometimes you can get too in tune with your body and that's not good either. If you're feeling every single ache and pain, that can be a downer. I've found that when I look straight down, I can become too inwardly focused. That's when the head games can start. Looking down also throws your posture out of balance. Your head is about the weight of a bowling ball (8lbs). Imagine running with an 8lbs dumbbell out in front of you. You'd probably tire pretty quickly. That's what happens when you look straight down. Holding that bowling ball head of yours down also rounds the shoulders, pulling on all the posterior muscles causing you to fatigue much quicker than if you had more upright posture. To avoid this, look up and out. You still need to survey the road ahead of you to avoid falling into a pothole, but try looking out/down about 20-30ft ahead of you. This keeps you safer, more in tune with your surroundings, and helps you keep better running posture.
5. Knock Em Off: One last strategy is to count "road kill." No, not dead opossums on the side of the road, but the fellow runners that you pass. Instead of using each mile marker as a bench mark, pick a runner ahead of you to catch up to and pass...."road kill." Mile markers can be deadly. When you begin to fatigue that mile between each mile marker can see like an eternity. Kind of like when you're driving and you have to pee. The sign you just passed says "Gas station 1-mile head." Seems like 10 miles before you ever reach it. When you have a moving target to catch, there is not expected distance. Your only goal is to catch up to that runner. You'll be amazed at how much time passes in getting to that runner. Then when you pass that runner, you'll be exhilarated and pumped with accomplishment. Be careful though. Be sure to select a runner that looks "catchable." You don't want to increase your pace beyond your planned race pace just to catch this runner. So, pick someone that looks attainable.