In my head…
I had just shuffled back into the driveway after my first ever continuous road run in excess of 30km and I was feeling pretty shattered, but rather pleased with myself. It was a few weeks out from my first marathon and the 30km mark had been a significant milestone on the training plan currently stuck to the fridge.
I did a few stretches and went inside where I encountered my brother-in-law, who was staying with us at the time. He’s a very experienced marathoner in the 3.5 – 4 hour category and when I proudly told him of my accomplishment he just smiled. “Excellent!” he said, “That’s where the marathon starts.”
He was right.
In the ensuing weeks I discovered for myself that if I ran far enough and long enough there came a point where all of the training, conditioning, diet and planning I put into preparing for the event were no longer relevant. Or perhaps rather, they had done everything they were intended to do, which was attempt to prepare my body for the physical onslaught. The problem was the other bit.
I’ve been thinking about this lately as the runs have got longer and tougher again now that we are getting to the pointy end of the training plan for the Hillary 34. What was true in the marathon is even more so in the longer trail events.
Yesterday, (Waitangi Day) I spent in the Hunuas on a solo loop from Waharau to Kohukohunui summit and back around. It was just me and the track in the light drizzle for 5 hours or so, during which I didn’t see another person.
When I began running distances that put me on my feet for more than an hour or so, I fairly quickly found that I needed to find ways of occupying my mind with something other than the inevitable occasional discomfort of running, the anxiety over pace/time/distance or even just the monotony of pounding pavement.
What I’ve learned is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every occasion and it helps to have a bit of a toolbox of options to play with.
Distract, Deflect, Dismiss
Of the several strategies I have used at various times to keep my head in line, finding something else to focus on and keep my thoughts occupied is one of the most effective.
When I’m out running with friends and family it’s not particularly difficult as conversation goes all over the place. One of my running friends is as big a pop-culture and sci-fi nerd as I am and when I’m out with her on the trail we can happily talk nerd trivia for hours. Another is also a geek, and running with him I speak that dialect too. Running with my family is much the same; books and films mixed in with ornithology, computer games and spiders, botany and sibling rivalry pass the time enjoyably.
When I’m running on my own it’s a bit different, (And when racing everyone is pretty much running alone at times). Fortunately I’ve always been pretty good at zoning out (most of my high school career in fact) and often I can just trot along with my head on auto and let my thoughts drift.
The surrealist novelist and marathoner Haruki Murakami tells how when people ask him what he thinks about while running, his answer is that he hasn’t a clue. Thoughts come and go, “…like clouds in the sky…that pass away and vanish, leaving the sky”.
Sometimes it’s like that for me too. When I settle into a rhythm of breathing and running I can drift along with my brain on idle, thinking about all kinds of stuff, but remembering very little. This usually lasts until the next significant hill.
Matthew Inman (The ‘Oatmeal’) finds the inspiration for his cartoons about cats and Krakens and poop as he runs. I’m not that creative and I generally try not to think about work while running. The opposite is true, I sometimes find running a great way to unwind from work.
I used to listen to music while running and it can be can be a useful distraction. The rhythm can be addictive though, which is something to watch out for. I have a habit of matching my cadence to the rhythm and that can sometimes get a bit out of hand if it’s something too up tempo.
Somewhere along the way though, I just stopped using it. I’m not really sure why. Maybe one too many flat iPod batteries in a race made me a bit reluctant to rely on it, or just that once I moved onto the trail it seemed out of place among the trees and birdsong. I will probably revisit that at some point though for longer races as I move beyond the 7 hour mark. There may be times when having another option would be an advantage when all else fails.
I’ve also found that it’s much easier to distract myself while trail running than when on the road as there is much more variation in scenery, wildlife and terrain and the required concentration levels to negotiate the trail occupy me sufficiently.
Rewind, Reboot, Reset
Regardless of the distraction technique though, I will at times be snapped back to the real world as the body will decide to intrude with fatigue, thirst, pain or just plain old discomfort. Sometimes too, it’s just something that breaks the thought patterns, like a stumble or a steep hill, or an unexpected Chihuahua (that really happened!). Then I need to find a way of getting back into the groove.
One thing I’ve found that works well for me when it all starts going a bit wobbly is to focus on my breathing. There’s a thing I do where I make a big breath out every second time my right foot hits the ground. After a minute or two of concentrating solely on that, things usually start to get back under control. (This has the added benefit of confirming that I am in fact still breathing, which is comforting to know).
Otherwise I look around and try to find something to occupy my attention for a bit, or tell myself a story. (Imaginary conversations with annoying people are great, but you may find yourself getting a bit stompy at times). Anything really to break out of the moment and get over the slump.
Singing can be a good alternative, but that one is either sub-vocal or reserved for when I am alone and far, far from anyone else. Trust me, it’s better this way.
On the plus side, I’ve found the slumps kind of come and go in cycles, often things then get easier for a while before the next dip.
Don’t let me get me
I am my own worst enemy at times. Distraction is an effective strategy, but when I start to get tired and sore it can become increasingly difficult to maintain. The Oatmeal talks of a fat little cherub known as, “The Blerch” that whispers to him temptingly of cake, sofas and movie marathons when he is out running.
I’m a bit the same, but my personal Blerch tends to be of the “Dude, you could walk this bit”, or “Why are we even here?” variety. Or I start to worry about pace and time, (a pointless exercise at this stage) or dwell on discomforts that have accumulated or anticipate those ahead.
When I realise this is happening, I usually just try to go blank and ignore the Blerch, which is easier said than done. The breathing thing and the stories can be pretty useful here.
Negotiating the climb up steep hills is another demoralising prospect, where the heat, tired legs and labouring heart can all sap the will to live. We have a bit of a recurring gag among my running buddies for this, when someone asks how many more hills there are to go, the answer is always, “One.”
Because there is only one hill that matters, the one you are about to climb. The hills you have already conquered are behind you and relegated to ancient history. The ones that lie ahead do not yet exist and will be dealt with later. Either way you can ignore them and rejoice that there is only the one hill to worry about. (Good luck with that one)
Dwelling on how far I still have to go is another potential source of despair. It’s easy to get fixated on that damn number on the GPS watch that seems to be stuck in slow-time.
For this, I really like the Oatmeal’s approach, which is to invent bizarre measurement systems in his head to make it seem more achievable. For example, “It’s still 12km to go and that’s like, only 6 times around the Domain and that’s easy!”, or, “12km? That’s only about 400 times from the sofa to the bathroom and back and you did that on your last overseas holiday! We got this!”
You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em
This is a really tough one, and it will be different for everybody. Knowing when to push through and when to pull the pin is something that we tend to really suck at. In a training run, it’s a no-brainer, we can dial back or call it early, but differentiating between an illness, pain or injury that can be managed through and one that could be seriously aggravated by continuing is something that is extremely difficult under race conditions and we are often not in a good place to make an objective decision about it or make a coherent risk/benefit call.
I guess it comes down to what a particular event means to you compared to your health and the ability to use your knees later in life. I’m not and never have been an elite runner so I’ve a lot less at stake in a race than the front runners. I’ve managed to reach my fifties with all my limbs and joints intact and intend to keep running for a good while yet, so that will influence my decisions. (Assuming I’m thinking that clearly at the time).
I would say though that listening to other people is a good idea in these circumstances. If a running buddy or experienced race marshal is concerned about your state, then you should probably give it some serious consideration.
The end is in the beginning
All of the above is what I learned during the years as I progressed from 5km to 10km and half marathons and onto the trails. It’s been useful stuff, and I got to the point where I thought that while I might not always get it right, at least I had some understanding of what it takes physically and mentally to run for a long time at or near an optimum race pace for me.
Then I ran a marathon and I discovered for myself what my brother in law Graeme meant about the race really beginning past the 30km mark.
There came a point at about 34km where the accumulation of everything I had done in the race to that point came home to roost and it became much, much harder. They say that how you run the first part of a race determines how you will finish it. The initial pace, fuelling, hydration etc. all have an impact further down the line. Get it wrong and it will hurt in the closing stages of the race.
I’m not sure it was a ‘wall’ I hit exactly, it’s more like there was simply nothing left in the legs and body. I wasn’t injured or overly dehydrated or anything like that. Aerobically I was fine, breathing steadily and evenly. But by about 36km I was having to make a conscious decision every few steps to keep running because I knew that if I started walking it would be all over.
This is the bit that it is very difficult to train for, as perhaps it is unique to a race situation where everything has been pushed to the limit. In the end, after all the training, practice, planning and preparation it came down to a single choice: To run or not.
I kept putting one foot in front of the other and after a while things settled down and a kind of rhythm returned. It was very, very slow, but it was steady and I was still running.
I found out a couple of things about myself there. The first is that if I ask it to, my body is capable of more than I would have thought when I started out on this running thing. That when I really need it, it sometimes still has one more trick up its sleeve. The second is that my head can be pretty damn stubborn when it wants to be.
Taking this a step further onto the Hillary and adding in a kilometre or two of elevation makes it even more likely that somewhere down the track and particularly when I move up to trail marathons and ultras that I will reach the same point, and be faced with the same choice.
The race profile and the expenditure of energy over time will be very different to that first marathon so it won’t happen the same way or at the same distance, but I will eventually reach that place where the tank is running low, the springs have almost wound down and the bulb is flickering in the last few amps of current left in the battery.
This time however, I’ll be a bit more ready for it because I’ve been there before.
Because that’s where the race really begins.
And I know that how it will end is mostly in my head.