The Wall: A Distance Runner’s Perspective on Mental Toughness

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By Kristen Schafer

16730004_965497199402_609935600_nIf you’ve ever trained for a running event then you have probably heard of it before. At the Boston Marathon it is known as “heartbreak hill”, at the 25k national road racing championships it’s called “the green monster”, at the biggest road race in the U.S., Bloomsday, it’s called “Doomsday hill”, but most runners just call it “The Wall”.

The Wall is that point in a run or a race where your legs feel like dead weight that are screaming at you to stop, your lungs are burning as you desperately try to suck in the air around you, your thoughts are starting to spiral into a very dark place and you have a choice: to give up and admit that The Wall you just hit is bigger than you, or you have to reverse your thoughts and convince your tired body to persevere to the finish.

You’ve probably guessed by know that I’m a competitive runner, and full disclosure, I’m not in the military and never have been. While I can’t personally relate to deployments, boot camps, and oorahs, I do know a thing or two about fighting through pain. Over the years, I’ve developed several techniques to stay mentally tough during races. These techniques have helped propel me to win the Seattle Marathon, race with Olympians at the Boston Marathon, and even try out for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team for both the 2012 and 2016 games.

So here you go, four techniques for staying mentally tough. I hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me:

1: Create a positive mantra

16736345_965496695412_383506444_n Your mind has a great deal of control over your body. When you hit The Wall during a run or other training event your mind tends to slide toward negative thoughts: “This sucks. I can’t do it. I’m not going to make it. I want to quite. What’s the point? I’m failing.” The biggest problem with these negative thoughts is your body will start to believe them. You’ll start to believe you can’t do it and that you won’t make it. Your muscles will tighten up and you will start slowing down and in extreme cases, you’ll stop altogether, believing you’re a failure.

To combat this, create a positive mantra for yourself that you can use when things start getting tough. This mantra should be a short, positive phrase that you can repeat to yourself. I’ve used phrases like “I can and I will”, “I am strong and I am tough”, or “just keep fighting”. I typically choose one phrase before each race and when my mind starts going to that negative place I start repeating the phrase over and over and over: I can and I will. I can and I will. I can and I will. My feet will start to hit the pavement to the rhythm of the phrase. I can and I will. I can and I will. There have been marathons where I’m sure I’ve repeated the same phrase a thousand times in my head. I have found that there is no room for negative thoughts when your head is repeating something empowering.

2: Expect the unexpected

I have been racing for over 15 years and nearly every race I’ve had something happen that I did not prepare for.

During races I have experienced:

  • My shoe falling off at mile 3 of a 26.2 mile marathon.
  • A competitor tripping me causing my knees and hands to start bleeding.
  • Lightening, thunder and pouring rain start pounded around me.
  • A competitor come “out of nowhere”, forcing me to either speed up or lose.
  • Not know where to go because the race course was poorly marked.

I have learned to always expect something to go wrong during competition. Something I did not prepare for or anticipate will happen. The most memorable of these events happened during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Team tryouts. I woke up on race day to learn the day was supposed to be much hotter than expected. It would likely be the hottest Olympic trials in history. The race director had told us that we would be handed cold, wet sponges during the race to cool ourselves off, but fifteen minutes before the race would start we were told that the purchased sponges had soap in them and thus there would be no sponges.

How do you prepare for something like that?

I have found that the best way to prepare is to tell myself before the event that something will go wrong, something that I’ve probably never faced before. I tell myself that I will stay calm when it happens and that I will focus on what I can control. By accepting before the event starts that obstacles will be thrown at you and deciding that you will stay calm and overcome them makes it much easier to actually do so when you round a corner and there’s suddenly a giant mud pit you have to race through that wasn’t there the day before.

So decide before the event: when something goes wrong, how are you going to react?

3: Dedicate the event to someone

16731603_965497204392_484348188_oWhen I am racing to get noticed, or to get a medal, or to get prize money, then when the going gets tough it is far too easy to thrown in the towel. When I’m racing for me, it’s easy to decide that I really don’t care that much about the medal or that I really don’t need that prize money. It’s easy to start making excuses and to lower the expectations I have for myself. BUT, when I have dedicate a race to someone or something bigger than myself then suddenly there is more at stake, there’s a greater reason to push through the pain.

I have dedicated races to my relatives with cancer and given the prize money to fund cancer research. I have dedicated races to past coaches or current teammates and told them that I am pushing through the pain for them.

You probably joined or want to join the military for a reason bigger than yourself. You probably joined to defend your country, to help others, or to protect freedom. Remind yourself of that purpose, remind yourself of your brothers and sisters who are pushing through pain for you, tell yourself that you can and you will, and fight through the pain for them.

4: Face your fear

Finally, face your fear. There have been many times when I get so nervous the night before a race that I cannot sleep. In fact, I have raced very competitive marathons on as little as two hours of sleep. After years, of sleepless nights riddled with anxiety, I finally asked myself, “Why am I so nervous? What am I afraid of?”

I started going over potential answers in my head: Am I afraid of the competition? Nope, not really. Am I afraid of the course and the hills? Nah, I’ve handled worse. Am I afraid of the weather? No, I’ve run in heat and snow and wind and done just fine. Am I afraid of the pain? . . . yes, I am afraid of the pain.

It turns out that at the root of all that anxiety and all those sleepless night was a fear of the pain I knew I would have to face the next day in order to achieve my goals. After realizing why I was afraid, I was able to create a plan. I developed a mantra that I would start repeating to myself when things got tough, I told myself to expect the unexpected and that I would stay calm during it. I decided to dedicate the race to someone other than myself. I told myself that pain was temporary and that I could and have pushed through. In short, I faced my fear and focused on what I could control to create a plan to help me overcome what I was afraid of: the pain.

If you are nervous and anxious about an event I encourage you to take a minute to really ask yourself what you’re afraid of. And then create a plan on how you will overcome that fear. Even if you don’t believe that you can overcome your fear at first, keep telling yourself you can and eventually you will start to believe it. (You can and you will. You can and you will. You can and you will.)

So I ask you: how badly do you want what’s on the other side of the wall you just hit?

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