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

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?

How to score the Marine Corps Combat Fitness Test

marine corps combat fitness test maneuver under fire

You’ve heard the phrase, “Every Marine a rifleman.”  It’s true.

It’s also generally true that Marines stay in great physical shape.  According to USMC policy:

Every Marine must be physically fit, regardless of age, grade, gender, or duty assignment…

One way the Marines maintain and test their fitness levels is through the Combat Fitness Test, or CFT.

The purpose of the CFT is to assess a Marine’s physical capacity in a broad spectrum of combat related tasks.

Basically the CFT exists to test how fit a Marine is.  Through three events (Movement to Contact, Maneuver Under Fire, and Ammo Can Lift), a Marine’s combat fitness level is assigned a numerical value.  This value is used for a number of different things, chief of which is as a way to compete for promotion.

So how can you make sure you’re actually competitive?  Well…look at the numbers.  The newest CFT standards and how to score your results were released in mid-December 2016, but here they are to make life easier for you hard-chargers.

usmc combat fitness test minimum standards
usmc combat fitness test class

Movement to Contact (MTC):


Maneuver Under Fire (MANUF):


Ammo Can Lift (ACL):


The Pre-Armstrong Workout for Pull-up Beginners

If doing full dead-hang pullups, or as a whole, the official Armstrong Pullup Program is too difficult for you, we recommend trying the following workout until your max set is 7-10 controlled, full dead-hang pullups. Best of luck!

The Pre-Armstrong Pullup Program Workout

The Pre-Armstrong Program for Beginners (click for jpg)
The Pre-Armstrong Program for Beginners (click for jpg)

When required, simply pick any bicep curl type exercises (barbell, dumbbell, alternating, exercise tube, kettlebells) or row exercise (machine row, barbell row, single arm bicep curl, etc). Whichever exercise your ability and equipment availability allows will work, just stick with only one or two exercises per requirement and ensure you continually challenge yourself with the weights and repetitions.

Pullup Substitutes

This workout makes use of pullup substitutes. Based on your own ability and the availability of equipment, consider any (or a combination) of the following exercises:

Exercise Tube Pull-downs

Exercise tubes are some of the most versatile of all workout equipment

Loop an exercise tube over your indoor pullup bar, door, or tall piece of furniture. Kneel down or back up to increase resistance. Simulate the pullup movement as much as possible.

Best of 2016 SlaySessions

Well, it’s a new year, and I thought we should take a look back at some of the best workouts I’ve built and combine them into a super SlaySession… Bwahaha (my attempt at an evil laugh… don’t judge me).

Last year my saying was “Sweat is the fuel of life… Always be willing to grow!”

This year I pulled out an old one from the my database known as my Father’s wise philosophies, “Excuses are like @$$holes, everyone has one.”


Arm Circles – (in T shape)
10 Circles clockwise, 10 counterclockwise, (arm straight above head) 10 circles clockwise, 10 counter. (twice) (from SlaySession #2)

Suicide Build ups – Start by going 5 yds, then 10, then 15, then 20 yds. By 20 yds you should be at full speed (thrice) (from SlaySession #6)

Fire Hydrants – 15 Each Leg
(twice) (from SlaySession #4)

Split Jack Forward – 15, 4 count (thrice) (from SlaySession #7)


Side Straddle Hop Burpees – 10 Traditional Burpees with a push-up and instead of the jump at the end you do a Side Straddle Hop, 10 sec break, (thrice) (from SlaySession #3)

Traditional Push-ups – (Pyramid Style) 8,9,10,11,12- then 12,11,10,9,8 for 100 total push-ups. (from SlaySession #1)

Freedom Leaps –
Start Leaping until you leap a total of 240 yds (the age of our nation). (from SlaySession #7)

Full Extension Bicycle Crunch – 10 reps (fivers) (from SlaySession #10)

Spiderman Crawls – No way you can do this 108 times. So just do 18 reps 6 times. (from SlaySession #16)

Don’s special add-on: (Note: only if able to)

Finish Strong Pull-ups – Pyramid style pull-up from 1 to 10 then back down to 1. Enjoy it my friends. Let me know how they go for you.

SlaySession #17 – Democratic Workout

military workout squats for america

Since everyone wants to comment on the election, I figured I would let you decide your own fate today. You know because we’re a democracy and stuff. Sweat is the fuel of life… Always be willing to grow!


Stationary Squats: 10 all the way up and to 90 Degrees (4 times)


Stationary Squat Jumps: 10 90 degree squats with a jump at the top (3 times)

 Set of 15 (4 times)


Diamond Push-Ups: Set of 10 (3 times)

Inch Worms:  For 10 yards (3 times)


 Inch Worms w/ Push-Ups: For 10 yards (2 times)


1/4 mile Build Ups: Start the 1/4 mile at 45% and work your way up to 75% at the halfway mark. Then the last turn should be a sprint. Do it 6 times.

Pull-up Burpees: Just like it sounds. Get on your face, and do a burpee up to the pull-up bar. Then do a pull-up. Do this 7-10 times. Then rest 30 secs and repeat. Do this 5 times.

Bicycle Crunches:
15 four count. You can pause where you need to finish. Do it 4 times.

Shoulder Press w/ 20 lb Kettle Bell/Ammo Can: Do 20 reps at first. Wait 1 min. Then do a max set. Meaning as many as you can without stopping. After your shoulders are completely destroyed wait 3 mins and do another 20 rep set.

Now I know I said you get to choose this workout, buts let’s be realistic. I was never going to let that happen. Suck it up and water the earth with your sweat.

SlaySession #16- 108 Years of Pain!

military workout pain

Here’s for all you Cubs fans… and for all you Indians fans to help you forget last night. Time to start the healing… for both teams. Sweat is the fuel of life… Always be willing to grow!


Build-Up Sprints: it’s 108 total yards, start at 10% intensity and increase 10% every 10 yards. (3 times)
Side Straddle Hops:
108 total
 108 Total. You can break it up until you get to 108.
Arm Circles: 108 combined between the four different variations of arm circles you can do


108 M Sprints: The extra 8 is important. Push even harder that last 8 meters. You can guesstimate the extra 8 meters. Do it 8 times.

Lunges: You guessed it: 108 yards’ worth (Twice)

Spiderman Crawls: No way you can do this 108 times. So just do 18 reps 6 times.

Bicycle Crunches:
108 total reps. You can pause where you need to finish.

Pull-ups: Because I know that none of you can do 108 pull-ups like I can, I will allow you to do 10.8 pull-ups (Three Times)

SlaySession #15 – Therapeutic Thursday

military workout therapy through sweat

Yea right… it’s therapeutic to me knowing how much it hurts, and that’s it. Sweat is the fuel of life… Always be willing to grow!


Mountain Climbers– 20-4 count reps (Twice)
Frog Jumps
– 15 yds there and back (Three Times)
–  15 4 count (Three Times)
Arm Circles– 20 four count (Three Times)


Mountain Climber Burpees – 20 Total (Three times)

100 meter sprints – First sprint at 75%, then all the rest full out 100%. Do 10 of them.

Push-up Suicides – 5 yard suicides to the 30 and back with a 5 push-ups at each line (Twice)

30 lb shoulder press- Find an ammo can and fill it with dirt. Then lift it over your head 20 times. Do it 3 times.

Don’s special add-on: (Note: only if able to)
Start with a 100 M sprint into 20 mountain climber burpees, then do 20 more shoulder presses with the ammo can or equivalent.

Terrible Thursday – SlaySession #14

military workout sweat is just fat crying

Terrible starts with a T, just like Thursday does. Get it, see what I did there? Time to get to the Terrible part… and you’re welcome. Sweat is the fuel of life… Always be willing to grow!


Frankensteins– 15 yds (Three Times)
Inch Worms
– 15 yds (Four Times)
Split Jack Forward
–  15 4 count (Three Times)
Donkey Kicks– 20 yds (Four Times)


8 Count Body Builders w/ Burpee – 20 Total (Twice)

17 mins of jogging at 65% speed – Distance doesn’t matter. What matters is that as soon as your done you go right into the next workout.

Inch Worm w/ Push-ups – 10 yards there and back ( Twice)

Burpee Suicides – Exactly how it sounds… Amazing. Your goal is to reach the 25 yard line and back doing a total of 10 burpees with the traditional suicides.

Don’s special add-on: (Note: only if able to)
Give yourself some time to catch your breath first. Do 15 – 8 Count Body Builders w/ Burpees, and then go right into a Burpee Suicide except this time go for 30 yards and 12 burpees.

Thank Me Thursday – Slay Session #13

military workout sweat and be grateful

Why sure, I have no problem giving you something to thank me for. It should be lots of fun, (pause for effect) for me to know how much pain you’ll be in. Sweat is the fuel of life… Always be willing to grow!


Push-ups – 15 four count  ( Twice)
– 30 yds, switch half way (Twice)
1/4 Mile jog
– 50% speed
Bear Crawl – 20 yards (Twice)


Knee to Elbow Push-ups – Knee to Elbow both Legs and then a Push-Up.  Do a set of 15 (Three Times)

40 Yd Prone to Sprints – Just like it sounds (10 Times)

Kettle Bell Diagonal Lunges – Keep Kettle Bell in the center of your chest, and do 15 per leg (Three Times)

Burpee Pull-ups –  Max Reps (4 Times)

Bicycle Crunches – Four count fully extended 20 reps (Three times)

Don’s special add-on: (Note: only if able to)

Find some stairs that don’t look fun to run up, and run up them 3 times.