Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Runners, Don't Be Your Own Worst Enemy

Per Yogi Berra, ninety percent of baseball is half mental. Baseball has nothing on running, though.
There are roughly 123 million things that can ruin your run. Nearly all exist solely in your head, meaning they only crop up because you have all kinds of time to let your mind wander.
  • There's doubt, first and foremost, and its close friend, fear.
  • There are nagging pains that you can easily convince yourself are going to manifest as horrific injuries.
  • There are rude, clueless and preoccupied drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians who, though indeed present, are best ignored.
  • There's the weather, which is at any one time too hot, too cold, too sunny, too overcast, too rainy, too windy, too humid, too dry, too foggy or even too perfect.
  • There's fuel strategy, which can leave you too hungry, stuffed, dehydrated, with a sloshy stomach or in desperate need of a bathroom.
  • There are shoes, which can be too tight, too loose, too light, too heavy, too old, too new or, if it's raining, too wet.
  • There's your watch, which can taunt you for falling behind your pace or convince you that, since you're ahead of your intended pace, something catastrophic is around the next corner.
Put another way, it's all too easy, as a runner, to be your own worst enemy.

For most of us, one factor among the many listed above (or one I omitted) tends to wreak the most havoc. For me, it's the fear that slightly missing my target pace will all too quickly force the wheels to fall off completely.
This happened yesterday on my final longish (7.6-mile) run before my half marathon. I was aiming for a 7-minute pace, which would have had me finish in about 53 minutes. Three miles in, I was under 21 minutes, yet I was convinced that it was only a matter of time before I started falling apart.
Why? I have no freakin' clue. I wasn't feeling 100 percent -- but, then again, who actually does on a run? It was warmer than it has been, so my mouth dried up more quickly than usual. I'm fairly certain my left shoe wasn't as tight as my right shoe. And on and on.
So what happened? I finished in 51:02, close to two minutes faster than I'd planned and with a 6:42 pace. All that worrying for nothing.
Time and again, we're our own worst enemy when we run. When things start to go poorly, we expect the worst. When things go well, we still expect the worst.
It doesn't have to be this way. Part of the beauty of running -- a fundamental reason that I've been doing it for more than 17 years -- is the way it so easily and quickly helps you shed stress, responsibility and worry, putting a frenetic life on hold for as long as you'd like.
Shutting off an active mind is hardly easy, but the sooner you learn to do that, the sooner you stop being your own worst enemy and the sooner you start running free, fresh and, before you know it, fast.
So how do you achieve that peaceful, easy feeling?
One way is counting -- breaths, steps, passing cars, squirrels or whatever you want to focus on. Another is to contemplate your post-run meal; this has gotten me through many a long run. Turning off the watch is another option, though it obviously won't make sense for certain workouts.
The best strategy for me, though, is to try not to think about what I'm doing. On Monday, I ran better when I stopped looking at my watch, trying to gauge how far I'd run (my watch predates the GPS) and thinking about whether my left quad was starting to tighten up. When I looked ahead, put one foot in front of the other and just ran, I felt better -- and I ran better.
My strategy admittedly isn't one size fits all. It may take months, if not years, to find your proverbial happy place, and you may stumble along the way -- literally, if you try trail running, or figuratively, if you try new approaches and they just don't work. You'll likely succeed in a series of small victories, too, rather than in a single seminal moment that redefines life, the universe and everything. (Hint: It's 42.)
But just like you'll never finish a race if you don't start, you'll never know how to get to your happy place if you don't try.