The word “crazy” gets said to me quite often when my friends find out all the different conditions I will run through. Take this past weekend for example. The second biggest snowfall, since records have been kept, was recorded in Central Park. All the pictures shown on TV would tell people that nobody should be running, however, the park was cleared quickly and there was time for miles – beautiful ones at that for whomever made it out there. The night of the blizzard there was a couple getting interviewed on the news. They got stopped mid-run by the reporter and were asked why they were out running and if it was safe. They said they wanted to enjoy the snow and they took safety precautions. Ironically, when they ran off the cameraman captured them going up Amsterdam and not even 15 seconds later one of them busted there ass on the ice-ouch! I may not run in a blizzard, but I would go out in conditions pretty close to that. Runners are more stead-fast than the Postal Service in many ways. It can be raining, sleeting, snowing, windy, thunderstorms; you name it and we will run in it. So, why do we do it and how do we do it?
I think that our will and mental strength is the main reason we can get up and run in almost any circumstance. My body can be in absolute pain, probably from a long run, and I will still manage to make it outside. If I am in any type of situation that is somehow mentally taxing it is so much harder than if I were in physical pain. It did take me a while to learn how our mental ability really does shape our physical ability, but now that I know it has become a daily part of my training (which goes without saying that I miss some training days – you know, life…). Nonetheless, I need to work on it constantly.
My first experience with this was when I had just began running, which was about five years ago. I originally started running to become healthier. Many people don’t know this, but I was a smoker for almost twenty years. I used to pick tobacco in high school, when I lived in North Carolina. I was about to pass out from the heat one day and I was told I should dip or smoke, because nicotine got the heart going and kept you from passing out. I thought dipping was disgusting, so I smoked. When I started running it was difficult. I was huffing and puffing the entire run, but I managed to do it. I felt like Forest Gump, because “I just kept running”. It was easy to get out of bed and run, even though I knew it was going to be a fight with my body the whole way, not to mention the fact that I was having the normal pains that many get when they start running, like shin splints, cramps, sore feet and legs. But, I always managed to do it. I knew how running made me feel and how it strengthened me to continue. However, this was also the time when my life started getting “interesting”. There were many stressful things happening at once, such as sickness, change in my marriage, death, change in my living situation. These things made running so much harder. The thing that made me feel better was difficult to do. My brain made me sluggish, even though my body felt great. How could my mind make me not want to do something that gave me joy?
I remember reading a book about Leonardo da Vinci. Yes I know that this may seam incredibly esoteric, but I found it at a used bookstore and it was from 1915 – only 3 bucks. My family has collected books for a long time and I thought it would be good to add to the collection. When I read it I came across something he said that was quite brilliant…
“If anyone wishes to see how the soul dwells in its body, let him observe how this body uses its daily habitation; that is to say, if this is devoid of order and confused, the body will be kept in disorder and confusion by its soul”
That line I had remembered for a long time, then I forgot about it. It wasn’t until I started to experience all of those things that affected me did I remember it. My mood made me feel like shit! It all began to make sense. So how could I change it? Then another line came to mind and it was from an unlikely, yet absolutely memorable source, “Finding Nemo”. All I needed to do was “Just keep swimming!”. Seems pretty easy, thanks Dori! So I started to get up, go out, and run – regardless of what was happening. Anything that would come to my mind I would let it in and then I would just keep swimming. Was pretty easy to do when I ran 1, 2, 3, or 5 miles, but when I started to up my mileage is when it got harder to just keep swimming. So I had to think of my next mental exercise – allow myself to feel like shit during a run!
It isn’t fun to allow yourself to feel like shit – really! I remember going on long runs and I would quit during some of them. I wasn’t enjoying them like when I first started running. I pictured my previous runs as always being perfect, and never having any difficulties. For some reason the memories were filtered with rose-tinted glasses, but the long runs I was currently doing surely weren’t rosy. I began to think about every stride I took, every time my foot hit the ground, every breathe I took and all the while I would look at my GPS watch to see how far I got. Doing this all the time gets to you after a while, so I began to get discouraged. Then one day I really thought about my previous runs. I began to remember they weren’t always great. I would have issues along the route sometimes, not always, but sometimes and I would keep going. This was probably part of my initial joy of running. Feeling psyched that I ran 12 miles, or 14, 15, or more was a good reason to forget about anything negative. So, the reason why I made the memories all rosy was because I finished. I set out with a goal, whatever the mileage was, and I finished. That made all the negative become positive. When I realized that I could now allow myself to feel like shit, because I knew once I was done I wouldn’t feel that way anymore. One more step taken in training my brain.
Getting through pain is another story. What kind of pain is it? I am pretty good about listening to my body. If I think it really hurts, then I stop – period. But what about pain during a race that is caused by running 20+ miles? I learned to not think about it. Music is a great help for me. I like to play music frimm bands I have seen in concert, so I can have memories assist in the pain relief. I can daydream, let my mind wander, or just feel the pain. Hopefully it isn’t too bad. I have heard, on more than one occasion and usually from non-runners, that the last 6 miles of a marathon are run on adrenaline. That is how you get it finished. I think that is a load of crap. I fully believe that the strength of your mind is how you get through every step. I ran the Chicago Marathon in 2014 three weeks after breaking my big toe. Probably not the smartest thing I have ever done, but it was the first opportunity I had to live/deal with a constant annoyance that was literally a pain. I did it. It actually gave me life, it gave me meaning. I had a battle wound and I was going to finish the war that day. This is sort of akin to “just keep swimming” but I learned how to fight through the pain. Since it was constant I ended up making it a part of me for that period of time. I did it to the point where I didn’t notice it anymore.
So now I am starting to learn that mental training comes from situations. Running is no different than life. I can’t say I want to be more patient and do nothing. I have to be in a situation where I teach myself patience. I have to remember when I feel impatient that I need to do something different in order to learn and become stronger. By the way, it still hasn’t worked for driving, but I am still learning. Each step of the way I am finding something new to teach me. Running on the FDR in New York I come across some “Interesting” smells, but I stay strong and push through. Running past the crowds crossing the Brooklyn Bridge helps me learn focus and patience. Running on a treadmill teaches me that I hate treadmills, but I push through – and I tend to go real fast and get it out of the way.
The best thing that I think I have learned to help my mental training is the knowledge that I have done this before. I know I can run another marathon, because I have finished many. I know I can make it through the pain, because I have done it before. I know I can clear my mind and overcome any obstacle, because I have commanded my own mind to do it. Then I had a big test of my mind and that was the Boston Marathon of 2015. There is a wonderful story that involves meeting a couple that was injured in the bombing, as well as an incredibly bad hangover from sharing wine with them. I will tell you that story separately, because that couple earned it. The test came from having a perfect storm of issues happen all at once. I had to fight through these things, or I wouldn’t be able to last more than 5 miles. I had a bought of runners knee that I had taped up. Nonetheless it still bothered me. The forecast said it was going to rain, and it did. As a matter of fact it rained 3.5 inches, was forty-three degrees and it was windy. This was going to take some serious mental strength. At first it was to just keep swimming – almost literally. Then I included the fact that I had run with pain. Then after an hour an entirely new form of of discomfort kicked in and that was wet feet. My socks and shoes had become sponges. I didn’t think I would be able to finish. I saw people bowing out within five miles of the starting line in Hopkington. I couldn’t do that though. I needed to finish. The last thing that I have learned to train my brain is to meditate – in the truest sense of the word. I cleared my mind through my breathe. When it was working I could have run a race over hot coals. When it wasn’t working I felt defeated, as the picture with this blog shows. I clearly remember that moment. I was defeated. I was afraid my feet were one big blister. My body was drenched to the point of feeling like I was one large prune. This was mile 14 and I thought I couldn’t go on. Then, I caught my breath again. My mind kept saying “breathing in…breathing out”. When I do that my mind can’t think about anything else, not even the pain. I only think of my breath;I then I become present.
I will always train hard for each race. I want to prepare my body for what is in store. I want to be trained so I don’t experience much pain. Most importantly, I want to train my mind to overcome anything that I experience during my training, as well as my race. The more I train, then the more I also train in my life. These skills help with every aspect of what I do every day. If I can overcome anything during 26.2 miles, then I can overcome anything at the office, at my home, with my friends, with my family, and most importantly, with myself. So, yes, a strong mind makes a stronger body.