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Mind over Matter: The Distance Runner’s Mental Challenge

on March 18, 2013

“Believe that you can run farther or faster. Believe that you’re young enough, old enough, strong enough, and so on to accomplish everything you want to do. Don’t let worn-out beliefs stop you from moving beyond yourself.”
-John Bingham

disney run 3Back in January, I completed my first full marathon! That’s right, folks, all 26.2 miles and nothing less! It took me 4 hours and 38 minutes, but I never stopped once, and my body totally worked with me (thank you, legs!). I had completed 5 and 10ks, a 10-miler, and had three half-marathons under my belt by the time my corral crossed the start line that day, but I learned quickly through this experience that when it comes to marathon training – the challenge isn’t just physical!

I picked the 20th Anniversary Walt Disney World Marathon for my first. I’m a huge Disney geek, for starters, and always said “If I’m going to do it for the first time, it’d have to be a place like Disneyworld”. We decided to make a family event of it. My sister ran her first half-marathon that same weekend (go, sis!), and I also had my parents, brother, brother-in-law, and boyfriend there to cheer me on (and believe me, just knowing they were there at the finish line was HUGE motivation in itself!) What struck me, however, leading up to race day and during the run, itself, is how it seemed my brain was working just as hard as my legs.

Many people use running as a form of therapy, and I can understand why. Considering the typical “long run” for training is 10-18 miles, you have a lot of time to be alone with your thoughts. During training runs, you find yourself running distances that most would find you silly to attempt. There are no cheerleaders on the sidelines, no fellow competitors to keep you going – just you, your music (if you even use music), and your willpower. It’s because of this, I truly believe that running can be healing. I cried like a baby when I crossed the finish line because I proved to myself that I was strong enough – both physically and mentally – to do something I never once imagined. On my training runs, I taught myself to shift thinking from negative to positive and learned to be my OWN cheerleader in order to keep going. A good skill to use that I often teach my clients is “self-monitoring”, which requires you to do constant “check-ins” with yourself to curb negative thinking and keep yourself focused. An example is, perhaps, starting to feel angry or frustrated with yourself, taking a moment to say, “Wait – why am I feeling this way?”, recognizing the true issue, and replacing that thinking with something positive, “I’m just nervous because this is a long run. I’ve done this before, and I can do it again. I am strong!”

I’m hopeful others who are getting into running can find this useful or familiar, especially those with thoughts like “WHY did I sign up for this, again?” or “I’m not sure I can do this!” running through their brains.

The Mental Marathon Breakdown (as experienced by Caitlin Langan):

Mile 1: Okay, breath. Does my ankle feel funny? No, you’re good. You’re ready for this. Wow, it’s really early out. I can’t believe I’m about to run a marathon. Is that my knee acting up? No, you’re just nervous! Keep going…

Miles 4-6: Wow, this is great! I feel so energized. Those last few miles flew by. This is so cool. I can’t believe I’m doing this!!

Mile 10: Um, I have to pee. If I stop, am I going to cramp up? I’m starting to feel my knee. I hope that goes away. (Stops and pees) Okay, whew, I still feel good. Yup, that is my knee, though. I’m getting nervous. Keep going, you can do it.

Mile 13: HALFWAY THERE!!! Hmmmm, I hope my pace is okay. I’m going slower than I want, I think. Should I push myself? Wow, I can’t believe I have another 13 to go. Keep going, you’ve got this!

Mile 16-18: Okay, this is starting to suck. I’ve been running almost three hours. I’m tired. Is that hunger? I hope they have food. I hope there’s a water station soon. I hope I can do this. ——-> NOTE: Runner’s notoriously hit “the wall” around mile 18-22 during marathons. The power of positive thinking really needs to take over at this point, and that inner strength you work so hard to build comes in here. I often tell family/friends who are going to come watch me to position themselves close to mile 20 to get that extra “boost” of support to keep going. You CAN do it alone, but having cheerleaders is incredibly helpful. A great strategy is to develop a personal mantra you can repeat to yourself when the going gets tough. For me it was: “You’ve got this. You will own this race!”

Mile 20: I feel everything. My breathing hurts. I’m tired. I can’t believe I can another hour of running to go. I hope a good song comes on my I-Pod (come on Eminem, I need you, now!). You can do this, you can do this. You’ve got this. You will own this race.

Mile 22: disney run 2 This picture is from the 22 mile mark of my race. My brother-in-law captured this pic and yelled “you’re almost there!” Oh my god. Only four more to go. Don’t think about the race. Sing along with your music. Don’t think about your IT band or your hamstrings. Where is the next *^&**(! water stop? Nevermind… You’ll be fine. You’ve got this, you can do this. 



Mile 26.2: You did it! You rocked this! You OWNED THIS RACE!! (cue streaming tears as you hear your loved ones cheering at the finish and receive your medal) (Crossing the finish line in the picture below!!)

disney run


I often tell my clients that if you can anticipate the problem, you’re already prepared. The same goes for the mental challenge of distance running. You know you are going to fatigue, and if you’ve been training, you can guess when. You know that, at some point, your body will say “um, stop please!” and you have to keep going. You also know that the sense of pride and accomplishment you will feel crossing that finish line outweighs the negative. Knee pain goes away and sore muscles are treatable. The fact that you pushed yourself beyond expectation, however, is a feeling that doesn’t go away. I once said, “I could never run a marathon”, and now I’m already planning my second. To those of you who say, “I can’t”, I challenge your mind to think, “Well… could I?” :)

Happy running, everyone!




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2 responses to “Mind over Matter: The Distance Runner’s Mental Challenge

  1. K-CUP says:

    Bangin. I love you to pieces. Like Reese’s pieces but I can’t eat those because we’re strict paleo right now. However, you would be my cheat meal. I would take a minus 5 to munch on you any day. I actually showed human emotion and teared up a bit reading this. ( no I didn’t tear it up like I might with a stupid letter from the IRS …like I literally had water in my eyes and not from onions). I love everything you’re doing. Congrats and a high freaking five.

  2. […] my previous post about running the “mental marathon“? Nothing kills your motivation more than looking outside your window, and it’s dark, […]

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