Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tackling A Race: The Mental Game

Being a high school coach has made me consider each thought and action I have during a race. One area that I find new runners curious about is the mental preparation of a race. What do you do when you're afraid to run? When you doubt yourself?

Don't get comfortable
Over the last year I have learned to "forget" about what I have always done. Just because I ran 20:xx for 5Ks over the last few years doesn't mean I still need to. Just because I always ran my regular runs around 7:30 minute pace doesn't mean I can't run faster - or slower- depending on how my body feels on that particular day.

I remember my track coaching saying that we have a box. It's our comfort box. It's easy to run in that box and get the same times every time. But if you want to get faster, you need to step out of it. You need to take a risk, whether it is in a race or in training.

Believe in yourself
I always tell my runners that they need to know that they are going to run well when they step onto the starting line. They have to believe in themselves. They can't be doubting themselves. They have to feel it in their heart and body.

Easier said than done, right?

Lose the Fear
So what happens if you know you can do it but are afraid? For one, ask what you are afraid of. Is it hurting? If so, running fast means you need to hurt. Tell yourself that and accept it. Get through the race and you'll feel fine after. Convince yourself that it's only 19 minutes, 22, or 28 minutes of pain.

Are you afraid that you'll go out too fast and "die" or "bonk" half way through, being passed by tons of runners at the end? If so, you'll have another race to run. Try a new approach, learn from it, and make changes to your next race. Just because it could happen doesn't mean it will.

No regrets
Do you really want to have regrets after the race? It sucks to finish a race and immediately say, "I know I could have pushed more", or "I relaxed too much and could have ran faster." Far too often I see runners prevent themselves from having success because they are afraid of failing in the process. Change your mindset. Although it sucks to have a bad race, each bad race is a learning experience if you take the time to analyze it. Each bad race can be a little tool in your tool box for future races.

What do you have? 
A new way to approach the race is to approach it with curiosity. What is your body capable of right now? Inexperienced runners always say, "I can't run that fast!". I say, why not? Why can't you? Who says you can't? You are the one telling yourself this, and if that is how you believe, then that is how you run.

Go out there and run your race with your heart. Don't look down at your watch to compare what you're doing with what you've done before. Go on effort. Go on belief. Know that your biggest obstacle out in a race is you. Put your doubts behind. Question what is in you and allow your body to work. We are meant to move. We have moved for thousands of years. It is in our blood to work. When you step on that line, remove the fear by allowing the unknown to emerge. Convert your doubts into curiosity for what your body will give you.

Have a plan
I've heard coaches tell their athletes to envision the race. I never could understand it. It would be better if coaches said to have a plan. You know you are going to slow down in mile 2, so what are you going to do to change it? Or, what are you going to do when you know that your arms are going to start hurting in the third mile? Or when you get to that huge hill? Or when your asthma kicks in?

What will you do?

In general, successful people, know how to overcome obstacles in their path. To be a successful runner you need to recognize your areas of weakness, and decide how you are going to overcome those in a race. It won't happen immediately, but every time you race you have a chance to improve something. Over time, those "little somethings" add up to a big something - a PR.

During Boston, I knew that my weakness was the last two miles of a race. Mentally, I break down. My focus for that race was to change my attitude toward those miles. I envisioned myself staying calm, worked on relaxation (thank you winter yoga), and it worked.

In my last 5K, I knew that my weakness is slowing down in Mile 2. What was I going to do? I said I would speed up, but found my thoughts drifting off during that mile, just like they do in every 5K. Sometimes your weaknesses are easy to change. Sometimes they take multiple tries. Work at it, be patient, but never give up.

Put it together 
Knowing your plan will help you line up at the line feeling confident. You can know in your heart before the start that you are about to give the race your all. And when those things are present, you can finally ask your body to bring out your best. You can put away the fear and allow your heart to run. When you do this, you will be amazed to find that what you thought you could do was far less than what you are truly capable of doing.

It is this reason that I find coaching such a rewarding job: Over the coarse of a season we begin to see athletes gain confidence in themselves that not only translates into better races, but extends into their academic lives, allowing them to question their abilities in the classroom, and bring up their grades. The mental preparation needed for a running race doesn't have to stop on the field or track. Those same techniques can be applied to life: the classroom, the job, or the home life.

Running isn't about getting faster. What I've come to discover over the years is that running is about learning to live life and living it to your fullest. You aren't just getting a PR on the track, but rather PRing in life.

A view of high school cross country runners from a race 2.5 weeks ago

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Parks Half Marathon - Take 2

Looks who's back! I've been training, I've been coaching, and I've been teaching, but I haven't been blogging for some time. I wanted a break from worrying about it, and from being connected to technology all of the time. However, I still want to make sure I document my races as it's fun to look back on them months and years later.

My focus for the last few months has been the Parks Half Marathon, which I also ran last fall. I used the Hanson Method for Half Marathons this summer for training, but it wasn't great training because of my own doing (not because it isn't a great program - it is an excellent program). Once school started, my training and sleep took a hit. My A Goal going into this race was to get 1:27:XX, but my B, and more realistic goal was to get close to my PR, but still be under 1:30.

This Sunday was the coolest morning it has been here for some time and it was around 50 degrees at the start. I was surprised to see that there were no "elite" female runners at the start like last year. It turns out they waited too long to sign up and didn't want to pay to run. Bad for them, but great for me. I was hoping that with their absence I would be able to place higher in the rankings this year. I knew I had to hit sub 6:47 miles to get a PR, and I was confident on the line that I could manage that. I was focused and ready.

Miles 1-3:
6:22, 6:30, 6:42

I was the first girl leading the start for a few hundred yards, but I didn't want to be in that spot. I didn't want to make the mistake I've been making in 5ks. I wanted to hit the first mile around 6:45ish, and pulled back the pace, allowing 3 girls to go ahead of me. I stayed relaxed, felt good, but still came in too fast.

It turns out that the first two miles were downhill, and I had forgotten that before and during the race. A smart runner would have prepared for those downhills and I could have put in less effort. I wasn't worried when I saw my first splits, and ran calmly. I wanted to see what was in me.

By mile 3, a woman in pink had sprinted past me. She looked very strong and I doubted that I would be able to catch her. The first three girls were long out of sight and I knew there was not hope of catching up to them.

Miles 4-6: 
6:45, 6:38, 6:34

When I got to mile 6 I decided it was time for a gel but the coldness of the air had left my hands stiff. I struggled for a few minutes (no joke) to reach into my pocket that was placed INSIDE the back of my shorts. Seriously Nike, what were you thinking? I probably mooned the people behind me trying to reach for the gel. My breathing got off, my stride was off, but I was happy to get some fuel in me and to see that I was hitting some nice mile splits. I could no longer see the 4th place woman and could only hope that I had a strong 5th place. 

During these miles, as we went up and down hills in the woods, I realized how much I truly enjoy this race. It's in the woods, it's peaceful, and I loved that there were no crowds around. It felt like a "grown up" cross country course because of the paved trails. While I had men around me the whole time, we were all staying in our mental zones and working to get through it. 

Miles 7-9
6:48, 6:42, 6:40

Tom was cheering at mile 8 and I felt good when I passed him. Mile 9 was a different story though. I started to feel cramps in my calves, something I have only felt once before - at the end of the Cherry Blossom this spring. My calves may be fine in my flats in a 5K or 10K, but the longer distance was killing them. I tried to hold on, but began to fear what lay ahead. I knew my calves were going to suffer for the remainder of the race. As I ran, the knotting in them got worse. 

Miles 10 - 13
6:42, 7:06, 6:59, 7:13, 0:42

Check those splits! They do all of the explaining and I am sure you can guess what happened next. I struggled to get my feet to move. The last two miles, which are totally flat and in a straight line, killed me. Around the end of the 12th mile a turn around spot gave me a glimpse of the runners in a 30-45 second window behind me. I was praying there would be no female, but alas, there was! She was withing those 30 seconds and I knew that the last mile would be my slowest. I entered the last straightaway hoping that I could hold on to the 5th place finish. 1:27 was out of question, but I had hopes to still get a PR and knew I needed to focus.

At one point I asked myself, "what hurts?" Is my breathing off? No. Is my upper body sore? No. Are my hamstrings or quads out of energy? Sadly no. The only thing holding me back was the inability to respond to the signals my nerves were sending in my calves to make them function.

Tom was cheering 0.3 miles from the end, and when I passed him I was trying with all of my might not to stop and to just make it to the finish. It could have been a cute moment where he could have helped run me in, but I told him not to. I was so focused on trying to move my feet that I didn't want a distraction.

It was sad, but still a slight relief, to see the clock read 1:28:26 when I crossed - a 20 second PR. The 6th place woman finished not to long after me as I was able to hold onto some distance between us.

Final Time: 
20 second PR
5th female out of 983
$100 prize money

Like last year, the post race was excellent. I was finished by 8:30am and was offered sandwiches and pizza by 8:36. I had to laugh it off. No thank you to pizza that early in the morning. 

I have to remind myself that there were positives to this race: I loved the course, I was calm, I was focused at the start and excited for it, I was running great splits for a majority of it, and I still got a PR. It isn't the race I wanted it to be, and I didn't expect to not be able to work my calves. I know my training was not top notch and I should have ran in my flats more, so that will be fuel to work harder next time around. I want to see a 1:26 or 1:27 and know that it takes some serious determination to get there. I'm ready to put in the work. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

It's One of those Days

Today was one of those running days that I wanted to hold onto as long as I could. The most perfect blue skies, a breeze, and 68 degrees. Is this really DC?

This summer I almost always headed into the woods for my runs. It's quiet, and away from traffic, and if I time it right, I miss all of the people that get up early to run or bike before work. The paths are all mine!

This week I've been soaking in my time outside. School responsibilities start up next week, so I only have a few morning runs left. I also know that winter will be here soon - and by soon, I mean there are still a few months. But the leaves will eventually fall and the crickets will disappear. There will be nothing but cold and wind, too much for this Vermonter to really enjoy. Knowing this makes me look around more, to take in the sites and smells while they're still here, and to feel the warmth of the sun while it still shines high in the sky. 

From the ONE time I ran with my phone while in Vermont

I was reminded this morning why I love running without music or a phone for photos, even if it is the most gorgeous day. There's a strong instinct in me to go outside to relax. I feel rejuvenated after a run. I feel more connected with the world. Without technology I am free. If I had music in my ears I would miss out on the sounds that make my runs what they are...

....The twig snapping to my left this morning, and when I turned to locate the source I discovered a family of 5 deer enjoying their breakfast by the trail.
....The sound of the water in the creek as it flows over the rocks, always louder just after a rain storm, but calming at the same time. Something about water refreshes the soul.
....The crickets always chirping, providing a constant background music that is the theme of summer.
....The birds going on with their days, whether it is the woodpecker on the tree, the robins looking for food, or even the crows that get angry because a certain someone has invaded their territory.
....The sound of the blue heron splashing on the surface of the water as it lands in the creek right next to me during my warm down yesterday. We both stopped and stared at each other for two minutes. It is is one of my favorite creatures out there - so elegant, graceful, and quiet. 
....The peepers (frogs) that welcome in the spring, giving hope to warmer weather that lie ahead.
....And the crackle of the leaves that have fallen - nature's last gift of beauty before life goes into hiding for the winter .

Nature is my music. Nature keeps me calm. I am always thankful that I have two legs to carry me outside to enjoy what the world has to give us. Our society is overloaded with technology (yet here I sit, using it) and we tend to forget to put it down to truly experience life. 

I'm not religious, but I have to say I'm impressed with Pope Francis, who just a few weeks ago, encouraged young people (am I still young?!) to stay off the internet and smartphones. I couldn't agree more.

Put down the phone. Turn off the music and the computer, and go do something outside. And with that, I'll log out and truly get this day going!


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Let me Explain....

Last night Tom pointed out that my post about the recent Twilight 5k was significantly longer than my post about our wedding. Don't get me wrong - our wedding will forever be one of the best days of my life. I got to marry my best friend, someone who I love and care about greatly. There is no way that any race will top that experience.

However, I am very aware that this a public blog. Anyone can find it and read it, especially students. While I am fine with giving more than enough details about a race, I for some reason, like to keep the big, personal milestones a little more personal.

Someone once told me that I'm good at compartmentalizing my life. This is my running blog, not necessarily my life blog. That's what Facebook is for!  I've seen bloggers write post after post about their wedding on their running blogs, which is totally cool, but now how my brain functions. I have no desire to broadcast every detail to the world. I'll have the photos and the memories to look back on, and for me, those are enough. Blogs are a great way to document the happenings in our lives, but it's important to remember that anyone and everyone can read it, and a little privacy in life is a good thing.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Crystal City Twilight 5k Recap

I first heard about the Crystal City Twilighter last summer and was excited to sign up for it this year. Pacer's, a local running store chain, has been big into the high school cross country scene, and invited coaches to this event both years (although I didn't get an invite this year...) and held a team competition between high school teams. Our team wasn't partaking in the event, but I still wanted to check it out.

About a month ago, when Tom and I signed up, I had huge plans to train for this, and hoped to be able to break 19:00. That was before we went up to VT and got married. Read: Wedding planning consumed my life and mind for a solid two weeks, and it was hard to refocus after the wedding. I'm not complaining, I'm just stating that there has been a significant lack of quality and focused training recently.

Here's another thing: I don't know how to prepare for an evening race, specifically one that starts at 8:30pm. I love morning races: Go to sleep, wake up, eat, and run. Easy!

Not this one. I thought about the race the whole day - a race I wasn't all that excited to race. We also had a hard time planning what to eat, but eventually made a larger lunch and ate a smaller dinner at 4 pm.

It's hard to get excited for a race when you know you aren't going to run your best. Fortunately, my worries and lack of excitement began to fade once we arrived at the starting location and met up with one of Tom's coworkers. Once I started to warm up my body and mind naturally began to go into race mode. It's amazing how easy that is if you follow the same pre-race routine year after year. Your body knows what to do.

The race went off right at 8:30, just as the sun was going down. I'm pretty sure they announced that there were about 50 invited elite runners - another reason why my heart wasn't into this - I was going to get crushed and there wasn't a darn thing to do but go out and run my own race.

We blasted off and I was immediately unsure of what my pace was. It felt a lot harder than the 5K I did last month, even though this was a flat course with far fewer turns. I was a little sad to cross the first mile and see 5:56. Dang! I did it again. I went out way too fast.

During the second mile I worked really hard to focus on it being just a mile, and nothing more. I didn't want to think about the rest of the race. The sun was definitely down, and at the turn around point, I got to see Tom up ahead and cheer him on. I tried to run faster, but in reality, I was just trying to put in more effort so my second split wouldn't be too much slower.

Second mile: 6:29

No surprise there. It was playing out to be very similar to my last race. However, I really wanted to pick up the last mile in this one.

I don't know if it was the fact that it was now dark out or if it was because I kept repeating to myself, over and over, "I love this! I love this!" but I could feel that my body was calmer and less tense during the 3rd mile, and I didn't have the urge to vomit like I have in recent races.

As we closed in on the last 0.1 miles, I found myself catching up to two ladies, both of which who had just passed me. I passed them, but they weren't having it. I somehow found more energy to pick it up, but so did the other woman. We were tied as we crossed the line, but due to her later start than mine, she ended up taking the faster time.

Third mile: 6:29
Last 0.1: 0:34

Overall time: 19:29
Place 143/1954
Age Group: 10/186

Tom had a decent race, finishing faster than the last 5k. It's funny to hear the both of us talk after a race, because we break down every single part, talking about our weaknesses and strengths. It's awesome that we both have a passion for running and have done it together for so many years, but to someone else who runs it for fun, I could see how weird it might be.
We were quite impressed with how put together the race night was. Tom founded a race in Milton back in 2003, so we tend to analyze the logistics of races every now and then. I can't speak for Tom, but I would have no problem with doing this race again. The free beer ticket is also a nice addition for a post race celebration!

Even though I may not look forward to a race prior to running it, after the race is said and done I'm even more motivated to work toward the next race.