How to Be Mentally Strong

I hit my first mental funk at about mile nine of the Boston Marathon on April 18, 2011. At this point in the game, I could hardly pump my fist and yell, “Go self! Only fifteen miles left!” Fifteen miles is still just too far away from the almighty finish line. I knew it was time to pull out the big guns — all of the mental tricks that I had been stockpiling for the months leading up to the race.

Beth Risdon After a 15-Mile Training RunKnowing ahead of time I was not going to be physically ready to run 26.2 miles, I had done a lot of brain training leading up to the race. Sidelined in October 2010 with a hip stress fracture, Boston had been a big question mark. Would I be able to run?  After working so hard to qualify for Boston, the thought of not being able to run devastated me. At the same time, I was not willing to put my health at risk. There would always be another race. Sigh.

Fortunately, I had a plan and that plan worked. In January, I returned to eight minutes of running at a time. I slowly worked my way up to longer runs. I incorporated copious amounts of cross training and ran only three times a week. My weekly mileage was never more than twenty miles and my longest run before Boston was fifteen miles. Not an ideal marathon prep package, but my doctor assured me it would take me to the finish line and I believed him.

Belief is an amazing thing. It has the power to transform us, to empower us to do things we never thought possible. Recently, while reading  The Triathlete’s Training Bible (Joe Friel, 2009), I learned the inspiring story of the bumblebee. A few years ago, NASA began to study this insect because it was thought that its flying powers might give insight into space operations. The researchers wondered how the bumblebee’s small wings could carry its obviously large and hairy body into the air. After all, the bee’s round body and flying form was aerodynamically inefficient. After weeks of intense study, the scientists came to a startling conclusion: bumblebees are incapable of flight. Good thing no one told the bee.

Beth Risdon 2011 Boston Marathon

The interpretation of this story is simple: we are only limited by our beliefs. If we think we can do it and don’t let anyone tell us otherwise, we’ll be successful. If we focus on the negative and make excuses for why we’re not strong or capable enough, we probably won’t reach our goals. Most people are much stronger than they think they are. They simply need to entertain the possibility that they have it within their reach to meet their goals. They then must choose to believe themselves.

Beth Risdon 2011 Boston Marathon

How do we instill within ourselves the mental strength necessary to dig deep and to do what it takes to reach the finish line, climb the mountain or swim across the lake? Here are some mental training tips:

  • Believe. Act As If. This is also known as “Fake it until you make it.” Don’t sell yourself short. Move your body forward one step at a time and act as if you were the strong and capable individual that you are.
  • Don’t freak out! There will be highs and lows. Just as sure as challenges arise, they disappear or are taken over by another bodily sensations or emotions. Often when I’m running a race or doing a long run, a pain or stomach cramp crops up or I hit a really low point. I tell myself, “This too shall pass,” and it does.
  • Keep going. “Program” yourself before the event that you’re going to press on regardless, even if you’re barely moving. (Unless, of course, you are legitimately injured or ill. Then stopping might be the way to go.)
  • Remember you don’t have it so bad. Yes, you are suffering, but put it into perspective. Think of someone who has inspired you by their fight against cancer or their strength when coping with the loss of a loved one. If they can persevere through their pain, you can certainly finish this race.
  • Get out of your head. Don’t dwell on how amazingly awful you feel. Focus your attention elsewhere like on that almost-naked Tarzan guy running in front of you wearing only a loin cloth.
  • Negotiate. Give yourself permission to quit if you’ll only go another 10 feet or to that stop sign ahead. It really works. Once you reach that milestone, set another one. Little by little you are nearing the finish line.

Beth Risdon at the Boston Marathon Finish LineOnce I had the blessing of my doctor and knew I wouldn’t re-injure myself, it never occurred to me I would not finish the marathon due to my lack of training. It was not a possibility or an option. Beth Risdon at the Boston Marathon Finish LineI accepted the fact that this would not be my strongest or fastest race and that I would probably have significant body aches and fatigue. At mile 20 and with only 10K to go, I saw my family. I hugged them and broke down as exhaustion, joy, and relief simultaneously took over.

I crossed the finish line dazed, yet fully aware of what I had just done. Belief had conquered over insecurity and fear. I’d like to say a bumblebee swirled around my head right at that moment, but I’d be lying. I did think about him, though.

17 Comments
Sylvia

May 23, 2011 at 3:40 pm

I love this article and inspiring story, Beth!!! My husband and I are training for our third triathlon and we’ve been less than thrilled about our workouts, not much motivation since we did our first one two years ago. Last Summer I had hip surgery from a waterskiing accident (fractured my hip), this Winter & Spring I’m recovering from a shoulder fracture (downhill skiing accident). The Tri is 3 1/2 weeks away and I JUST got into the pool for the first time since my injury 3 months ago (doctor’s orders) – been fearful that I just wouldn’t be able to swim well…it’s been a long, patience-testing recovery…can only do the breaststroke because freestyle hurts too much, but I felt really good, swan for 30 minutes, enjoyed the water. It made me hopeful…now I just have to keep it going until that day. I LOVE your mental training tips and will write them down, keep them near to me, and remember that even so I know it won’t be my best performance, if I finish reasonably, I’m a winner. Thanks for sharing your story!!!!

Anne

May 23, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Very inspiring story…great tips. Thanks.

jean compton

May 24, 2011 at 5:54 am

Beth~I remember reading your blog after you had your injury. Kudos to you for finishing the race! Very inspiring and good advice for anyone facing a new challenge.
XO
Jean

Lezlie

May 24, 2011 at 6:07 am

Thanks so much for sharing this journey! It is truly incredible!

Kathy

May 24, 2011 at 7:02 am

Great advice and very inspiring……..

“THANKS I NEED THAT!!!!!

Kerry - Kid Giddy

May 24, 2011 at 10:11 am

Coming from someone who has never ran a Marathon or TRI let alone even a 5K (but ran on the track team in HS)…I appreciate the mental tips! I’d like to run a 5K but sometimes feel putting family & work aside and taking time for me is so selfish, and that I can’t possibly run like I used to and won’t be able to keep up with anyone else! But it is necessary to take the time – so I will. I will fake it ’til I make it…I can be a bumblebee and fly with tiny wings! Thanks & Kudos to you! -kg

Cati

May 24, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Excellent job, Beth! Congratulations! Your post couldn’t be more perfectly timed for me. I’m not a runner, but have decided to run the Denver Rock n’ Roll 1/2 marathon in October in memory of my ex-husband who died last year of Melanoma. I’ve just started training and keep thinking I can probably handle the physical part of the training, but the mental part will be my challenge. I guess I need to just surround myself with positivity and remember the bumblebee!

Cheers,
Cati

Cathy

May 24, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Such a great story and your tips are just great. We are so much greater than the sum of our parts but sometimes it’s hard to remember that.

Beatriz

May 26, 2011 at 5:17 pm

What a wonderfull way of explaining how everything is in our heads. Love your words! Thank you forceje article.

elizabeth

May 27, 2011 at 6:51 pm

i love this article! I will be thinking of that bumblebee (among my other inspirings). Way to go on finishing your race! thanks for the motivation.

Clove

May 29, 2011 at 12:41 pm

THANK YOU. I’ve been running out of courage before graduating onto class 1V white water. I’m a solo canoeist and now can, with your help, get down that river, over those rocks, into and out of the hole because I’ve gotten out of my head and into the rapids.
You’ve been more help than you can possibly imagine.

Buzz

May 31, 2011 at 9:38 am

I’d find this story much more helpful if blatant myth weren’t promulgated as scientific fact. Fact: bumble bees can fly due to very complex aerodynamic principles, not because of their remarkable mental fortitude.

http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/05/21/bumblebee-flight.html

Shawna

May 31, 2011 at 2:02 pm

I don’t care what Buzz says…I’m thinking of bees everytime I need to push through something difficult. Maybe I’ll just have to create my own complex aerodynamic principles 🙂

Shutupandrun

May 31, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Buzz – thanks for the article link.

According to your article bees do not have aerodynamics like birds and bats (“One finding is that basic rules of aerodynamics — which explain how airplanes and some birds fly — simply don’t apply to bees”). It is their innate inefficiency while flying that actually gives them flying control. Ironic.

In any event, I was simply trying to make a point that bees were not given the structural advantages that other flying species have. Yet, they have found a way to make it work for them. Who is to say whether mental fortitude figured into the equation or not.

I still think it’s a great analogy.

Helen Lanthier

July 04, 2011 at 2:56 pm

I will remember the bumblebee…I feel iike one myself. I was always the fat kid, the one NOT chosen for recess teams, and definitely the one who couldn’t run. Now I’m running! I’ve finished my first half marathon and am training for my first full marathon in October. I grew up without the physical prowess to run, like the bumblebee without the physical structure to fly, but as the bee flies, I’ll finish those 26.2 miles! Thanks for sharing your story…I enjoy your writing tremendously!

Kini

November 01, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Hi Beth – I am so grateful for this post. I just finished the Los Angeles Rock N Roll 1/2 Marathon. My first marathon too. I trained 2 months before it, but my time was not at all what I expected. I came in at 2 hrs / 56 minutes.

I trained with others who came in 10 to 20 minutes before me.

I know what went wrong. After the 8th mile my mind gave up. I walked the most of the remaining 5 miles.

I was very excited to finish, but I was disappointed because I knew I could’ve done better.

While the time shouldn’t be a major disappointment, it was a goal.

It’s been a few days…and I’ve since said I would never run a 1/2 marathon again. But now that I read this, I am going to do it again!

Thank you.

Oh, I like the bumble bee story (despite what another poster had to say). It’s inspiring.

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