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.
Knowing 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.
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.
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.
Once 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. I 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.