The Mental Race
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The Mental Race

The Mental Race

by Richard A. Lovett

It has been said that the only difference between a runner and a racer is an entry fee. And obviously, anyone who can jog three miles can complete a 5K race. But true racing is more than finishing: it involves reaching the finish as quickly as possible. That can be intimidating. To begin with, it means pushing beyond your normal comfort zone. How far beyond depends on how hard you want to race; but if there's no discomfort, you're jogging not racing.

There's also the prospect that you might not do as well as you'd like. Running a good race requires strategy: not going out too fast at the start, running wisely through hills, paying attention to heat and hydration and saving enough but not too much energy for the finish. "You have to be able to really focus on how you execute your race," says Bob Williams, a coach from Portland, Oregon. All of this can produce a good deal of pre-race anxiety, and the running literature is full of suggestions for coping with it.

Some runners, however, have a different problem. They're afraid to give their all to a race because they're worried about what might happen if they actually do succeed.

If At First You Don't Succeed..."
Fear of success is like being afraid of falling in love for fear of being hurt. People afflicted with it may race frequently, but they'll run every race very conservatively, never really showing themselves-or anyone else-what they can actually do. The underlying fear isn't of success per se, but of proving that they're capable of doing more than they've done in the past. Lifetime RAC member Faulder Colby, a clinical psychologist and two-time marathoner, describes it as fear of failure one step removed. A successful race raises the question of what will happen if you can't duplicate your breakthrough.

Williams, who coaches both high school runners and adults, says that beginner runners are often shocked the first time they run a good race. Their reaction, he says, is "Ohmygosh, I can't believe I did that!" And given the real uncertainties involved in racing, nobody can promise them that their next races will be equally good. In 1967, Williams experienced this himself after he ran a spectacular race to win the Pac-8 steeplechase. "I feared the national championships because I didn't think I could run that well again," he says. As it turned out, he ran "pretty well" in the championships. "But the fretting was difficult," Williams admits.

Runners who fear success dodge such pressures by never letting themselves run their fastest or at a pace that they aren't sure they could duplicate. My friend Linda is an excellent case in point. Over the years, she's convinced most of our mutual training companions that she's hopelessly slow. But once, when she didn't realize what she was doing, I watched her uncork 5 1/2 miles at a pace that was at least 30 seconds per mile faster than her 5K PR. "Don't tell anyone about that," she said afterward, "or they'll expect me to do it again."

Coaches and psychologists suggest a number of methods for eliminating this fear and daring to do your best. Critical to all of them is ridding yourself of the "need" to do well in that follow-up race. Ask yourself what's the source of the tension. If it's external, tell friends, family and would-be coaches that their attempted cheerleading is putting you under pressure. Also, if possible, keep your race results secret from those who can't respect your desire not to be pushed. If the source of the pressure is internal, try reversing the action-movie cliche and tell yourself that failure is an option-that the world won't end if you set a high standard in this race, then fail to meet it next time. Failure is a normal part of any sport, and discovering what doesn't work will often teach you more-and in the long run make you a better runner-than a string of uninterrupted successes.

  • Remind yourself that all running careers have ups and downs.
  • Take an incremental approach. My friend Linda is holding back by such a large margin in 5Ks, for example, that she would not be risking much by speeding up by five seconds per mile. Even if she didn't manage to duplicate that increase in speed in her next race, nobody would really notice. With a few successes at that pace under her belt, she could try speeding up by another small increment. Each small success breeds confidence.
  • Warm up before the race.
  • Jog a mile, then do a few 100-meter "strides" at faster than your normal jogging pace (but not as all-out sprints). The goal is to put your body and mind into "race" mode so that when the race starts, you're ready to go.
  • Try to drop your times.
  • If your race times have stagnated but you have a nagging suspicion that you might be capable of doing better, treat your next race as an experiment. (Caution: This works better in a 5K than a marathon!) Rather than running the first mile conservatively, run at a pace that feels too fast. Then try to hold that pace for as long as you can. If you eventually run out of energy and your pace drops, remember it's only an experiment. Sometimes the only way to find out if something works is to try it. At worst, the experiment will make you a better, more knowledgeable racer. And maybe, just maybe, you'll find yourself racing at a level you never before thought was possible.
  • Try not to expect too much.
  • You race better, and feel better about it, when you're not under pressure to succeed. Then, rather than immediately feeling you have to repeat a success, you can simply say, "That's nice," and accept the success as a gift.

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