|Crowie digs it. Lieto broke his shovel.|
A couple of weeks ago, someone on the Team Z listserv wrote to the group to ask a deceptively simple question: She found that, toward the end of difficult track sessions, spins, or races, she had a hard time pushing herself to the breaking point, and she asked if anyone had suggestions about how to go about it. People wrote back with concrete, helpful proposals, such as just trying to keep pushing until the next telephone pole, and then the next one, etc. Others talked about Central Governor theory, and some suggested reading books on sports psychology.
All of this flashed through my mind this past Sunday as I ran my first competitive 10k for several years, and was reminded of how diabolically painful they can be. In fact, if run to the limit of one’s ability, I think it’s inevitable that the pain will asymptotically approach the complete meltdown point. My race went about as well as I could have hoped: I went 38:25 (6:11/mi), which is a 5-minute PR, and my execution was basically perfect, with 5k splits of 19:12 and 19:13 for the two halves. But here’s the thing: I felt close to death for almost the whole race. I suffered a massive side-stitch in mile 2, and by the turnaround just past mile 3, I was seriously questioning whether I could hold the pace for another half mile, much less another 3.1 miles. My lungs were on fire, my legs felt shot, my stomach was rebelling, and I wondered whether the best plan might be to shut it down, be happy with a solid 5k, and just admit that it wasn’t my day. Each quarter mile felt like it might be my last on earth, and I found myself reflecting on the question, “Why the hell am I doing this? Why don’t I just dial the pace back and be happy with the PR that's pretty much inevitable no matter what happens in the second half?” Indeed, I realized that, the harder I ran, the more likely it was that I’d find myself on the side of the road before I hit the finish line. I’d certainly been down that road enough times.
Meanwhile, as I was bargaining with myself, I kept clicking off the miles and drawing closer to the finish line. Just as I was concluding that I couldn’t possibly hold the pace any longer, I blew past the marker for Mile 5, which meant that I was close enough to the finish line that its gravitational pull could guide me the rest of the way. The result was, statistically speaking, the strongest road race I’ve ever run. And I accomplished it while feeling distinctly awful for every step of the last four miles. (Of course, a couple of hours after the race, I reflected that I could have gone faster.)
Two years ago, I almost certainly wouldn’t have run that time. Indeed, last summer, I tried to break 40 minutes in a 10k and wound up abandoning the race halfway through. Fitness is certainly part of the difference, but I think a much bigger part of it is the mental side. My run at Ironman Wales was a brutal struggle for every single mile, but somehow it turned into a 40-minute PR. So, too, at the Eugene Marathon, where I started getting tired at about the 18-mile mark, but fought through the final 10k in a way I’d never managed before.
This is all to say that my teammate’s question to the listserv – i.e., how does one fight through the pain? – is exactly the question to ask, because I think it’s one of the biggest factors that separates the very best athletes from the merely gifted. In fact, regardless of one’s innate talent, I think mental toughness and resolve is ultimately the factor that determines whether a particular athlete will continue to get faster or plateau at a given performance level. If you listen to interviews of the top endurance athletes, or read iconic books like Once a Runner, it become obvious that there is no talismanic secret to minimizing the suffering. They don’t minimize it; if anything, the race winners probably hurt more than anyone else in the field. The difference is that they accept the pain and even welcome it, because they know that the absence of that pain means that they haven’t given their best effort, and to them, that knowledge would be more painful and lasting than the discomfort that they endure during the race.
There’s no question that, for some people, the mental side comes easier than for others. In the last couple of years, I’ve experienced both sides of the equation, and while I think I’m finally getting it figured out, on some level I suspect that the mental game is one that’s never won. There is always the possibility that the next race or training session will be the one where you sell yourself short, and preventing that from happening requires constant vigilance.
One thing that I’ve found this year is that mental performance on race day is the product of countless small decisions made throughout the year. I’ve spent months trying to get my weight down to race level, and that experience has been uncomfortable, to say the least. But every time I’ve gone to bed hungry or passed up a Snickers bar, I’ve made sure to mentally record that small victory in an explicit way, and it's gotten to the point that, on some level, feeling hungry sometimes feels like a victory for willpower. Similarly, there have been many track and trainer sessions this year that have called for 8-10 hard efforts, and I’ve felt utterly exhausted halfway through the first one. As often as not, though, I've found that if I can make it through the first one, the second will be easier, or at least no harder, and I'll be able to complete the workout. In fact, most of my very best workouts this year have come in precisely the conditions that have given me the most reason not to attempt them, or to cut them short. Each of those small victories adds up, and soon one’s mental mindset begins to change in subtle but important ways. If you force yourself to run a fast 400 meters at the end of a track workout, when you can barely stand up at the start of it, you’ll soon find yourself halfway through a tough 800 meter run where you wonder if you can finish it out, but the voice inside will say, “I can endure anything for 400 meters.” And, if you can keep yourself pushing through an 800 come hell or high water, you’ve cracked the secret to the business end of a 1600. A tough 1600 is all you need to finish strong in a 5k, which will allow you to finally snare that 10k time that’s seemed so elusive.
Ultimately, we find ourselves in a marathon or Ironman. It’s no small thing even to participate in events of that magnitude, and many people are justifiably happy and satisfied to do so. If one sticks with endurance sports over the long term, though, one likely will want to do more than finish – getting faster becomes the goal. It is when one decides to try to race -- and I mean race, not just participate in -- longer distance events that one realizes that they're really just a series of the battles that one has fought at the shorter distance. An Ironman marathon is nothing more or less than 26.2 1-mile efforts. Regardless of the distance, we can only run a step at a time.
I think it's no coincidence that, to a man, the very best Ironman athletes started out their careers by fighting to the top of the short-course world. Similarly, the best American marathoner in history, Ryan Hall, was a 5k guy in college. Racing those shorter distances, and enduring the pain that success requires, gave them leg speed, but it also equipped them with the mental tools necessary to tackle the longer distances successfully. A friend of mine said remarked recently that it's harder to go 5% faster than 50% longer, and I think that's true. I think that many people are driven to compete in longer events because they don't require that one confront pain in the same way that short-course racing does. Ironman is very uncomfortable, but at no point does one suffer remotely as much as someone does on the business end of an Olympic distance 10k. That's one reason I feel strongly that, in the long run, athletes do themselves somewhat of a disservice by rushing to ultra-distance events like Ironman: they never learn to go fast, and thereby don't reach their potentials as athletes, at least in terms of speed. They never learn to demand the most out of themselves, because they're never forced to to learn that they can fight through pain and discomfort and surprise themselves. In fact, Iron-distance training is, on some level, actively counterproductive because the conventional wisdom is that, if you feel acute pain, you're going too hard and should back off immediately. That attitude, though perhaps correct as a matter of Iron-distance pacing, is inimical to success at shorter distances, and once it gets ingrained, it can be very hard to dispel because it essentially teaches you that it's okay to quit on yourself when the going gets tough.
I'm only now learning these lessons, because I started out my endurance career by emphasizing distance: my first year in triathlon comprised two half-IM's and an IM. To this day, I've finished more IM's than olys, and more halves than sprints. And I'm realizing that this is probably a large part of why I plateau'd speed-wise over the last few years: going long and slowly teaches you to be good at going long and slowly. It does not teach you how to push your limits. The good news is that it's always possible to change what you're doing to target those limiters, to learn to dig deep. But it requires a conscious attempt to do so -- simply doing the same thing that one has always done won't suddenly yield different results. I've gone about it this year by actively seeking out workouts that will push my boundaries speed-wise: Yasso 800s (10x800) on short rest, 1600m and 3200m repeats, and Computrainer intervals that make me basically fall off of the trainer after the last rep. It hurts like hell, but I can tell you that it pays off on race day, because it teaches you that pain is just pain, signifying little. The inner dialog evolves from, "I'm in pain, I need to slow down" -- which is what you're taught at Ironman distance, to avoid blowing up -- to "I'm in pain. Ok. So what?"
For me, that mental shift has made all of the difference, such that I now actively fight against the voice in my head that tells me it's okay to back off when it hurts. I ran the MCM this year only as a training run; I planned to run 20 miles at a reasonable pace, and then see how I felt before deciding whether to run the last 10k or shut it down and walk. As mile 20 approached, I was getting tired and my legs were getting heavy, so I looked forward to that threshold, when I'd have permission to stop. But when I got there, I realized that the very fact that I wanted to stop meant that I owed it to myself not to. There aren't many chances to practice fighting through the 20-mile fatigue, and I realized that I had an opportunity to prove something to myself. So, I picked it up for the last 6 miles, dropping the 3:25 pace group and finishing in 3:23 -- a nice little negative split. That exercise made it all the easier to fight through the pain in the last half of the 10k this past weekend.
In short, mental toughness comes easier to some than others. But I'm convinced that we can all learn it if we adopt the attitude that pain is, on some level, a sign that we're breaking through a barrier, either physical or mental. Success on that front feeds on itself, and soon becomes instinctive: you become someone for whom quitting isn't an option, and you welcome the pain because you know that, if you make it through to the other side of it, a PR will often await you. That PR is something that no one can take away, because you earned it through grit and determination. So start small, and surprise yourself with what you can do.