10 Tried & True Mental Strategies for Long Distance Racing

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Let me preface this by admitting that I am generally terrible at everything.

Thank the heavens for long distance running.

It’s the only way I could ever call myself an athlete. My husband and I once saw a shirt that read, “All grit no talent,” and we both looked at me in lock step.

I once met an Olympic sprinter who waived her accomplishments off as simply born talent. She wanted to know how we did it. The long distance runners that is. Gritting it out is just how we do.

A friend asked me at a party a couple days ago what exactly goes through my mind when I’m racing… and how it is that I am able to endure so much unpleasantness mentally and physically. I think it comes down to  few things.

My childhood was awesome but it wasn’t easy. I was born in Northern Alberta. And yeah… that is a dog sled. It was miserably dark and inconceivably cold all winter. We didn’t have Gortex or “high loft” down. I had whatever jacket my sisters wore out five years ago – and maybe whatever Zellers boots were on sale. I had frostbite so often I thought that’s just what skin felt like when you came back inside. And if we whined, we got kicked back out. So we didn’t.

I got into horses and worked on farms and ranches for years. I even lived in a barn for a while. I woke up early, I mucked stalls and lifted heavy stuff all the time. Because I had to. No sense thinking about it. It just had to be done. So I did it. After years shovelling and lifting I got into training horses. I learned patience and probably the true meaning of grit. Eventually the horse does what you want it to – but it takes time – and usually a lot of getting bucked off. And it takes even more getting back on.

I definitely feel that my background shaped who I was when I finally started running in my 20s. Maybe even more than growing up an athlete would have. But what goes through my mind to keep me going…?

Here are the top ten things:

1. How do you want to remember this?

As was famously quoted of Muhammad Ali, “Suffer now and live the rest of your life a champion.” You’re going to finish it anyway, so why do it half-assed? In fact, I sometimes make myself a deal that this can be my last race if I do it well. And then I sign up for another one. Every. Damn. Time.

2. I leaked some torque on that last step.

More often than not when I’m chasing down a PB or willing my little slow twitch muscles to go fast I am focused inwardly, taking score of each step.

Did I tense anything unnecessarily? Did I achieve full hip extension? How long was my foot on the ground? Did my arm swing straight back? That sort of thing.

3. I love this.

I stay positive as much as possible and when I’m feeling yucky I remind myself that I am the one who signed up to be here and wanted to challenge myself. That I love both the good days and the bad days because it’s all part of this sport.

4. This is not easy.

Sometimes I poke fun at myself for thinking, “Wow, this ultra marathon is hard!” Yeah. Yeah, it is. And then I move on. Usually back to #3.

5. Go get ’em.

I sometimes start playing a cat and mouse game if I’m getting bored. Even just changing up the pace by adding a quick pick-up helps.

6. Swing those arms.

As you tire your cadence (speed of foot strike) slows dramatically. I focus on light quick arm swings to get my feet going. You also start slamming the ground, so I pretend I’m running through the forest at night which gives me slightly quicker, lighter, higher steps.

7. Wow, that feels great. 

Sometimes changing my mood requires little more than removing a pair of gloves or sunglasses. i then reinforce it by telling myself how great it feels to have the cold breeze on my hands. It’s not quite like starting the race anew but it’s rejuvenating if your tell yourself it is.

8. This is why you’re out here.

This one connects to #3. Embrace the suck. Most people are incapable of pushing themselves to that level of discomfort. But runners know it’s going to be a bit unpleasant and maybe even a little painful… and we’re cool with that. It’s why we strap that bib on.

9. Feeling good. Easy day.

After embracing the suck I usually cycle it back around to feeling easy. I focus on the little things like how comfortable my shirt is or how light my legs feel. I acknowledge the big things like rain as not being too hot and hilly courses as a chance to break up my stride. Basically, I just try to spin everything into a positive. It’s good practice for life!

10. I’m doing so well. 

I don’t even let myself get disappointed with a bad race out on course. I acknowledge who I am ahead of or behind. I applaud myself for fighting through a tough day and getting stronger physically and mentally. i find a way to be happy with my effort. I try to do this post race too… but it’s definitely harder.

So – it’s your turn now. What goes through your head to make you keep on running?

Some Inspiring World Records…

It was seemingly only a few years ago that one arm push-ups were nearly inconceivable. Now my mother-in-law does one arm push-ups. With a clap.

With the recent breaking of the plank record, I decided to compile a few of the coolest and most inspiring records.

Here are some recent world records of amazing people doing amazing things.

Man breaks World Record Plank, without Breaking a Sweat.

And Another Recent Record, 4210 Pull-ups in One Day

But THIS Guy Did Pinky Pull-Ups. Whaaattttt? You thought regular pull-ups were hard!

Fastest 100m on All Fours

Owww. Owww. My Finger.

And How Could I not Finish by Including Denis Kimetto’s New Marathon World Record?

Moving on… AKA inspiring the enemy

Moving on... AKA Inspiring the Enemy

I left for my first overnight trip without Ama. It was hard. I missed her. I missed John.

To make matters worse, it was to go to a Judicial Dispute Resolution for my accident in 2006. That’s stressful. The whole situation is stressful. And our offers were miles away.

Thankfully we came to a resolution fairly swiftly. I’ve come to realize that however inhumane the system seems, there are people behind that system. Sure they have different motivations… but they’re people with motivations.

The JDR oscillated between talking about how screwed I am, both now and especially, years from now… and talking about how awesome I am. What a weird fight to be in – and so often as a bystander.

So much of law is based on historical evidence. Historically though, people don’t “mitigate” their damages. They sit on their butts, get fat, get even more broken and give up. No one was arguing about my mitigation. But it complicates things a touch to say the least… when you are the most mitigatedest.

After the Mexican-market-style-bargaining-standoff, we agreed, shook hands and were fast friends.

Gloves off.

The lawyer and the adjuster told me that they were following my progress and that I was a constant inspiration to them and others in the firm who’s job it was to spy on me. He’d been waiting this whole time to thank me.

Wow. People. Really. Nice. People.

Women’s running in Canada

Women's Running in Canada

Krista Duchene is in many ways your typical busy mom of 3. Typical, in that she does all the stuff someone with a 6, 4 and 1 year-old typically does. Untypical, because she is also at the top of the Canadian marathon scene. While most of us struggle to get dinner on the table, keep the kids happy, and get out for a 5k, Krista manages a grueling training regime on top of it all. She also works as a dietician.

Canada has a poor record for supporting marathon runners at Krista’s level. The IAAF marathon standard is 2:37, but Canada’s standard is a much tougher 2:29:55. Duchene ran 2:32:06 in Rotterdam and appealed to Athletics Canada for a two minute grace period. They denied her. Of course, going to the Olympics doesn’t provide athletes with direct financial incentives, but it does open sponsorship doors and gives athletes experience on the world stage. In most events there is what is called a “rising star” exemption for athletes that come near the standard. Since marathon runners often come from shorter distance events; however, it does not apply. No woman in Canada has ever made our Olympic standard. Ever. It seems to me that’s a good reason to look at how we’re doing things.

The men’s Olympic marathon is only recently getting better. This year we filled all three spots on the team. Dylan Wykes was selected after running the same marathon that Duchene ran in, 7 days before the end of the qualifying period. We have not sent a man to the Olympic marathon for 12 years. It’s no wonder that on now do we send 3 strong runners in, on the cusp of breaking Jerome Draydon’s long standing Canadian record.

Compare the life of a working mother of 3 grinding out hard training on her own with that of the great Paula Radcliffe who has a nanny and a stay at home husband. And it’s still hard. It’s no wonder we can’t make our own seemingly unachievable standard. The difference in earnings for an average NHL player and an average pro marathoner is atrocious. For them, that doesn’t bode well to having a normal life, or a family. For us, that doesn’t bode well to having marathon runners go to the Olympics… particularly females.

Some finger that lack of good coaches and good female role models in the marathon in Canada. Fair enough. Though wouldn’t having some females representing the marathon at the Olympics have really sparked it up?

Chicked, chicking, chick.

This morning, I toed up toward the line of the 5k Resolution Run, leaving one row of runners between me and the start line. One row of male runners. As I judged whether I should press into the very front, I got some “don’t be getting in the way now” glances. Every runner knows this seeding game. At the 8k in Victoria, I played elbow leap frog with a guy sized and dressed like Rocky (who clearly won). As soon as the crowd opened, I never saw him again. This time, I stayed back… and as the gun went off, the pace didn’t, so I hopped into the grass and passed. 7th, 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd. 1st was a slender youth Japanese man in sleek kit. As I passed his head spun around at me in horror. This was not a guy to be chicked. Apparently my appearance caused some ferocious internal combustion type reaction. He took off effortlessly and instantaneously at a 5 minute-mile pace. To which I did not follow. No matter, the fear of woman was in his heart. He opened up the gap further and further. 100m, 200m, 400m. Every 50m, shoulder checking to make sure that I did not go with him. I couldn’t run that fast for 100m, forget 5,000m. As he got smaller and smaller in the distance, I could still see his now tiny head whip around from time to time. Was it something I said?

The Urban Dictionary defines “chicking” as “when a woman outperforms a man in a physical activity such as hiking, biking, or skiing, where a man should normally outperform a woman.” It’s common in running and cycling too. Pam Reed chicked every man in the prestigious Bad Water two years in a row (2002 & 2003). We running mamas all know the sweet silent mini-victory of the stroller-chick. I was once refused entry to a race with my stroller not for insurance issues, but to protect the fragile egos of men running for their PBs. The race director worried: How is one to feel about hitting their goal time – but being passed by a stroller, being pushed by a lady, in a skort? Oh the horror. At the end of one of my better races (with my daughter in tow), the man behind me exclaimed at the finish, “I just got beat. By a lady. Who just had a baby. Who was pushing that baby in a stroller.” He seemed genuinely as happy about my stroller-chicking as I did, even though he got chicked.

We know we shouldn’t be so competitive. But… It’s only really chicking if it bugs the guy you’re passing. Otherwise, it’s just a pass. And if it bugs him… Well… Maybe that’s the game?

What do you think? Is chicking an offensive term that perpetuates inequality in sport? Or a little harmless fun between genders competing on the same level? Do you even notice when you pass a guy in a race or when a woman passes you? How about if it’s your spouse?

Baby Doping

I for one can testify that women, OK I, possess inhuman strength postnatally. I ended up gaining 35 pounds and ending my pregnancy putting shame to the term “runner” with my best waddley rendition of what I thought running looked like. I stopped at every port potty, gas station and tree to relieve my aching bladder and the rest of the time bounced around trying to ignore it’s crampy plight. The day Ama came was the first of our Sun Run training clinic. That would have been fine if I was participating, but I was coordinating. How could I miss the first run?

So when my water broke in the car on route, I knew it was going to be an interesting morning. After setting up, I slipped into the vacant stairwell to phone and ask the on-call obstetrician if he thought it would be OK that I go for a run. An old crankity fellow, his answer was as disbelieving as it was direct. “No. No, I don’t think it would be OK.” I went into the delivery room in taxed spandex and a pair of now-one-size-too-small New Balance 890s.

Post-baby I felt like I was dragging a tent trailer everywhere I went. But I kept going. I had a great running group who motivated me and supported me through all those breast-feeding walks and blanket shuffles. Plus, I always had to catch up. So as my fitness came back, it just kept climbing. I ran the Sun Run 3 months postpartum and made the top 100 list. I made attempts at training all summer, never surpassing the 3 hour mark for a long run and only on one occasion surpassing two hours. In 2006 I was in a serious accident that left me on a train of injury after injury. Maybe the imposed low mileage helped keep the injuries at bay. I ran a sub-90 half, and to my surprise, and the surprise of my coach at the time, a 3:09 full. The last 3/4’s was painful – but I kept some sort of pace up.

Many athletes have experienced similar situations. Colleen De Reuck set the world record in the 10-mile postpartum. Magdalena Lewy Boulet dropped her 10k time from 32:40 to 31:28, her half from 1:15 to 1:11 and her full from 2:30 to 2:26 post-baby. Catriona Matthew, a Scottish golfer, won the British Scottish Women’s Only 10 weeks after delivering. Kara Goucher PR’d and came 5th in the Boston five-months postpartum. Shayne Culpepper dropped her 1,500m from 4:08 to 4:05, her 3,000m from 9:17 to 8:54 and her 5k from 15:31 to 15:01 after having a baby. Sara Vaughn took her mile time from 4:58 to 4:11. Derartu Tulu dropped her 5k from 14:50 to 14:44, her 10k from 31:08 to 30:17 and her marathon from 2:30 to 2:23 after child birth. Ingrid Kristiansen won the Houston marathon 5 months after delivery. Of course, famously, Sonia O’Sullivan won silver in the Olympic 5,000m 14 months postpartum.

Of course, there are other unfavourable examples. Paula Radcliffe may have won the NYC marathon nine months after having a baby, but she hasn’t come within her twice bettered world record since child birth.

In fact, there is even a rumour that was humoured during the 1984 International Olympic Committee meeting about Abortion Doping. Apparently there had been some talk of known Eastern European athletes getting pregnant and timing abortions at three months gestation and close to a major competition to gain the positive cardiovascular effects of pregnancy and subsequent performance increases. There is at least one official report of a Swiss doctor being involved. The whole abortion doping story may have evolved from forced abortions in Eastern European athletes that became pregnant due to fears about the birth outcomes of babies whose mothers were on steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. Perhaps even the concern of babies born to mothers who exercised at a high level alone was enough to fuel fear about fetal outcome. Remember, this was a time when female exertion was still thought to be dangerous, forget the effects on a developing fetus. In fact, there were no women’s distance running events in the Olympics prior to the 1980s. However, the potential physiological boosts from pregnancy have been widely acknowledged and the theory that an athlete might “abortion dope” to gain a performance advantage is plausible.

Thank goodness there have been no rumours of the occurrence as of late. But it does shed a light on an interesting question, “Does having a baby make you weaker? Or stronger?”

Of course, there is a plethora of additional reasons beyond the physiological changes of pregnancy. Women may have a raised pain threshold and fearlessness after going through labour. They may find more balance in their life and ascribe less importance to the outcome of races. They may be happier. They may use their training time more efficiently. They may simply be tougher. We always consider relaxin’s* role in decreasing joint stability, but it may also increase mobility and tissue suppleness.

On the flip side though, if women are not taking care of themselves postnatally they put themselves at increased risk of musculoskeletal injury. If they do not take in enough vitamins, minerals and nutrients, they risk depleting their bones. The relaxin puts them at increased risk of soft tissue injury. Extreme fatigue and inattentiveness compounds these risks.

I personally belief that this superwoman lift in performance is a throw-back from when we had to keep up with the tribe. It just makes sense that women would get an edge to help them carry along the tribe’s newest and most critical members. So, postpartum mamas, what’s your take? Has anyone seen a major difference in their abilities postpartum for better or for worse?

*Relaxin is a hormone that is present in high levels prenatally that “relaxes” ligaments to allow the pelvis to expand and open up the birthing path. It continues to be present in the body until 6 months, and even up to a year postpartum. It has a global softening effect on all body tissues.

Paula Radcliffe – World Record Holder in the Marathon – and Super Mom

Paula Radcliffe - World Record Holder in the Marathon - and mom

Paula Radcliffe is not your typical mother. She is the fastest female marathon runner in world history. She is also mother to Isla and Raphael. Paula managed to make comebacks after both births with the help of a team of professionals. How does she manage to care for her children? Luckily, she has a team for that too. Headed by a stay-at-home-dad, they often call on nannies and extended family to pitch in. What advice does this superstar mom have for us regular moms? Just that. Build a team of support. Many of us juggle fitness, careers and family. You can’t do that on your own. “Take the support from the people around you, from your husband, from your partner, from your family so that you can get your time for your training. You talk about the sacrifices athletes make, I never really felt like I made a sacrifice for my career until I came away for a month without my kids. That was really hard, but at the same time, it was a huge motivation to make every second of the training count and make it worthwhile, being away.”