I’ve never been one to get emotional over running a bad race—until I found myself sitting in the backseat of an SUV with silent tears rolling down my face, trying to fight off an emotional breakdown.
I’ll tell you why. When I crossed the finish line of my fourth marathon, I felt like a failure. I had traveled from NYC to Richmond, Virginia, to run a Boston Marathon qualifying time (BQ) at the Richmond Marathon. But I had come nowhere close to my goal time. In fact, I missed it by a full 20 minutes, a disappointment that had nothing to do with a lack of training. For the five months leading up to the race, my life revolved around marathon training. I nailed my long runs and speed workouts. I even ran my tune-up race, the Philadelphia Half Marathon, at goal marathon pace. Yet I still came up short.
So how did I fail so epically? I blame my brain. I had spent hours preparing physically for the demands of running a marathon, but I hadn’t spent any time building mental muscle. I had made a huge mistake. Neglecting to train my brain was the worst running mistake I ever made. My legs were strong, but my mind was weak.
It’s surprising that I even finished the race that day. My mind gave up around mile 13 when I missed a crucial water stop. I couldn’t let go of my mistake: I was thirsty and I didn’t know where the next water stop was. By mile 15, I was a complete mess and contemplated walking off the course. My thought pattern had spiraled. The words swirling around in my head told me I couldn’t do this—and I believed them. Feeling like a complete failure, yet too prideful to quit, I shuffled my way across the finish line.
A few months later, during training for my second attempt at a Boston qualifier, I found myself right back in the same mental space. My workouts were intimidating and I was anxious about hitting certain paces during workouts. Once again, my negative thought patterns were making me an emotional mess and preventing me from getting the most out of my training. One Wednesday during a speed workout, I got so anxious about hitting a specific pace that I quit the workout altogether. I realized that if I didn’t change the way I thought, I was never going to reach my goal.
Re-training my thought patterns was no easy task, but I was up for the challenge. I read everything I could get my hands on about mental toughness. I picked out a few drills that stood out to me, and every single night before I went to bed I did one. I learned to reframe my thoughts and to choose my words carefully when speaking to myself. I rehearsed what I would say to myself in different race-day scenarios. I wrote down mantras. I was diligently building mental muscle after years of neglect.
My mental training paid off. Race day came, and though the race was far from perfect, this time I was both mentally and physically prepared. The weather was insufferable, the hills on the race course were steeper than the hills I had trained on, and I tripped and fell just past mile 14. After I fell, my immediate thought was, “I’m not going to be able to run!” But then my mental training kicked in, I said to myself, “You didn’t come all the way to San Diego to quit!” And so, with a bloody leg and elbow, I put the fall behind me and ran the rest of my race. I had finally snagged my BQ with three minutes to spare.