I can count only a few races this year (this one and this one) where I’ve walked away and been able to say that I absolutely gave everything I had. Last Saturday was one of them.
I went into the Kingman Farm Trail Race with no expectations, just to run hard and try to stay in the moment.
That’s been my goal for many of my races this year, except this time I felt I had a few tools in my pocket to really achieve the goal of focusing on my effort. I’ve read quite a few books on sports spychology and the mental aspect of training (Mind Gym and How Bad Do you Want It? are among my favorites), but I picked up a new one at the recommendation of my coach and started reading it last week.
You wouldn’t exactly associate a book called the Rock Warrior’s Way with running, but the principles are easily transferable between sports since the focus is on the mental approach to achieving peak performance. It reiterates many of the same principles that are present in Mind Gym and How Bad Do You Want It?, but sometimes you need to revisit familiar things from a new angle to really deepen your understanding of them.
One of the principles that resonated with me last week was the idea expectations often leads to frustration and frustration hinders performance in a big way. Often my expectations for specific achievement (to place in a race or run a certain pace/time) have hindered my performance and I’ve walked away frustrated and disappointed. So my goal going into Kingman Farm was to not set any expectations, to stay open and to delay any negative thoughts.
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Prior to races my thoughts are often a mix of thinking about the course, sizing up the competition and trying to calm my nerves. Even if the race is small and relaxed I always feel a little nervous before the start. I ran my warm up and for the most part felt relaxed, having my kids and parents there to watch them was a helpful distraction from getting to serious about the race.
I was pretty familiar with the course and for the most part the trails are benign in comparison to some of the more technical terrain I’ve run on this year. I knew the pace would be fast, but I wasn’t expecting one girl to shoot out of the start and set (what felt like) a blistering pace. I got out fast so as not to get stuck in the bottleneck as the trail narrows. At about the quarter mile mark I settled in to a decent pace and found myself the third woman. The pace felt fast, but I was comfortable and focused in on a consistent effort.
The trail cruised downhill and I could see the second place woman about 30 seconds to a minute in front of me. “Focus on your effort, not your place,” I told myself. The thing that I do like about trail racing is pace doesn’t really mean much, at least it isn’t a metric you can rely on during the run to help you gauge your effort, you’re mostly running by feel.
About a mile and a half into the race the negative thoughts started to come in: You started to fast. You can’t maintain this pace. You don’t have the endurance you had last year. You’re going to fade on the hill.
And I responded with positive thoughts: Even if that’s true, I’m not going to think about that right now. Focus on your effort. You have everything you need to do well. You’ll be strong on the hills, hills are your thing.
Around the two mile mark we turned back into the woods and started up hill. I knew this was the final portion of the course (I’ve run it in the dark in snowshoes:) I honed in on my effort and power from the glutes as the course started climbing.
My breathing was hard and I felt like I was struggling. A couple guys ran past me. We kept climbing and at one point I glanced up and realized the second woman was a lot closer than she had been a half a mile before.
When we entered the switchbacks that climb the hill I felt strong, I was breathing hard and working hard, but my legs were there and they were strong. I was now only a few strides behind the second place woman.
On each switchback I gained a little more on her and then on the crest of the hill I ran past, wanting to gap her as much as possible on the downhill knowing that
I’ve improved my downhill technique I’m much more willing to launch myself downhills at inadvisable speeds.
Now I was being chased. I picked up the pace and ran down the switchbacks as fast as I could without falling, bounding over rocks and roots. We descended the hill and I made the mistake of thinking we were about to turn towards the finish (I’ve done this in the snowshoe race and I knew it was coming, but I forgot about it). I ran hard, really hard and then realized I still had more climbing. So back up went the course, winding along the side of the hill then back down another set of switchbacks towards the finish.
At this point I was running all-out, complete max effort. I made the final turn towards the finish and could hear the cowbells and my Mom and Dad cheering for me. When I crossed the line I had that quick moment of feeling like I was going to keel over from the effort. I’d given absolutely everything I had on that climb and the descent. There was nothing left.
I held on to second finishing 10 seconds ahead of the girl I’d passed. And the girl who set the blistering pace at the beginning? She finished third overall! My watch showed 26:37 for 3.46 miles giving me a 7:40 average.
This race wasn’t necessarily a “goal race,” but I do feel like it was a bit of breakthrough on the mental side of things. Every time I race I want to give my absolute best effort, but often times my mind (my expectations and my ego) gets in the way of me doing my best. It seems that the best approach is to stay open and not dwell on negative thoughts.
Have you had breakthrough runs where you figured out a mental piece of the performance puzzle?
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