After I ran this year’s 90 degree Boston Marathon, my dad, who has ran the Boston Marathon a number of times, asked me a profound question: “Was it a physical race for you or a mental one?” I quickly responded, “Physical,” because of the obvious physical pain I endured. I had also diligently trained my body physically for 20 weeks to run all those miles. Without the physical training, I couldn’t have run 26.2 miles. It was most definitely NOT mind over matter, or so I thought.
And then, on the plane ride home from Boston, my Dad gave me an article to read, “Minds Built to go the Distance,” which opened my eyes and made me think twice about my previous answer. It also answered the question, “Why do Kenyans win all the marathons?”
The article speaks of the people of Kenya and how, from a young age, they become accustomed to traveling great distances on foot (up to 10 miles) and don’t consider these distances to be far. If they have to go somewhere, it might be 15 miles away, but the only way to get there is to walk, so they must do it. Their mind tells their body it is the only way for them to achieve their goal.
I’ve heard the first half of a marathon is physical, the second half is mental. I hadn’t really thought of this until I read the article my dad showed me, I finished the grueling 90 degree Boston Marathon and then I ran another challenging marathon two months later. In order to be a successful marathon runner (and each person’s definition of success is obviously different), one must train their body physically. But with that intense physical training, comes mental training also.
The second half of a marathon really does become a race of “mind over matter.” And this “mind over matter” quality is not something that comes easily to just anyone. This is a quality that is usually ingrained at a young age, such as by the Kenyans. And this ability of the mind to take control of the body is what sets the (successful) marathoners apart from the non-marathoners.
Although I have ran nearly a dozen half marathons, and been an athlete my entire life, the Boston Marathon was only my second marathon. I ran it cautiously because of the heat. I felt great until mile 18, and then I could feel my body slowly breaking down. First came the slight tightness in my quads that slowly progressed. When I first felt that tightness, I knew things were only going to get harder. But, I kept pushing on, determined to finish what I had set out to do. I was cautious, making sure I stopped at each hydration station, but I continued to run. I ran up Heartbreak Hill while everyone around me walked. I ran with a smile on my face although the tightening in my legs was increasing exponentially. Although I had never experienced muscle cramping in a race, I knew what it was, and I could feel my muscles slowly begin to cramp. I had already passed too many runners stopped on the sidelines. I vowed not to be one of those runners. I would finish the Boston Marathon.
But then, after Heartbreak Hill, the last significant hill of the course, an intense hamstring cramp stopped me dead. I could not move. I could not even walk. I started talking to my body, “You are 5 miles from the finish. You can’t give up now!” Passing runners put their hands on my back showing me the way to the med tent. I would not go. I stretched. I kicked my legs. I attempted to walk. I was finally successful! Luckily a Gatorade stand was to my right. I walked over, took a cup of Gatorade, stretched some more, and told my body, “It’s go time!” I then started, miraculously, to run again! This cramp I had should not have subsided. It was 90 degrees. I was severely dehydrated. Yet, somehow my body listened to my words, “Do not give up now!” It was mind over matter. I finished the Boston Marathon on my feet, and with a smile on my face!
My experience at the Boston Marathon was so amazing, I had to get back. So, instead of running the Seattle Rock and Roll half marathon two months later, I decided to run the full…to try to re-qualify for Boston. That was my only goal. I had to get back.
Again, the first half of the course was fun and I felt great! However, I started breaking down at mile 21 this time. Again, the tightening in the legs started, and I knew what was coming. It almost stopped me twice, but I wouldn’t let it. It slowed me down enough to freak me out, but I would not let it stop me. I couldn’t afford to stop. I was running just under BQ pace; I didn’t have much wiggle room.
With 1 ½ miles to go, I turned around and saw the approaching 3:40 (what I needed to qualify) pace runner. He was gaining on me significantly. If I didn’t crank it up then, I would not qualify. I thought I had nothing left in me. I was hurting and beyond uncomfortable. I could almost smell defeat. Everything was cramping, especially my toes, but I had to qualify. Again, I spoke to my body, “You did not train this hard and run the last 25 miles in agony to just finish this race. GO!” And then, I broke into a sprint (what was considered a sprint for the last 1.5 miles of a marathon). When I made that decision, I was running an 8:45/mile. The last 1.5 miles, I ran a 7:50/mile. Some of it was even uphill. How the hell did I do that? I had to! It was a mental battle. My body was nearing shut down, but my mind would not let it! My mind was in control! It’s an amazing thing, actually. I crossed the finish line at 3:39.21, with 39 seconds to spare. Had I not “sprinted,” I would not have made it. To quote the article, “If the brain believes that the distance is manageable enough — and the mission important enough — we push ourselves to the max.” That is exactly what happened! I guess I am kind of like the Kenyans?
To run a marathon, one must be in excellent physical shape, yes, but it takes more than that. It takes mental endurance. Your mind must be strong enough to carry your tired body through the tough parts.
Here I am just four days later, and I can’t wait to train for and run my next marathon (after some time off, of course). It’s exhilarating! It’s also amazing to see what my body, and mind, can do if I train it properly and give it the chance to show its true power. It is incredible how utterly powerful our mind is. It proves that we really can do anything we want.
“In marathons, as in life, the ability to go the distance is so often all in our minds.”