Never mind your legs; how’s your head? Sometimes it seems that the marathon is just as hard on the mind as on the body.
Training is fine because you can focus on the job in hand. But then the taper comes – and suddenly your mind is struck by weapons-grade maranoia, full of doubts, worries and the irrational urge to throw in one extra 20-mile long run ‘just to be sure’.
That’s even before the race itself, when your grey matter has to stop your body from charging off in mile one, and then has to kick-start your body when it falters at mile 20, the dreaded Wall.
Mental preparation is just as important as physical fitness on marathon day. There’ll be super-fit, well-trained athletes who go mad at the start or crack at mile 20, just as competitors of more modest ambitions will overcome the psychological challenge and have a great race.
Here’s how I’m getting my head into shape for the Dublin Marathon on Monday:
Stress and panic are abstract concepts that distract you from your tasks and objectives. To counteract stress and panic about the marathon (or exam or job interview) focus on the concrete task of the marathon and the concrete things you will do to complete this task.
So, keep it concrete, not abstract. What does this mean in real terms? Well:
Trust your training: Reassure yourself that your training – your practical, concrete preparation for this marathon – will see you through. Even if it wasn’t ideal and you missed a few runs, you’ve got to take what you have and do your best with it.
Think of a good training run you had, one that really got you buzzing – and bring that mental image with you to the start line and replay it in a loop in your head.
Fix your objective: Do you simply want to finish your first marathon? Or do you have a specific finishing time in mind? Focus on that – and then on the day, just do your best.
Here’s something I learned early on: nobody really cares about your finishing time. Your family and friends just want you to finish safe and sound, and to have a good experience. Everyone else is simply impressed that you ran a marathon at all. Believe me, a personal best time is great and I’ll be shouting from the rooftops if I get one on Monday – but if I don’t then I shouldn’t beat myself up over it.
Visualise the finish: The 26-mile journey might be easier if you’re sure about your destination. Who will be waiting for you after the race, happy to see you? Where will you go to re-fuel or celebrate – home, hotel, restaurant or pub? Picture all this in your mind, waiting for you after you cross the line. Now you have a reason to finish.
If you’ve run other races, focus on concrete things like the moment you crossed those finish lines, the goodie bag or medal you received, the feelings of relief and happiness you had. Now visualise the same things happening after the marathon.
Finally, on your way to the Dublin Marathon start line have a quick look at the finish line, which is just nearby on Merrion Square. That’s where you’re going.
Plan a sensible pace: Decide on your marathon pace based on the concrete evidence of your training and any races you’ve done recently. (A rough indicator of your potential marathon time is three times your 10-mile race time, or double your half-marathon time plus 15 or 20 minutes.) In the start area, stay with the wave and pacer that suit your target time – don’t be the person who gets a rush of blood and switches to a faster pace group, because you’ll suffer badly for it. There are always a few.
Whatever your objective, take the first mile conservatively and don’t panic if you’re a few seconds down on your target pace. Those runners who overtake you in mile one? You’ll be overtaking them in mile 22 and after, where it really counts.
Break up the race: Split your task into more manageable and concrete units. Some runners will be taking the race in 6-mile or 10-kilometre chunks, checking their split times at each point. Others who know the course will focus on getting to the Phoenix Park, then on to Kilmainham, and so on.
I’ll be doing a mix of both: I’ll check my split times every 3 miles to see that I’m on pace, and I’ll also break up the course by the areas it passes through – including near where I live!
Halfway is an important psychological milestone in the race – since you’ve come this far, you might as well finish!
Talk yourself through the tough times: In last year’s Dublin Marathon I started to fade around mile 20 and I felt I was barely shuffling along – but afterwards when I worked out my split times I realised that I had run mile 20 only a little slower than my target pace. Since then I’ve always told myself in the hard yards of a training run or a race: “You’re going faster than you think.”
Maybe the most common mantra among marathon runners is something along the lines of “Just keep lifting your feet and you’ll finish.” It’s simple, true and concrete.
Have a back-up objective (or two): In the 2011 Dublin Marathon I had hoped to break 3:30, but with a few miles left this was no longer likely. I fumed for a few minutes – and then realised that I could still beat 3:45. Re-energised by this brainwave, I ran in hard and beat my new, improvised target by half a minute.
On Monday I’ll be aiming (again) to get a new personal best time. Failing that, I hope to run faster than my three previous Dublin Marathons. And should everything go to pot on the big day, I’ll be happy to finish.
Speak positively: If you tell others – and yourself – things like “I’m dreading the marathon, it’ll be awful, I’m out of my depth and I’ll never finish”, you’re increasing the likelihood of this actually happening. Even if only a joke or modesty, negative language has a way of seeping into your subconsciousness and conditioning you to expect and fulfill a negative outcome.
Talk about the marathon in positive and realistic terms – “I’m a bit nervous about the marathon, it’ll be tough, but I’ve trained as well as I could and on the day I’ll do my best. And I’ll finish!”
Enjoy the experience: Get to the start area early, so that you can soak in the atmosphere, build up adrenaline and settle your nerves. Show good spirits and gratitude to fellow runners, race officials, spectators, your family and friends supporting you, and especially water station volunteers. If a runner or spectator inadvertently cuts in front of you, for instance, don’t dwell on it – let it go and run on.
If your race doesn’t go to plan – and it happens to all of us sometime – don’t sulk, wallow or beat yourself up over it. A rough marathon experience this time should be a lesson to help you have a better experience next time.
Enjoy your marathon! And keep it concrete!