Start with this YouTube clip: There is no spoon. (Sadly, embedding isn't available on this clip, so you'll have to just go watch it.)
If you've been here for some time, you'll know that I've referenced this before. A lot. Do a search up there for "There is no spoon" on the blog and you'll get all the entries. It's not a useless exercise - go ahead if you feel like it, I'll wait.
In short the idea is that our notions of ourselves, of our abilities - and not perhaps our actual abilities - are what define what we're capable of. We are - however great or small - what we think we are. Or rather, we will be however great or small we think we'll be. True enough in life, no question, but tangible within the confines of the game, for sure.
Inside Triathlon magazine had a great article in its July/August issue by Matt Fitzgerald called You Are A Quitter that speaks to this. It discusses research and science that reinforces the idea that it's our brains that determine when we've had enough - not our bodies. That when you reach that point in a run or a race when you feel like you absolutely cannot go another step - and so that's when you choose to walk, or your pace falters, or whatever - that's simply our brains determining that the suffering has reached a limit, and so now to stop the suffering, it'll tell the body to stop the activity. But physically, we're just as capable to keep going. This means - no surprise - it's all up top. It's in your head. If we believe we've had enough - then we will fulfill that belief.
Interesting concepts for interesting discussion. My friend Steve discussed this very thing lately at his blog.
Those of you who've been here for awhile also might know of my elusive Chasing Sevens. That is a 5-year-old battle to race a 5k (3.1 miles) with a pace of 7:00/mi or faster. I've done it twice in training - the fastest was in 2008 - but I don't count Personal Records in training, so it's always eluded me in a race. In fact, at one point I had seemed to make it mentally impossible. I knew when I hit about 2.25 miles into it that I'd hit a wall, my effort would collapse, and that would be it. I also knew this was mental, that I was predisposing myself to a predictable outcome - but seemed somehow helpless to do anything about it.
Last weekend I raced a small local 5k race. The route was right in my neighborhood - in fact it literally went right in front of my driveway (which made for convenient spectating from Amy and Dakota!), and was pretty much on all my usual training grounds. Which - that's pretty cool. But the course is really hilly. A few hills that are slow inclines, but one that is just down the street that's where I do my hill work - a serious hill, 6% or 8% grade or something. I wanted to use the race as my last hard speedwork workout before next weekend's marathon, but I didn't assume a PR was in reach simply because of how difficult the course was.
I was wrong. For whatever reason - because I wasn't expecting it, because I wasn't purposely chasing the particular goal, because what comes up must go down and I'm pretty good at descending - I obliterated the elusive 7:00/mi barrier that had plagued me for so long. I finished with a 6:53/mi average, but with consistent, slightly negative splits. The only time I felt my head get into it was with about .25 miles to go, when I turned a corner expecting to see the finish line just ahead but instead it was up one last unwelcome hill. I audibly dropped the f-bomb, then put my head down and pumped my arms and got to the top. Otherwise, I felt great, ran fast, and set a new standard for myself.
That single turn of mental events on a micro scale has quickly influenced a more macro one. I had, to that point, developed a whole list of reasons why my performance at next weekend's marathon wouldn't be terribly remarkable. And some of the reasons seem valid - I only got into serious training at the end of July, giving me about 10 serious weeks of training. I'm about 5 pounds off from honest race weight - so I figured I'm a bit too heavy or my best effort. But there's a flip side to each of those points - having only 10 weeks, my workouts have all been intentional and purposeful. I've not had any junk miles or workouts - and so I've avoided putting on too many miles, which has (knock on wood) kept me healthier than I've been in a long time. I may be 5 pounds from ideal race weight - but I'm about 10 pounds lighter than I was midsummer. If these points are equalizers, then, the x-factor could be the notion with which I began the training with 10 weeks ago: that I would train only for the race to be fun. That I wouldn't expect very much beyond that. That I was seeking only basic fitness to enjoy the race. Nothing wrong with those goals, certainly - and the part about having fun and enjoying the race are absolutely true.
But the numbers - and I'm a numbers guy - say that, objectively, I should expect more of myself. Daniels Running formula and McMillan's Running Calculator both say, even if I'm being conservative, that a sub 4 hour marathon should be within my ability. I don't make race goals or predictions based on emotional wishes - my "goals" at a race are really just expectations based on what I think the training realistically indicates. And I think the training is there, too. I surprised myself at the 5k - but largely because my head wasn't part of my pre-game process. I just wanted to run fast, and in knowing I needed to account for the hilly course, I was sure to start at around a 7:00/mi pace, instead of going faster like I tend to do (and then inevitably fall off in later miles). At times in the 5k I was comfortable at 7:11 or 7:18/mi pace, and I'd give myself just a little push in those times into slight discomfort. But never was I clutching to the pace - it just came, because my training was prepared for it.
So, to the marathon. I've decided I'm lighting it up. And if I go down in flames for it, well that's okay - at least I'll have lit the fire. I'm lining up with the 3:50 pacers. No excuses, no bullshit, no sandbagging, no mindgames. I feel confident that I can do it, I really do - even with the unknowns. Because if it's all mental - well hell, I've certainly had worse haunting my head than putting one foot in front of the other, no? Game on.