Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mini-Mosmarathon 10K, June 2016

Not that I have run every 10K race in Australia, but I'm fairly certain this course  - eclipsed perhaps only by the Run with the Wind 10K that I had the pleasure of experiencing last year - is one of the toughest 10K races on offer in the country. Masquerading as a fundraiser for my alma mater, Mosman Primary School, it is a type of torture that makes a mockery of the typical "fast and flat" 10K that one sees advertised so often.

I've run the Mini Mos twice before, in the two years that have been the best so far of my running career, and recorded times that reflect the difficulty of this particular race and the inexplicably strong field it usually attracts:

2013 - 40:13, 10th female, 3rd AG (F40-49)

2014 - 41:03, 6th female, 3rd AG again (sigh)

The course is - putting it mildly - relentlessly hilly, and the worst part of this is the fact that the second half is most definitely worse than the first. And to top it all off, most of the final 2km is straight uphill. It's really rather horrible, but I have my reasons for enjoying this race, even though it truly sucks in many ways.

That's a LOT of up and down for just 6 miles

Mainly it's because I grew up in Mosman, although I rarely visit there these days. Part of the course in fact covers the street where we lived, so my brother and I do like running this race together, which we previously did in 2014 and thoroughly enjoyed. That year both kids ran the 2K and this time I had Jack entered for the 5K (which thankfully is far less hilly than the 10K) but he was quite sick in the preceding few days and that, plus the unpleasant weather forecast (which called for rain virtually non-stop from 8am onwards) meant that I decided not to let him run. He had absolutely no objections to this change of plan, somewhat to my disappointment.

The Training

It goes without saying that I've never actually trained specifically for a 10K race, and with my trademark marathon shuffle and total lack of top-end speed, it's pretty obvious why not. The marathon is by far my best distance and I'm more or less in a constant state of marathon training these days, so a 10K race is really more of a tempo run in my eyes. And I tend to approach them as such, meaning I don't necessarily taper or do anything specific beforehand.

Being at the peak of my rather-short preparation cycle for Gold Coast marathon, the 3 weeks prior to this race were fairly mileage heavy, as follows:

3 weeks out: 88 mi - including some half mile intervals and a very long LR of 23 miles (oops)

2 weeks out: 90 mi - nothing special, just trying to keep going through a nasty bout of bronchitis

1 week out: 103 mi - 20 mile long run including 10 miles @ MP (average 6:33 min/mile, 4:04 min/km)

The week of the Mini Mos I wasn't intending on tapering too much but a sick child and sleepless Thursday night meant that I simply couldn't be bothered running the 16 miles I had originally planned for Friday morning. I did appease the mileage-obsessed lunatic part of my brain that was pawing forlornly at its abacus and cursing me for skipping my weekly long run by jogging 13 miles on Saturday morning in Sydney, figuring that this wouldn't tired me out too much for Sunday, but otherwise I suppose a taper of sorts happened despite my best intentions.

Race Day

Robbie and I arrive with plenty of time to spare and I'm about to set off for a decent warm-up when I go to pull my bib from my handbag and realise that in a fit of stupidity I took all the papers out (in a fruitless attempt to make it lighter - leaving in however my computer charger, a bottle of water, throat pastilles, a hairbrush, miniature bottles of soy sauce, etc) and put them in my suitcase which is back at the hotel. I'll have to go get a new one, which isn't too difficult but there goes my warm-up. Oh well. At least we have insider knowledge of the school - from our years of attending, although this was 40 years ago now - that means we can find our way onto the grounds and to the hall very quickly, meaning we are able to get the bibs and drop our warm clothes back at the car without running out of time.

We arrive to the starting area to find the organisers having a bit of trouble inflating the arch that last year marked the start; it lies limp on the ground and it's all a bit disorganised, really. There's a woman talking earnestly but inaudibly into a microphone - it's possible she is telling us what to do but everyone is (understandably) ignoring her and just milling around aimlessly. Some blokes drag the sad sagging arch into the gutter and we will have to make do with an imaginary line instead.

We line up near the front (Robert doesn't try to make me move back this time), I spot Julia up ahead and go to chat briefly with her, she points out a few other fast chicks and I retreat to contemplate whether I have a chance of placing today or not. Absent Husband (aka Joel, who is in Michigan preparing to come back with his kids in tow for the full Brady Bunch scenario in July) has made various wild predictions of a top 5 finish (hmm) or even an overall win (dude, seriously?)  but I've been very non-committal all along.

In fact I haven't thought at all closely about what is about to unfold today; in keeping with my recent post about mental trickery and running, I'm pretty much just winging it, pressure-free. I know the course is very tough, I know it's a competitive race, and yet I do know I've been in great form this year - which perhaps explains my calm confidence. I'm just going to do my best today and see what happens, which is without a doubt the best strategy for my particular personality and running abilities.

Miles 1-3: 6:20, 6:23, 6:05 (pace in min/mile)

The lack of arch makes the starting line hard to figure out; there's a countdown and a gun goes BLAM and I reflexively start my watch, but don't actually cross the timing mats til a good few seconds later. Whatever - I have no time to ponder this because I'm boxed in by slower runners and am feeling highly frustrated at having to zig and zag as well as run uphill on legs that haven't quite figured out what's going on yet. I pour on the effort and take off up the hill like my shoes are on fire; Rob I assume is behind me somewhere but I'm too busy sprinting to look.

As usual a massive number of women have zoomed off in front of me and I quickly realise that the next 40 minutes (or possibly slightly less) is going to be a protracted game of Assassin Mode. Oh well, bring it on! I love having a target to chase and there are plenty of them ahead, that's for sure.

my only race photo, sadly

Before the first mile is up I'm amused to hear a voice behind me saying "Meep Meep" and I look around to see my friend Tony easing past. This is the bloke who responded to my "40-41 minutes" predicted finish time with "Oh I won't be running as fast as that"! I'd love to be able to think of something witty to say here but all I can come up with is "Not running fast, eh?!?" and he's already pulling way ahead. Wait, was that rude? My brain doesn't have enough spare oxygen to process any of this really - I'm sure he'll understand.

The second mile starts and the ups and downs start too; I'd forgotten just how sharp some of these little downhills are, actually. They're so steep that I'm actively braking with my quads and I find myself slowing down, which is super annoying. The first out-and-back section provides the perfect opportunity to count the women ahead of me and there are no less than 8 of them - Julia is well ahead in 3rd place, which is great - and also great: at least 3 or maybe 4 of the others are within striking distance. Assassin Mode, activate! And here we go.

Mile 3 turns out to be my fastest, spurred on by the thrill of catching a few female (and plenty of male) runners, and without too much trouble I have soon overtaken no less than 4 chicks. And there's another ahead who is clearly tiring; I actually thought there was another girl to catch but by the end of mile 3 as I am working my way along the second out-and-back of the course, it seems I'm in 4th place. FOURTH? Fourth! That's way ahead of where I expected to be, and it hasn't escaped my attention that so far I'm on pace to break 40 minutes, which I've never done in this race. Can I keep it going?

Miles 4-6: 6:23, 6:20, 6:50

I'm concentrating way too hard to look on the other side of the road for Robert, but as mile 4 progresses it does strike me that I can suddenly see Tony up ahead. I draw gradually closer and by the start of mile 5, to my extreme surprise, I can also see Julia. There's no way at all that I can catch her though - unless she suffers some sort of major engine failure - so I do my best to focus on staying on pace. One thing that strikes me here is that there seems to be a LOT of traffic on the roads, despite the supposed "closures"; every minute there seems to be a luxury car cruising past a barrier or traffic warden. I guess that's what happens in a suburb full of multi-million dollar houses: the residents think they own the place. Because, of course, they do.

your average Federation cottage in Mosman - this one is actually on the race route

The most horrible part of this race is the steep hills that make up miles 5 and 6; a huge downhill to Cowles Rd is followed by a nasty, sharp uphill that goes on and on until there's another, final downhill before the slog to the finish. I plod my way up an inexcusably steep street that is 2 blocks down from Glover St where we grew up - on the way over we discussed this exact street but neither of us can remember what it is called - really I should look at the sign I suppose but all I can think is, bloody hell, I hate this race. (Holt Avenue. It's called Holt Avenue)

Tony has caught a couple of blokes who have been in front of him since I first spied him again, and I'm gaining on the lot of them until we hit the downhills and I'm forced to brake hard and slow down. Gah, this is torture, but the knowledge of what is still to come is worse. A short, flat section gives way to the final uphill that will last until the very end of mile 6 - I've slowed down way more than I'd like but at this point I really don't care. One foot in front of the other, up past the school and the now-inflated start arch....just keep going. Ugh.

Final 0.2: 5:51 pace

Mile 6 beeps to announce its demise and the split time is pretty horrific: 6:50, meaning I've lost almost 30 seconds. If I really want that sub-40 I'm going to need to start caring a LOT, and in fact suddenly I do, so I put my head down and SPRINT! Tony is ahead but I'm gaining on him; I see Julia heading to the finish as I'm still approaching the final short out-and-back; as I turn it's clear that 4th place indeed will be mine. But what of my finish time??

The clock is still too far away to make out clearly - but it looks like 39:xx and it's getting easier to see by the second - boy oh boy, this is going to be close. Summoning up every fast-twitch fibre in my body (there aren't that many) I hurl myself helter-skelter at the finish line and with just meters to go it reads 39:56...57...58...59... oh my god, I'm done.

Garmin time: 39:59.5 (6:21 min/mile, 3:59 min/km)

Official time: 39:54 (thank you, distant starting mats)

Placement: 4th female, 1st in AG (F40-49)

Wow, that was intense! I'm thrilled though - another course PR and I've squeaked out a sub-40 for the first time in this notoriously tough race. Tony has beaten me by 4 seconds (damn it); I sit chatting to him and the other fast chicks (Julia and Reegan) until Rob appears having run 44:10. That's great for someone who runs about 7km perhaps twice a week, but he seems a bit disappointed. As for me, once again it seems I'm just out of the money, as prizes are only on offer for places 1-3, but given my expectations of the day that's no biggie.

The Analysis

Another course PR, making it my 3rd for the year - could it be that I'm improving at the shorter distances now? Wonders will never cease! What this might mean for my next marathon adventure remains to be seen, but it's not that far away now - so stay tuned.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Mental Side of Marathoning

So far 2016 has been an unexpectedly good year for me in terms of racing - I've run two pretty decent marathons (Wangaratta, 2:56, and Boston, 2:51), a rather good 10K and two really VERY surprising half marathons where I recorded my fastest results in quite a long time. Finishing the May SMH half in Sydney in 1:21:43 put me just 18 seconds off my personal best and on a much hillier, tougher course than the Bathurst half marathon where I ran that in 2013.

As you can imagine, these events have filled me with confidence and prompted me to think that perhaps I'm not quite entirely over the hill yet, in contrast to what I believed in 2015. I've gone ahead and badgered the Elite Coordinator of the Gold Coast marathon into giving me an elite entry and am busily trying to prepare for another shot at sub-2:50 -  something I thought was well out of my reach at age 46. And perhaps it still is, but a stubborn part of me absolutely believes I have a solid chance.

All this has inspired me to start wondering: how is it that last year I thought I was all washed-up, but this year I'm somehow suddenly in great form? My training honestly hasn't been that different -- so is there a chance it might be mental? Or is all the time I spend working in mental health just making me like an orthopaedic surgeon: when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail? It bears some consideration. And I've heard it said that marathon training is as much a mental as a physical undertaking, so could my brain really be driving these improved results?

The Truth About Positive Thinking

There's absolutely no doubt that I'm tough - coach B has remarked on it many times - and that mental toughness has played an enormous part in the success I have had thus far in my running exploits. In most of my race reports I touch on the mental trickery that gets me to the finish line of each marathon, or at least the thought process that is going on while I'm convincing myself to keep running despite mounting discomfort. There's no doubt that my own personality style plays a big part but I've also seen a big change in my thinking and learned a great deal from my years of racing experience. So, is mental fortitude something we are born with, or can it be learned? That's a very tough question; instead, let's consider what attributes make a person mentally tough.

Is it how they think?

Check out this article about "mentally strong runners" and the stuff that they do. To me they sound like completely insufferable human beings - they "change the conversation if someone starts spouting negative comments. They start talking about something other than running, or talk about some positive aspects of the sport. They also do their best to avoid interactions with negative people in the first place." Right, so there are no Negative Nellies allowed. In pursuit of faster marathon times we will relentlessly see the bright side of every single situation and we absolutely refuse to talk to anyone who rains on our parade! 

This kind of person is exactly the kind that makes me want to poke my own (or, better, their) eyes out with a stick, and I'd sooner eat a box of broken glass than run a marathon - or even a 5K - in the company of someone who approaches running in this manner. Relentless positivity is certainly not my own style, and it's not the secret as far as I am concerned.

But the psychology of positive thinking - and the notion that it can bring about positive outcomes - has been around since Norman Peale published his famous book in 1952 and is still extremely popular, at least if the number of inspirational positive thinking internet memes out there is any indication. So, does it really work?

"Think away your cancer!" Umm, nope. Research has proven that although optimism might decrease your risk of heart attack (or at least keep you happy until you have your second one), surviving cancer has nothing to do with your attitude. Unfortunately.

"You are what you think you are!" Umm, also nope. Can you make yourself into a success simply by thinking of yourself as a success? Well, in part it probably depends on how you define "success" - if it's "a person who unrealistically believes they are a success despite any and all evidence to the contrary" then perhaps your chances are good.

So, thinking positive all the time is not the answer. The act of thinking positive constantly doesn't get you to your goals - it just makes you really stressed and probably exhausted because you're putting so much effort into thinking positive - and there's even a chance it might be sabotaging you. One study that had participants visualise themselves getting high marks on an exam actually resulted in lower marks because the students involved presumably became so convinced they would do well that they neglected to study! A bit like photocopying the course notes and then assuming you don't need to also read them.

Is it how they act?

For some years prior to becoming a GP I managed a private medical practice and in the course of that work I spent a lot of time on the phone to insurance companies, trying to find out why they had not paid various, usually extremely overdue, claims. My default emotional setting while doing this was, as a direct result, grumpy and frustrated. I'm sure I was frowning most of the time I was on the phone and my stress levels were through the roof. You can assume that quite often I got absolutely nowhere with these calls, and my attitude was probably in major part to blame. 

These days when I have to ring up someone's office staff and I need them to do something for me, I deliberately smile as I identify myself and greet the person on the other end of the phone. I'm happy to talk to them! I'm confident and friendly and I just know they will help me! The decision to put a big smile on my dial while on the phone was a conscious, deliberate one and at first it felt very forced - I mean they can't even see me, so it also feels silly - but now it's second nature and to be honest, by simply acting happy I really have become a much nicer, happier person on the phone. Receptionists go out of their way to help me; booking staff squeeze my patient in despite there being no appointments available five minutes ago; most of the time I get off the phone having succeeded in getting what I want or need.

There are studies to back this up: it's known as the "As If" principle. Acting like a confident person - adopting for instance a "power pose": sitting at a desk with feet up, hands interlocked behind the head - makes you become more confident. Your body's hormones reflect this pose and feeling of power, too; it is an emotional change driven by physical changes, not the other way round.

So maybe the key is taking positive ACTION rather than just practicing positive thinking. But strutting around like a peacock and posing like a megalomaniac sounds utterly pretentious and it is tough to see how this sort of behaviour could make a person feel like anything other than an idiot. Exactly what do we do about the persistent little voice in the back of our head that keeps mumbling "This is just a load of hippie BS"?

Is it what they DON'T do?

It has been suggested that successful people (the article mentions Donald Trump, but I don't think we want to go there right now at all) are successful not because they think positive more than others but because they don't make room for negative thinking, or pay it any special attention. They simply focus on what they need to do to bring about their positive outcome, and don't spend too much time fretting about the negatives. 

I'm strongly reminded here of an ancient Eastern philosophical practice known as Mindfulness, which is essentially a way of paying attention to the present moment - with all its thoughts and feelings and emotions - in an observant, non-judgemental manner.  Whereas positive thinking implies that all other types of thought, in particular negative ones, must be pushed to the side or repressed, Mindfulness takes a different approach. 

Negative thoughts are tolerated but not necessarily embraced; they're just there. And once a person learns that it's possible to just tolerate negative thoughts - without having to necessarily engage with them or try to actively suppress them - those thoughts have less impact on emotions and subsequently on actions. I teach patients to recognise negative thought patterns (which are very common in both anxiety and depression) and to then try to replace them with "something more helpful" (not always something "more positive"). Mindfulness is enjoying great popularity at the moment in Western philosophical circles, although it has been around for much longer than most people suspect.

So how does all this apply to running?

I'm going to put it to you that there are 4 aspects of training your brain to race marathons, and note that I use the word "race" because it assumes that you're out there with a goal and aiming to run to the best of your ability. 

1. Motivation

Here's your positive action part. There's no way to skimp on marathon training: you have to do the work. There may be a million good excuses why you never managed to do that 20 mile long run, but they won't help you at mile 19 of the marathon. 

When I wake up in the morning and think "Ugh, no, I don't want to run today" (which happens a lot more often than you'd imagine) I get up anyway and just go. I know I'll feel good when I finish and that if I don't run I will feel like a pathetic pointless slug and be irritated with myself for the rest of the day - and that's more than enough motivation to get me out and running most of the time.

What do you mean, I look like I didn't run today?

2. Specific, realistic goals

Here's your positive thinking. Setting an achievable (read = realistic) goal time for your race is very important and not terribly hard: if you know what your current fitness is and what your recent race times predict for your goal race (there are useful calculators here and here) then there's very little that should go wrong. The problems start happening when people have finish times in mind that bear very little relationship to their actual abilities or training.

I once knew a bloke who was a regular on the RWOL Marathoners forum and he would constantly post in the sub-3 thread about how he was training to someday run a 2:30 marathon, and to this day I don't know if he was serious, trying to amp himself up or just trying to rile us up. Either way, it worked: his posts were greeted with howls of disbelief and derision. 

Why? All his training and race paces pointed to a small chance of sub-3 and literally no chance at all of anything close to 2:30. I'm not sure if he was even capable of running a single mile at the sort of pace a 2:30 marathon would require (for the whole duration of the race). It's not hard to  imagine what would happen if he actually tried this, either. To the best of my knowledge he still has not run a sub-3 marathon, although he's gone out on pace for one a few times and blown up. 

mile he comes again

It seems pretty obvious that knowing what your goal is and having the confidence that you're capable of achieving it (or at least that it is within reach, or failing that, not entirely impossible) is essential for a positive mental approach to the race. 

3. Having a plan, and sticking to it

Knowing your own capabilities and limitations is important, but learning to listen to your body and pace yourself is probably the single most useful thing you can do in training. Most of my running life I've spent running by feel, and as a result I know quite well what different paces (5K vs HM vs marathon pace) feel like in terms of effort level and feedback from my body. This is something I practice in training - in particular running at marathon pace - until it becomes second-nature.

On race, day, however, it's easy to get carried away with the excitement and the crowd, and end up throwing caution to the wind. In so many races I see people dashing out from the start line at paces that are utterly inappropriate, and I always wonder, how is it that they don't realise they are running way too fast? I'm talking 5K race pace for the first 5K of a half marathon - so what are they planning to do for the other 16.1km they still have to run?  

In the marathon this becomes even more crucial. Last year in Melbourne at the 10K mark I was ahead of the 2:50 pacer and chatting to a bloke running beside me who told me his goal was "oh, just sub-3." I told him he needed to SLOW DOWN NOW and he replied "But I feel great!" Um, sure you do, that's because you've only run 10K! I should have memorised his bib number to check later but I'm pretty sure he didn't feel nearly as good at the 30K or 40K marks.

whereas I save my suffering up for the final few miles and most of the photos

4. Dealing with the tough stuff

Turning up to the start line is usually not so hard, but bringing the right and best attitude can often be a challenge. I can't count the number of times I've showed up to a race and lined up right at the front then told someone nearby "I'm just going to take it easy today and run for fun" - then gone hell-for-leather as soon as the gun has fired. For me at least it's about pressure: the more pressure I put on myself to perform, the less I actually want to race. So I fool myself into thinking that it's no big deal, which works for me but might not for others I suppose.

la dee dah, we're just here to have fun....with our names on our bibs....

Now let's talk about mental trickery during the actual race, when it really matters. 

Depending on your experience and how ambitious your goal is, the first half of a marathon might feel too easy (in which case you are well-placed to speed up a little in the second half for a nice negative split) or it might feel a bit too hard, in which case the temptation is to freak out/panic/give up. The key to getting the best out of yourself is to tread the fine line between "This is a cakewalk and I'm definitely not trying hard enough" and "OHMYGOD this is a disaster I feel awful and I'm gonna die" - something that is far easier said than done. When it works, it's fantastic, and when it doesn' doesn't.

So, should you check your watch obsessively? At the start, and particularly if you're not experienced with pacing, that's probably not a bad idea. It helps you stay on pace and, if you're feeling good and the numbers are what you want, it's a nice positive boost for the confidence. 

The problems start when the numbers aren't quite right, or when it feels harder than it should - then the voice of doubt starts up, saying "Oh no, this isn't going to end well", and it's all too easy to listen - because the next couple of thoughts that are just around the corner are likely "This really sucks" and "I hate this, I'm going to give up now before it kills me." This is where ignoring or just tolerating but not engaging with the negativity train comes in handy: it's there, but I'm not paying it any attention.

Not paying attention to the inevitable doubts and negative thoughts means that in general I almost never check my watch anymore in the final miles of a race. If I'm failing to hit the paces then I'd rather just not know about that now, thanks; I'll just keep running as hard as I can and not worry about the fact that it might not be as fast as I'd like. Because it will be very tempting to just give up if I know exactly how much I'm slowing down, and giving up unfortunately is not an option.

When you're in the Hurt Locker

In every single race there will come a point when it hurts, you're over it, you just want to stop. The part of your brain that is in charge of self-preservation will be literally screaming at you to quit running, NOW; your legs will feel like jelly; all you will want to do is give up. This usually makes for a slight mental dilemma and some very ugly race photos.


Probably the most effective method I have ever employed to make myself keep going is the "one more mile" trick: I'll let myself give up and jog, but not until I've run one more mile as fast as I can. Rinse and repeat until the end is close enough that I might as well just keep running......Or, I break down the distance still left into segments of 2; at 20 miles it's just 2 miles to go until there will only be 4 miles to go! I almost never think about the real distance still to be covered - it's too overwhelming - rather, I think of it in smaller segments.

A slightly less effective method is to bully yourself into keeping on going. Running Boston 2014 I really wanted to slow down already at about mile 16, but thinking of the devastating injuries so many people had suffered in the bombings of the previous year I told myself to stop being so bloody soft, suck it up and keep going. "This is Boston. You do NOT give up" became my mental mantra - and it took me to an all-time PR.

And finally, even though I basically said before that it's BS, some positive thinking. Anyone who has raced a few marathons knows the truth by now: the last 6 miles really hurt. People dread those miles; they are the true test of the marathon and the place where dreams very often turn to dust. I learned early to think of that pain as a good sign, one that told me I'd given the race everything I had, and to tell myself that it's MEANT to hurt at this point. Pain is good! It's expected! It's almost over - so ignore it as best you can and just run. If you can manage to hang on then it will be worth all the suffering; you'll know you did the absolute best you could on the day.

Summing It All Up

There's no single trick for running your best race every time - it's a matter of experience and tenacity and, much of the time, relentless optimism. And clearly I don't have a monopoly on all the right answers, rather I've tried here to list and reflect on some of the methods I've used to make the most of the running ability that I have and the opportunities that I've been lucky enough to have as a runner.

So Rachel's recipe for a well-trained brain when it comes to the marathon would seem to boil down to this:

Have a positive outlook: even pain is good, sometimes.

Take positive action, but be realistic.

Acknowledge the negativity, but don't give it enough room to grow


The spoils of persistence