While the physical training for a marathon is important, what often goes neglected is preparing mentally for some of the rough spots of the race. No matter how well trained you may be, moments of doubt or even panic are bound to slip in as you begin to fatigue and realize how far you have yet to go. Therefore, it’s important to consider some specific steps to prepare for the situations you may face come race day.
One such example is the long, seemingly endless, straightaway, especially those that are sparsely populated with fans. Such features are common in several marathons, especially smaller ones, but even the majors like Boston (though crowd support is usually pretty good) and Chicago (think of the stretch from the southernmost point beyond mile 23 until you hit McCormick) have their challenges.
The difficulty inherent in facing such a stretch hit home for me just before my Cleveland Marathon in 2010, after reading about Boston Road Runner (Robyn Lewis) experiencing such a challenge at the Providence Marathon. It occurred to me that, to that point, I’d been avoiding long straight stretches, maybe out of a fear of getting too far from home and having to bail, or maybe just to have a lot of mini-milestones to hit each time. I would hit every cul-de-sac in sight, and pride myself on going 20 miles within a five-mile radius of my home. With the Cleveland Marathon having two long straightaways in the last half of the race at that time (along the lake, then back into town), I had a moment of mini-panic.
Maybe many of you have this same tendency. Do you try to stay close to home so that you can bail (or maybe refill your fluids) if things get rough? This could exhibit a lack of confidence that can come back and bite you in a race situation, when bailing really shouldn’t be an option. Do you talk yourself through a longer run with “just make it to the next corner”? Do you like running in familiar environs, so you don’t have to think about how to deal with unfamiliarity, or you find it easy to compare outings from one time to the next? You’re not going to have that luxury in a race.
Just like we try to get race-specific in our physical preparations, so that our body is prepared for the challenges it will face, we need to get race-specific in our mental readiness too. If we never encounter the long straightaway, we can’t know how we will react to it come race day. We may not have the familiar distractions that take our mind away from the tricks it will tend to play, and slip into feelings of inadequacy or experience a loss of confidence. We may be uncomfortable with unfamiliar surroundings and not able to predict the “next milestone” that will reset our internal timer.
So what are some ways to prepare for the long and straight intimidator? The obvious choice is to run plenty of long and straight sections in your training, especially at the end of a long run, when you find yourself counting down the miles until you are finished. If you have the option, add such a stretch to your route, preferably one with as few crossroads or other milestones as possible. I now have at least two different 3+ mile stretches of a single road with two or less cross-streets that have become regular finishing sections for my 16+ mile long runs.
Another way to boost confidence is to get far away from home and know that you have no choice but to run your way back. Run a big loop or a long out-and-back, and get out of your comfort zone (but within your physical capabilities, of course). If you face a choice in a route early on, turn away from home – I did this on a long run last week and while I wasn’t happy with the huge hill I then had to run (and the effect on my overall pace), I was glad I chose to challenge myself.
And you can even integrate this into your interval workouts – nothing makes you feel exposed, vulnerable, and potentially bored like long intervals on the track, especially with no one else around. You are only accountable to yourself, and the track doesn’t lie. If you can execute mile repeats on the track, you can probably handle long stretches of running fast on the road.
Knowing and preparing for the mental hurdles you will face on race day can make the difference between a great training season and a great race. Study your course, anticipate the challenges, and create situations where you rehearse for those challenges. Come race day, you’ll find yourself facing them with confidence and letting your body do the talking.