After not competing in a race in over a year, I ran the Tamba Half Marathon for Girls’ Education this past weekend. Twelve weeks of training in heat, rain, sun, and sand prepared my body for the requirements of running a half marathon in a city best known for its scorching temperatures and rivers of trash.
It prepared my body, but not my brain.
Every runner knows that running is 10% physical and 90% mental. Almost anyone can lace up a pair of tennis shoes and shuffle their way through13.1 miles. Though it may not be pleasant, it’s physically possible. To be enjoyable, that is a different story.
Lining up at the starting line, knowing the pain you will feel, and running anyways requires a certain mental strength. There will be heat, exhaustion, and a little bit of misery. But you continue to press forward toward the inevitable pain. Why?
Because there is hope in the finish line.
“Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never pushed through the obstruction.” –William James
Sometimes things go wrong. No matter how well you train and prepare, there is always room for error. Maybe you didn’t sleep well the night before the race. Maybe you ate something that made you sick. Maybe you gained extra weight. Maybe you weren’t prepared for the heat (or cold). Maybe you begin to doubt your training.
Maybe you’re not mentally strong.
In the thick of the race, these doubts begin to creep into your mind. As you fight with all you have to keep up the pace, your form, and your spirits, your brain begins to work against you. Telling you that you did something wrong. That you can’t do this.
Too much water. Not enough fuel. Too hot. The pain of an old injury.
You continue to chug along.
Wouldn’t a 5K or 10K have been easier? Is it cheating to catch a ride with a passing car? Would quitting be that bad?
Then, as you summit a hill, you find what you’ve been looking for: the strength you need to carry on. Suddenly, the pace seems easier, your form is perfect, and your spirits soar. You had the strength all along, you just didn’t know it.
Training only prepares the body for a race. Long runs and speed work simply tax the legs. Hills and tempo runs just push the lungs to be more efficient. Mental strength is not found in long runs or speed work or hills or temp runs.
Mental strength is created by using all the strength you have to finish the race.
This mental strength can only be found in the race. You’ve readied your body. The early mornings, rigorous workouts, and meticulous diet have prepared you as best they can. There’s nothing left to do expect place one foot in front of the other. To remind yourself of your strength. That, although you may not feel it, you are indeed strong.
As my fourth half marathon, the Tamba Half Marathon was supposed to be my fastest. My time was supposed to be under two hours. It was supposed to be easy.
Instead, I crossed the finish line in 2:12, dog tired. Beaten.
The long runs and speed work had all been in vein because my mind failed me. Obstruction pushed me to the ground and I never found the strength to fight back. Strength eluded me throughout the entire race. It was there the entire time, but my search was futile.
Bad races remind you of your humanity.
“We all lose sometimes. We fail to get what we want. We try our hardest and come up short. It’s not the losing that defines us. It’s how we lose. It’s what we do afterward.” – Scott Jurek
Sometimes, the worst failures lead to the best successes. Losing tends to teach us better lessons than winning. In losing, you must humbly admit that you did something wrong. That you couldn’t fight the pain. That you weren’t strong enough.
This next week, I won’t be running. I’ll allow myself to mope and wallow in my failure. But when this week is over, I’ll once again lace up my shoes, hit the trail, and continue running. With no race to train for, I’ll be able to remember why I love this sport so much.
Because, in running, I can find strength in myself.