Our neighbor, John, seems to always be at work hauling, cutting, and storing firewood. John’s small cabin nestles into the hill just above ZAP’s large field. In the mornings the smoke from his wood stove rises straight up to the join the mountain fog that hangs in our valley before the sun crests the ridge. Hauling, storing, burning, hauling, storing, burning. John has a TV, the glow of which often illuminates my otherwise pitch-black walk home at night from the ZAP facility. But even with modern conveniences, I think John still likes to rely on his wood stove. The means to stay warm, to live, becomes much of life itself. Cutting and burning, going up in smoke, the next morning a new round of logs, always the same.
Likewise, across a little stream and down the hill from John, we of the ZAP Endurance running team sleep, eat, and run. Like worms that tunnel through the earth, our digestive systems sorting through food that in a moment will be called up for forward locomotion. Burned off and shat out, thousands of pounds of food a year thrown into hundreds of runs that end where they begin. Like John and his wood and his cabin.
I’m training for my second marathon. I had the fortune of a good first experience at the marathon in December at Cal International (CIM) (2:13:19, fourth at US Championships), something not everyone gets lucky enough to have.
On this second time around, the overarching theme has been to not to overdo it. Pete likes to cite the stat that almost half of elite American’s marathon personal best times happened in their debut - they never PR’d again. If we train like we did in the fall, with a few calculated changes here and there, we should be set up for a progression in performance. That’s the ideal scenario.
Training went so smoothly for CIM that it’s almost not fair that I have to replicate it now. It was a no injuries and great workouts almost across the board affair, with a nice tuneup race at the Pittsburgh 10 Mile in November. To find that smooth, easy rhythm again, things would have to go nearly perfectly.
|Shared sacrifice on Railroad Grade Road, Todd, NC 6/4/2019|
A month into specific training for Grandma’s marathon in Duluth, MN, things were not going perfectly. I had to admit defeat on a long run and couple of workouts, and ran poorly in our return to Pittsburgh for the half marathon last month (65:08). Fortunately I wasn’t dealing with an injury. But as my team mate Brandon points out, sometimes running badly with a healthy body can cause hand wringing: you don’t have a concrete reason like an injury to pin the shitiness on. The only marathon training I’ve known being great marathon training, it was tempting to be concerned.
I took a walk around the ZAP loop trail after getting back from Pittsburgh with Pete. He reflected, “for a somewhat intellectual runner, and someone who’s been in this sport for so long, I’m often surprised that you let tough races get to you so easily.”
I appreciate Pete’s honesty. He’s right: I often dwell on isolated performances and training sessions when I should be looking at the big picture.
ZAP’s late founder Andy Palmer said “the Mind is the Athlete”. It’s written on our coffee mugs and T shirts. The phrase rings true, but the coveted instructions for how to actually go about obtaining a high performing mindset are left for the coffee mug beholder to figure out for themselves.
|Hanging out in the chase pack during in the Pittsburgh Half Marathon 5/5/2019|
After Pittsburgh I took a very easy week to refresh my body and mind. I tried to be honest with myself and think about what really makes a great athlete tick. I returned again and again to the idea of an intangible aspect of preparation and performance. Something beyond workout plans, weekly mileage, and all the numbers.
You can call it mojo, or confidence, being in the groove, or painting happy trees. No one of those terms describe it wholly. The TED Talk popularized “flow state” concept comes close. The flow state is a happy medium between the challenge you’re working towards, and your skills and abilities. Too big of a challenge for your ability level, and you suffer anxiety. On the other hand, engaging in something without enough difficulty is boring. Your personal flow state runs somewhere in the middle.
As competitive runners, we’re constantly knocking up against the top side of the flow state channel, racing athletes that challenge us, that on paper are supposed to beat us. This is how we gradually improve. Some portion (hopefully less than half) of the time, we’re disappointed with the result. (We have to be, or running would be.. boring) If we put a lot of stock in a bad result, we run the risk of drifting up into Anxious Land, which isn’t helping us, or anybody, except our competition.
The training you do is the training you do. Your competition is your competition. All the fartleks and interval sessions and tempo runs and long runs are the tried and true tools we use to improve our fitness. Not much is changing there.
But as Andy Palmer reminds us*, fitness is not the sole component of “How Good You Are At Running”.
What if you could get back to the flow state without changing your fitness or the challenge you face?
If there ever was a secret to success and longevity in running, it is finding the method by which you, personally, bring yourself back into a flow state, even when in dire straits, and stay there.
Realize that a high performing mindset can come to you on its own. There are only so many things you can control, and your mind is not always one of them. I used to think my head needed to be a certain climate in the days and hours before a race. If it wasn’t, I was screwed. I would repeatedly try to force my thoughts towards the focus I’d had during some great run of the past, holding it up as a golden example.
I was wasting energy, becoming anxious over my mindset. Getting back to the flow state was better achieved passively and instinctively, rather than actively.
I’ve learned in fits and starts that it really doesn’t matter what’s going through your head before competition. And that you shouldn’t try very hard to direct those thoughts towards a destination you think is helpful.
For me, being in the flow state means being less concerned with how I feel about how I feel, and trusting in my experience, training, and that magical adrenal lift that fills our sails on race day. When you’ve logged thousands of hours of mind-body running memory, your being wants to be in the flow state. It will make its way there if you allow it to.
That’s the nice thing about long term activities with cumulative properties like running.
(Or woodpile stocking. You were wondering when I’d bring our neighbor John back around, weren’t you.)
The day in, day out process gradually makes the activity a part of you. It becomes your natural state, and you perform better, and are happier, when you let instinct and experience do the thinking for you.
Negative thoughts happen. (Your competition looks scary, your preparation hasn’t been great, “can I really run that pace for a whole marathon?”) Let them happen. Sit with them. Don’t use up energy trying to rid yourself of them. That’s my interpretation of our coffee mug inscription.
|Andy Palmer (8) , founder of ZAP|
Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, MN is next Saturday, and we’re beginning our taper this week. Yes, this blog is about thoughts about thoughts about thoughts (meta-metacognition), which probably makes me seem neurotic. But I’m using this time to let the pre race thoughts swirl where they may. The nice thing about the marathon is you don’t have to have razor sharp focus on the start line: it’s a long race and being loose and goofy in the first several miles can be a good thing.
Although we’re coming to Duluth with a clear time goal (2:11:30, the 2020 Olympic standard), I’ve always raced best when time is a nice bonus effect of well run race, rather than a driving force. This takes the pressure off the first part of the race. It’s a lot "easier" to pick up a little time lost after mile 20 than forcing yourself to run goal pace from the gun and use up your mental strength, only to fall short.
That's what I'm thinking coming into my second marathon experience. I hope that someone out there has actually bothered to scroll all the way to this point and feels they can relate, even if just a smidgeon.
Thanks for reading.
* Andy’s poltergeistic methods include resetting alarm clocks to the hour and minute of his death, the inexplicable serial disappearance of spoons from the ZAP dining room, and possibly inhabiting the soul of an energetic cardinal named Stanley [close rhyme with “Andy”], who, in the morning, flies from window to window attacking his reflection and making sure runners are up and about.