What Running Back-to-Back Marathons Taught Me About Mental Toughness
Author Lauren Oliver once said, "Running is a mental sport, more than anything else. You're only as good as your training, and your training is only as good as your thinking." Let me tell you, she was right. For the past six months, I've basically been on one big mental toughness training program. With Chicago (October 7) and New York City (November 4) marathons on the docket, I was challenged to balance my travel-heavy, full-time job with prepping for the physical demands of doing two crazy-long races–three weeks apart. (It's possible but takes some planning. See: How to Run Back-to-Back Races Without Killing Your Body)
These were some of the most challenging days for me when it came to mental strength, grit, determination, self-confidence, and focus. With such a short amount of time between the races to rest, recover, and stay "in the game," I focused a lot on recovery-both mental and physical. While you may never double-book yourself on marathons, here's a little about how I managed to train to run 52.4 miles in less than a month, stay mentally tough, and somehow balance my personal and work life, all while traveling more than 60,000 miles this summer.
First Up: The 2018 Bank of America Chicago Marathon
Following strong performances in three half-marathons this spring, I started my training for this race in June. When I committed to this intense journey, I knew I would have to stay positive and laser focused. Luckily, I had some help, thanks to Team Nike. They hooked me up with the incomparable Jessica Woods, aka Coach Jes, an accomplished ultra-runner and all-around inspiration. She was invaluable to me. She curated a specific training plan to meet my desired goal for this race, which was to cross the finish in less than four hours-ideally, 3:49:00. This meant I had to shave 25 minutes off my last marathon PR, but I was up for the challenge.
Getting there was not going to be easy. I was on an airplane every 10 days this summer for a mixture of work travel and personal trips (wedding season!), which took a toll on my body and my mind. My weeks were filled with "short runs," averaging 5 to 8 miles in the morning. My weekends were reserved for the "long run," which was anywhere from 10 to 20 miles, depending on where I was in my training block. Most of these runs fell on travel days.
Some days my head or body just wasn't feeling it. To get my head right, I turned to Coach Jes for advice. "Mental toughness is crucial in any race distance, but becomes increasingly so as the mileage increases IMO," she said. "Over the course of 26.2 miles, you have a lot of time for things to get dark and twisty, but just having your attitude a little different makes your race different. It's hard enough to do all the training and run the race. If you're not mentally there and emotionally present, it's really tough."
Heeding her advice, I implemented a five-minute morning meditation routine, which enabled me to calm down and have a clear head. I'd sit there and visualize my training and race day. I was determined not to give up on my mental training plan. (Related: Why Every Runner Needs a Mindful Training Plan)
Training while traveling is not easy. I found myself in different time zones all the time, not to mention at varying altitudes. In fact, some of my longest runs took place at high altitudes in McCall, ID, and Aspen, CO, and that meant I had to adjust my pace and hydration to help my body acclimate. (Related: 5 Surprising Things I Learned from My First Trail Running Race)
As the travel got more hectic, I got savvier with the hacks to tweak my training. I learned exactly how and what to pack for everything I'd need. Always in tow: my Nike Pegasus Turbo shoes, Nuun tablets for hydration, Stinger waffles, CLIF Bars, and small foam roller. Wherever I was in the world, I was determined to be prepared.
Trust me, though, there were several moments when I wanted to unravel. I felt like I was living in an airport and watching my friends training on social media made me feel like I wasn't doing enough work. There were moments I felt as though I was letting my coach down, plus the entire Nike team, and myself. Fatigue and burnout are real. Don't ignore them, but challenge yourself to create healthy boundaries-space where you can recover and take the pressure off of competing. I decided to cut myself some slack.
Race Day In Chicago
After all of the stress, anticipation, travel, and buildup, I was ready to race. The Chicago marathon went really well. I had the support of my coach and team, plus the entire city amping me up. My Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% never let me down, and my hydration was tested and good to go-I felt strong. (Related: I Tested the Magical Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% and Reached a Decade-Long Running Goal)
Borrowing from my meditation practice, I repeated three mantras to myself during the race:
"You got this, do not give up."
"You worked hard for this under so much stress. One foot in front of the other."
"No matter what weather conditions come your way, you can run in anything. Pain is temporary."
I crossed the finish line at a blistering 4:10:01-still a PR for me! I may not have hit my original goal, but I was proud of what I had accomplished. I've learned over the year to let go of any disappointment if you don't hit a goal, but rather, to forgive yourself and know that you can continue to work toward it next time if you choose.
The morning after the Chicago marathon I took a recovery class with Nike master trainer Joe Holder. We foam rolled, stretched, and reflected on our marathon accomplishments. I was almost sad it was over. The journey was exhilarating and totally loaded with emotion. Lucky for me, marathon number two was in sight.
Next Up: The 2018 TCS NYC Marathon
I had three weeks to recover before the TCS NYC marathon. Daunting? Yes. But with the help of Coach Jes, I had an action plan: Recovery (foam rolling, massage, stretching, yoga, etc.) and shortened runs when I could. All in all: Allow my muscles to recover, but maintain the base I worked so hard to achieve pre-Chicago.
Between the Chicago and New York City marathons, I had eight flights booked. Not going to lie, I had a moment of panic, and I was feeling overwhelmed. So, I had a frank talk with myself about what it would take to get through these next few weeks, stay on track, deal with setbacks, and maintain a healthy mindset. That calmed me down. After that, I stuck to my plant-based eating routine and focused on getting 9 to 10 hours of sleep a night-things I could control.
For each trip, I made sure to be over-the-top organized (running clothes laid out and accounted for, proper snacks, comfy clothes). I managed to sneak in a few 3- to 4-mile runs on each trip, but the most important goal for me was to stay mentally sharp and hydrated as I traveled coast to coast.
Race Day In NYC
Twenty-four hours before the marathon, I landed back in NYC "fresh" off a red-eye flight. With only three hours of sleep, I sleepwalked to the expo to pick up my bib. Tired was an understatement at that point.
Time for another pep talk. I told myself to stay strong, stay focused, and accept that whatever happened on race day was meant to be. My bedtime was an early 8 p.m. following a dinner of pasta and kale salad. The alarm sounded at 6 a.m. I jumped out of bed to have my standard pre-race coffee and oats.
Admittedly, no meditation this day, so my nerves were on high alert, and there was no turning back. As I corralled up on the Verrazano Bridge (Frank Sinatra's New York, New York playing over the loudspeaker), I said a silent prayer. I prayed for strength, resilience, and a healthy finish. The race was tough, just as I imagined. Mile 3 the nerves in my feet were shot. Mile 19 my feet couldn't take the pain so I decided to walk. I knew at that moment I wasn't going to PR the course, but all my mental training allowed me to say that was okay.
I had two choices then: Be mad at myself or enjoy the beautiful day and the iconic race and be proud of my strength and determination. I chose the latter. While it wasn't my best race, I learned a lot about myself that day and throughout this entire "double dose" marathon journey-about my mental toughness, my self-acceptance, and my inner voice. After the race I decided to drink a big beer, eat a veggie burger, and with my medal tightly clutched to my chest, bask in the glory of crossing the finish line(s).