There are so many amazing things to be excited about when it comes to running and we all love to hear about and make the sport so enriching: the beautiful scenery of trail running, getting that “runner’s high,” running a sub-whatever mile for the first time, the camaraderie of the running community, passing people during a race, hitting a PR, qualifying for Boston. But, what about those nasty, gritty, sweat drenched, lip biting, lung burning, gasping, lead-legged, self-doubt laden runs that we all dread? Why SHOULD we love those just as much? Quite simply, and I am now showing my extreme dorkiness, but it is still very true, “Why do we fall, sir? So that we might learn to pick ourselves up.” – Alfred (Michael Caine) “Batman Begins.”
I was reminded this weekend why horrible runs are so important. I was talking with a fellow runner about their week and they were almost sullen about the run they had had that day; it was long, hot, muggy, crampy, lead-legged and was so miserable that it nearly brought them to tears. That, my friends, is a tough day. As we talked about the rest of their week, they had had an amazing training week and all of their runs to this point had been without much adversity, that is until that day. It took a while to meander through all of the detritus, because emotions can be so tightly bound to our training, but the why became quite clear and it made me think. Why do we NEED these runs that make us want to quit the sport we love? Good question, right?! I know! And trust me I have answers!
As in all life experiences, these train wrecks are incredible teaching tools for us all. I don’t know how many times I’ve said it, but training is 70% mental and 30% physical. Utter dog crap runs like this one test your metal. They make you question everything you are doing. You hit a wall. It’s when you hit that wall that you have to be ready to peel yourself off and know that one run does not make or break your training. They also teach you how to fight. How to focus your mind on the task at hand and FORCE your body to respond. Make your body your mind’s bitch! Even if the run is absolutely horrific in your mind the moment you finish take comfort in the fact that you DID finish and fought through it. When you hit the wall during a marathon it all becomes about mind, will and your ability to focus yourself on positive thoughts and energies that will fuel you to the finish: “Oh my God my legs are tired and hurt like hell! BUT there is NO stopping. There is NO walking. I OWN this race and when I get through that finish line there is NO PAIN.”
Taking the mental aspect a step further, when you have a run like this it is the perfect time, once you get over the whole tragedy of it all, to do a serious self-assessment and analysis. Take a good hard, objective look at your run and your performance and figure out where things went awry. Start simple with the run itself, while it's fresh in your mind. Work your way from your body and the physical conditions to the execution of your plan for that particular run. Ask yourself some questions: What exactly was my issue? My legs? Lungs? Cramps? When did they start? Was it the heat? Was I sweating more than usual? Did I go out too fast? Did I have enough nutrition and water on the course? Is the timing of my nutrition off? Did I have enough this morning before I started?
As you pull those answers together start looking at your preparation that day and the night before, if it was a long run. Then look at it in the context of your week. Maybe you did two really hard, focused runs during the week that took more out of your legs than you anticipated and this run was a little too ambitious given the rest of the week? Finding the why is always an amalgamation of details. For example, hazy, hot & humid + dead legs + not hydrating properly + tough pace plan + long distance = WORST RUN OF MY LIFE! As is the case with most personal problems – and yes runners, when we have issues with runs they are always presented as personal problems – we can just be too close to things to see them clearly, so go ahead and bounce it off of someone, a coach, your running partner, even talking to your dog works, because when you start to hear what went on in your own words out loud it can quickly come into focus.
Craptastic training runs and races are an education! They teach us sooooo much about ourselves and what we are capable of. How tough we are mentally, how well we know our bodies, and how far and hard we can push both. Next time you have a run that makes you want to ask for a trial separation from your running shoes, which you really just want to push through a wood chipper, and just give up on the whole running thing remember a few things: 1) If it was easy EVERYONE would do it, but they don’t because they think it’s insane. 2) You are, in fact, insane. 3) One bad run does not make or break your training or racing season. 4) Take all that you can learn from such an experience and use it to make you a stronger and smarter athlete. 5) We are all out there with you, you are not alone and we’ve all been there and will be there again.