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Mental Preparation

When I was a freshman in college, my track coach called a team meeting 3 days before the SEC cross country championships. He sat everyone down and rolled in a tv/vcr on a cart (no flat panels back then). He yelled for everyone to stop talking and pushed play. Half giggling, the majority of the guys glanced at each other with the typical what-kind-of-boring-ass-video-is-he-making-us-watch look on their faces. Then came the opening scene of the movie, Saving Private Ryan. For those who have not seen it, the movie begins with a group of soldiers in a boat about to storm the beaches of Normandy. Its a very dramatic and suspenseful scene. The soldiers all look terrified – pale faced, no talking, some are vomiting, one or two are crying. They cannot see the beach yet, and as the viewer neither can you, but the sounds of the machine guns and cannons dominate the background letting you know they’re close. Within a few seconds, the gate opens on the boat and the soldiers make a run charging for the beach. A famous photo (above) depicts this very scene, aptly named, “Into the Jaws of Death.”

I think most people know the outcome for the vast majority of the soldiers in this movie scene, and more importantly that of the actual event. We watched about 10 minutes of the movie, and then my coach pushes stop, and begins to describe the similarities between standing at the start line of a major race and standing in the boat preparing to storm the beach. Sure, prior to major races most runners look terrified – pale faced, not talking, some are vomiting, and some may be crying, but I think his analogy fell a little short, at least amongst the group of 18 year-olds in front of him. My best friend CJ started laughing hysterically at least 3 times during the clip, mainly at the over dramatic acting and cinematography, which of course prompted Coach Weber to yell at us again to take it seriously. At the end of the meeting, we were given the quintessential “now let’s get out there and have a good run,” but all of the guys left the room smirking, “Does this mean he’s going to kill us if we don’t race well???,” and of course there were several of us thinking, “That was a load of garbage.”

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Although his lesson didn’t seem clear at the time, having raced for many years, and matured obviously, I now understand (I think) what he was trying to get us to learn and engage – being mentally tough. In the movie, Steven Spielberg largely created this sense that it was mainly those soldiers who maintained composure, reacted appropriately, and used their training who survived (again, at least in the movie). The bottomline is that the ability to race and perform to your potential in endurance races is often more mental than it is physical, providing you’ve done the training. One of the biggest misconceptions that people often say to me is that “Oh you’ve done so many marathons and/or triathlons that they are easy for you.” Almost in a sense and tone that I no longer experience suffering or the overwhelming will to quit when I’m racing. In fact, its just the opposite. I think I hurt and suffer more now in an Ironman than I did in my first few attempts, and its directly because I push myself harder, hold myself to a higher standard, and with experience has come more efficiency. More importantly though, I no longer psyche myself out.

The first time I raced in the Boston Marathon was in 2004. I was a very inexperienced marathoner at the time, but I had fairly reasonable success as I had ran 2:37 at the age of 22. Less than a week before the race, I received my first care package from Mizuno including shoes, gear, uniforms, warmups, etc. I had been generously offered a spot on an expansion team, and Boston was to be my first race wearing the Mizuno uniform. I was elated as I walked to the starting line. It seemed everyone was checking me out and sizing me up. As I worked my way up to the front corral, I grew very nervous, I started recognizing some major runners, I saw the size of the field, felt the aura of the race that makes it Boston, and literally began telling myself “there’s no way I can run with these guys.” The race started and I went out with a fairly fast group (sub 2:30 pace), which in retrospect, there was no reason I shouldn’t have been able to run with them. The race that year was a near record for heat (87 degrees at the start), and just before mile 9, as I started feeling that deep aching in my stomach, I felt sick, vomited once, and then I caved. I quit running, walked to a port-a-potty so I could hide, and then just said to myself “to hell with it, I’m done.” After a few minutes, I sat down on the side walk right across the street from the mile 9 marker and just waited. I don’t know what I was waiting for, but I just sat there. I awarded myself all the excuses: its hot, I feel sick, my stomach hurts (just bunch of garbage trying to make myself feel better). Here I am wearing a brand new Mizuno uniform, decked out from head to toe, and the glares I received from runners passing by made me feel worthless (which is what I’m sure they were thinking of my actually being sponsored by Mizuno). I thought about how hard I had worked, the long runs I had completed, the previous races, Saving Private Ryan as silly as it sounds, and after about 10 minutes, I was so mad at myself that I restarted the race. Somehow, I embraced the heat, regained control of my emotions, and rallied – managing to finish in the top 100, with a time of 2:46. I’ve been commended about my time for that race especially given the conditions, but I’m actually embarrassed because I stopped, and I still wonder what could I have ran if I hadn’t? The point is that on that day, I focused so much on the negatives that I doubted my capabilities – and I was very much mentally weak, at least for the first 9 miles.

Forbes magazine published an article regarding the 6 attributes of athletes that translate to executive leadership:

http://www.forbes.com/2010/09/17/executive-mental-toughness-leadership-managing-athletes.html

In this article, the first two attributes are flexibility and resiliency. When things are not going our way, or we are overly stressed in a situation, we need to have the ability to absorb and adapt to the changes (flexibility), and remain engaged and connected to the situation (resiliency). There are only 2 ways to prepare yourself in such situations – experience and mental preparation. If you are fortunate enough to have raced in every scenario and event, then you are a lucky person. For everyone else, we have to draw upon our experiences in training, possibly other races or events, work, life etc. and visualize how we have handled key situations and apply them to the situation at hand. Sports psychologists instruct athletes to prepare for races by visualizing the entire event – not just the high points, but every point from waking up and packing your bag to how you are going to handle recovery after the race. The importance is placed on focusing how you will handle events throughout the day and more importantly focusing on the positives. Don’t think about the problems, the difficulty, or let the race happen. Instead, focus on the possibilities, the potential for gain, and consider how you can make the race happen. One of the biggest differences between winners and losers is attitude.

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Visualization begins the day you sign up for the race, if not before. Despite my experiences, every time I prepare to toe the line, I still find some time to myself for the final mental preparations.

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