It’s funny how your darkest moments aren’t always in the worst circumstances. I hear runners spinning yarns about that 16th hour on the Dragon’s Back, about that time they almost died from dehydration on the Marathon des Sables, that night in torrential rain at the top of Scawfell Pike and many more, and I often wonder about those times when you really are in the pits. I do think there is something to be said for those whose exploits have led them literally to the precipice of life and death and how they have managed to step back and say ‘Hey man, it’s just not my time yet.’But then again whilst these stories indulge our need for the extreme, how many of us have really faced such challenges?
I think we all have. Maybe not life and death, and maybe not a precipice per se but if you have put yourself out there running for any length of time, you will probably have faced some considerable challenges along the way. Elites such as Scott Jurek, Kilian Jornet and Lizzie Hawker are often quoted citing ‘mental strength’ as equal or in fact more than what is needed in terms of training and ability. So in theory, having your head straight as it were could pull you back by the buff from quite a considerable precipice.
So is it ‘all in our heads’ well perhaps not, but undoubtedly, some of it is and if some of it is, then there is possibly a huge well of unlocked potential, just sitting there in your mind.
I have many darkest hours. If I had to choose one it would probably be a coastal half marathon. Let me set the scene. My darkest two hours and forty five minutes took place in the most beautiful sunshine, on a sandy beach. The crystalline waves gently creeping in and out, the sand was perfect, a gentle breeze, a seagull circled overhead. I had trained, I was ready and the prize for finishing was a bag of flour. My mum’s parting words as she saw me off at the start line were: ‘We’ll make some lovely bread with that flour later!’
Fast forward around 20 minutes. The seagull overhead could have been a vulture, that sand, well, put it this way, I will never run on sand again. The blinding infinitum of an out and back run was enough for me and as the last competitor ambled past me, with what looked like a 99 mr whippy with a flake, I downed tools and walked. Garmin check- sh*t one mile in. 12 .1 to go. Why did I stop running? I don’t really know but what I know for sure is that as those who set off ahead started passing me on the way back there was a real possibility of me laying down and letting the seagulls have at me. I got to the half way mark- I’d walked the whole way ‘Get it together.’ my mind said weakly, ‘No.’ I answered out loud. The marshal looked at me with one raised eyebrow as he busied himself with packing up. I really was the last one through. At this point, the only thing keeping me going was the flour. Mum wanted that flour and 13.1 miles is longest I have walked and will ever walk for flour again.
My mind is extremely powerful. I know this as I have the imagination to create a wide variety of potential scenarios about things. I can make worry out of anything, and nothing. Give me something to be happy about and I can find you a rich seam of anxiety buried within it. I’m like a sniffer dog, if there’s even a slight possibility of something being a tiny bit concerning- I’m jumping all over that like detective fluffy in a crack den. And yes, it’s addictive.
So what scenario could find all the best conditions for anxiety to grow and prosper, hmm. Something involving what other people might think of you…check, something that may involve you questioning your ability…check, something in which you might be insecure about your appearance…check what about something that involves an almost infinite array of potential scenarios that you have no way of knowing about beforehand….triple check. Obviously I’m talking about running. I have gone from running a mountain marathon with my head on straight and finishing with a smile on my face to walking home in a paddy after 10 minutes of a 5k jog . Perhaps you have an internal dialogue going on, ‘I’m tired’ ‘I’m hungry’ ‘I’ll never be able to do this’ ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ yada yada yada. Persuasive much? Very.
Think about it this way. If your mind is so ‘weak’ how can it convince you to stop? How can it be weak if it is that relentless, uncompromising. Your mind was able to formulate x number of fantastic excuses to a) stop running and b) not even go out in the first place. If there was a person on this earth that was so persuasive, they’d be pretty high up in politics at least. You have a powerful tool at your disposal, now you need to flip the switch the other way. It is possible but it will take time and conscious effort. Once you can get your head around your head (not easy when you’re in it) you can utilise it to your advantage- that 70% that is mental on top of your physical 30% can make a massive difference.
It’s an ongoing process and maybe one that lasts a lifetime of running for some people (me) but is it worth the work for 70% better? Yes. and the best thing is, it’s like a magic wand. Ping! Let there be light.