Tag Archives: half

Long Runs: Training the Brain

Recently a fellow 40+ runner posted his experience (so far) in training for his first half and full marathon, and asked his readers for advice. For better or worse, I gave him my thoughts. He thought they were pretty good, although I understand his attorney is now trying to contact me. He must be a new runner, too.

Me at Road Ends 2013 finish line

I’m not tired! Really! It’s all in my mind!

Anyway, among his lessons learned in long run training was that it’s as tough mentally as it is physically. Yup. 530,000 marathon finishes per year sounds like a lot, but it’s far less than one percent of the American population. I believe the main reason the other 99 percent will never run one isn’t the physical challenge of running 26.2 miles. Rather, it’s developing the mental stamina needed to get your body to run that distance. I can speak from experience that the brain gets tired of running well before the body gives out.

A recent article in Runner’s World addresses how large a role our brains play in how fast, or how far, we can run. The author, already an excellent runner, attempted to improve his performance through computer-based exercises designed to create mental fatigue – so-called “brain endurance” training. You can read the grisly details here.

So let’s say you’re interested in the challenge of a half marathon, or even a full marathon someday, but you prefer to train more traditionally. How do you develop the mental stamina to get there? I don’t know what will work for you, but here’s how I managed it.

1. Just starting. The good news is that no previous experience is required. Until my mid-forties I wasn’t a runner, and couldn’t think of many things more tedious. I’m not exactly sure what ‘flipped the switch’ but I ran my first 5K race in 2008, and just five years later I’ve run seven half marathons, two full marathons, and two ultramarathons, and log at least 1,000 miles per year.

2. Allowing enough training time. “Couch to 5K” programs are popular and fine, but couch to marathon takes a little longer. When I decided to go for a half marathon, I had never run more than six miles at a time, so I gave myself six months to train. This gave me time to ‘build the base’ without pushing too hard or feeling anxious about how close the race date was.

"Just two loops" or "8 more stages" sounds much more doable than, "33 more miles".

“Just two loops” or “8 more stages” sounds more doable to me than, “33 more miles”.

3. Splitting up the distance. As I mentioned in my recent posts about my Run Woodstock ultra, running 50 miles still seems kind of unreal to me. But dividing the race into 12 stages of 4.2 miles each (the distance between aid stations) made it mentally manageable. Half and full marathons generally have water stops every two miles, which I still use to reset physically and mentally when needed.

4. Running with others. I still remember a Saturday morning 20-miler where I started out with a large group and wound up at the halfway mark in the middle of nowhere by myself. (It was a “taper week” for the other long runners.) Running the return 10 miles solo was really tough. But there was no shortcut on that route, so I had to finish.

Pacing with others is fun, too! (Kona 10K, 2013)

Pacing with others is fun, too! (Kona 10K 52:00 pace group, 2013)

By contrast, earlier this summer I ran 19 miles with two other folks the entire way, and it was far more pleasant. Conversation helps pass the miles, but just having other people there with me helped keep me moving. Research bears out that running with someone can make you run longer and harder than you would by yourself.

5. The idea of “just one more”. As my Aikido instructor has said, “No matter how many breakfalls you’ve done, you can always do one more.” When my long runs get tedious, or body is fatigued during a race, I apply this as, “I can do this for one more mile” or “Just to the next aid station”. It usually works. And of course once I hit the aid station, or finish that one mile – I can still do just one more.

So there you go. If you’re starting to get the feeling that you could do this, and you’d like that feeling to go away, this post from Jilly Bean should do it. You’re welcome.

More: Read some additional motivational tips for distance running.

A Martian Hat Trick

The 2013 Martian half marathon was memorable to me for three things: my fastest half marathon to date, the first time I won an age group award for a half marathon, and the first time I left a piece of clothing on the course. (Or maybe not? See below.) The weather was very much like last year’s – cold and overcast, threatening to rain. It didn’t – it snowed instead.

Cold runners 2

This winter thing is getting really old.

Due to heavy rains the week before, some of the usual course was flooded, and we ran an alternate route through subdivisions instead of up and back Hines Drive. Personally I liked it better, although it posed some challenges placing water stations – very important to the full marathon.

(I heard that the day before the race, the head guy was still thinking it could be held on the usual route, and he put a marked stick in the flooded area to see if the waters were receding. When he came back six hours later and found the stick totally submerged, he changed his mind.)

Yeah, baby! Marathoner at the finish line.

Yeah, baby! A marathoner at the finish line.

My plan was to improve last year’s time of 1:37:30 (7:26 average pace) by a couple of minutes. I started with miles of 7:30 and 7:20, then ran the remainder between 7:00 and 7:10, finishing with a 7:09 average and a PR of nearly four minutes. I’d miscalculated my expected time, thinking I’d finish around 1:35:00, so my 1:33:49 was a really nice surprise.

There were other surprises, too. When I got there, I couldn’t locate my name on the bib list, and they had no record of my registration. No problem – they registered me there, and I got a number. Then after I finished, I couldn’t find my results! My age had been entered incorrectly, and my time was posted in the 1-4 age group. The good news was that the corrected results put me second in the 50-54 age group – the first time I’ve broken the top 10 in a half marathon, and good for a spot in the top 100 overall, too.

I wasn't sure which bothered me more - that I'd been put in the diaper group, or that I finished second in it.

I wasn’t sure which bothered me more – that I’d been put in the diaper group, or that I finished second in it.

But the most interesting event for me occurred after the race. Around mile 8 I’d taken off my hat and gloves and put them in my jacket pockets. I had this odd feeling that I’d lose my hat, so every so often I patted my pocket to make sure it was still there. (Yes, my jacket pockets have zippers. Don’t ask.) So as I cooled back off after I finished, I reached into my pockets – and my hat was missing.

Way cool finisher's medal and the incredible disappearing / reappearing hat.

Way cool finisher’s medal and the incredible disappearing / reappearing hat.

I retraced my steps around the finish area but came up empty. Bummer – I’d gotten it as race swag at the Super 5K in February, and it had become my favorite hat. But like when I lost my cell phone at the trail 50K last September, I just had this feeling that things would work out.

I took some photos and then walked back to where my car was parked. I reached the main drag, Michigan Avenue, and started to cross – and there, lying in the road directly in front of me, was a hat. A Super 5K hat. I hadn’t dropped it there, as it wasn’t part of the race course. Had it followed me? Teleported? Had someone picked my hat up, only to drop it there later? Who knows, but the upshot is that I have a hat again.

Leilani post race - 2My friend Betty and her two oldest children also ran that day. She and her son Tony did the 5K and finished in around 37 minutes, a remarkable time considering that Tony is only 6 years old. Betty said he was so excited that he wants to run another race soon. Daughter Leilani, 4 (left), ran the Meteor Mile. They’re learning the love of running early! Or is it rather that they haven’t lost the love of running, like so many do when they “grow up”?

Proud 5Kers - Tony (left) and friend.

Proud 5Kers – Tony (left) and friend.

Next up: back to the trails, with the Road Ends 5 mile race on the Silver Lake trails this Sunday. Can’t wait to find out what I lose (or find) there.