Mental Toughness

I had been running casually for about a year (2 to 3 miles a couple of times a week) when I felt I needed a goal to my running. I decided to train for a marathon. I was so excited after my first 11 mile run. I had broken a barrier—I was a REAL runner! On my next long run, I could only muster 8.5 miles, and for my next, 3.2!

What went wrong? Well, I had taken two weeks of vacation, but I really felt I had kept up with my running. Could the problem be that I also had eaten a lot of food not in my normal training diet, or that I drank more alcohol than usual? (Alcohol goes well with a lot of things, but driving, running, and sticky conversations with your ex are not on that list.) Maybe I wasn’t hydrated enough, or was it that running at low altitude “thinned my blood?” My mind was full of excuses, reasons, and doubts, but no solutions. “Ugh, it’s just too hard. I’m not meant to run a marathon; why did I ever think I could do this?”

Having dinner with my son and daughter a week later, I told them I had given up on running a marathon. They encouraged me to keep the goal. My son, who has done many endurance events, talked to me about mental toughness, and how making up my mind was half the battle. Where the mind goes, the body will follow.

I made up my mind that I was going to run a marathon, so I set a goal to run 5 miles the next week. The weather was awful, so I had to run indoors. I’d really have to be mentally tough, because on a treadmill, you can stop at any moment. It isn’t like being 5 miles out on a trail, and you have to get back home somehow.

As I started, I remembered my son’s words. My mind was going 5 miles, damnit, and my body had better follow. Around mile 4, I was tired and ready to quit. Then I remembered my kids’ encouragement, and I came up with a mantra, which I repeated mentally with each breath for the rest of my run. “Be tough, be strong,” got me through. I ran 8 miles. That was two weeks ago, and this week, I did 11 miles—again. It was wonderful; it was exhilarating; it was HARD.

When I ran on vacation, I didn’t really make it about running. I was just putting in some time so that I didn’t get out of shape. I did enough miles to maintain my physical body for a decent long run, but when it got hard, I slowed down, or cut the run a little short. I told myself that I was running on vacation, so I shouldn’t hold myself to such tough standards. I did actually work my physical self hard enough, but what I didn’t exercise was my mental resolve. I was not mentally tough on my runs, and that was what made the bigger difference. I think it’s important to give myself a break now and then, but it’s imperative to understand that once the break is over, it may be a little tougher to get back into the swing of things. Knowing this will make me a stronger runner after taking a little break.

I learned that sometimes, you have to will yourself to do the hard things, and because it is a challenge is not a reason not to do it. How do I expand this lesson beyond running, though? I set a goal, and then, like running, I do something every week (shorter training runs) that moves me toward the goal. And when I need to gut it out and push through (do a long run), I use the mental toughness I developed in running. Once I figured out that I can muster the strength to do something I never thought I could do (like running 11 miles), I realized that I have the ability to do a vast number of things that I never thought I could do. I simply must set my mind to do it, put my body in motion, and know that there is no alternative to success.

I’ve been thinking for about a year about becoming a blogger, but it’s hard work, and it’s daunting, and I’m not hydrated enough (oh wait, that’s running). So, with an 11 mile run under my belt, and my mental toughness properly in shape, I sat down at the computer this morning, and decided to take my first real long run towards my goal. I reviewed the research I’d looked at over the last year, but this time, I did it looking for ways to be successful, not for why it was too hard to do.

Why am I blogging this for your reading pleasure? Because I want to share my mental toughness with you. I want you to know that nothing is too hard—maybe you’re just being too soft. So harden up, and start your training. Do a half mile walk/run, or cut sugar out of your diet on Tuesdays; or take a class at the community college; or start a budget by cutting out one meal at restaurants per week; or sit down at your computer and make yourself write. Whatever your dream is, set it in motion by engaging your mental toughness and doing something towards that goal every single week—even when it’s hard.

“Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it.”

–Oprah Winfrey

Keep running, whatever your race is, my friends!

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