Chasing The Unicorn: The Mental Game of Marathoning

How to build a mind like a steel trap, heighten your awareness, embrace the suck, and uncork the race of your dreams:

You’ve done the training. Your body is ready. It’s time to focus on the mental game of Marathoning.

I love preparing for a race with my entire being. The long build-up of endurance, the training that organizes my week, my life. I love the huge payoff. I love race day.

Here are some of my strategies for how to build a mind like a steel trap, heighten your awareness, embrace the suck, and uncork the race of your dreams:

1. Do your Recon. Get to know the race course. Drive or bike the route. Run parts of it. Look online for course fly-bys. The goal is to have no surprises on race day. It’s helpful to understand how steep the hills really are. Before I ran Boston, I wanted to see the infamous Heartbreak Hill first hand, to understand its essence. After taking a bus ride out to Newton, I realized it was steep and long, but not dissimilar to the Brady Street Hill in Davenport, IA.

When Gene Hackman had the team measure the height of the rim in “Hoosiers” before the Championship Game to make sure it was 10 ft? You can strip the unknown of its menace through the natural process of Mental Scaffolding and develop an organic source of self-belief, that leaves you open to the positive possibility of the unknown. It’s what enabled Luke to tap into the Force and believe he was able to blow up the Death Star.

2. Visualize. I feel the mythical Unicorn is the mascot of the BAA to symbolize the imagination and creative mental power required to excel at Marathoning

This can start by visualizing yourself running each section of the race course — exactly the way you want. Think back to a key moment of a key workout that you nailed. Now perform a little mental scaffolding, and visualize yourself on race day, nailing each split on time.

See yourself crossing the finish line with a huge smile. Fixate on the great feelings you will have after you crush your goal time, as though it has already happened. Let those confident and positive vibrations fill your body.

3. Let your Mantra Find You. As you get closer to the starting line there will be song lyrics or a quote you will come across — something that will stick with you and keep you positive, focused and in the moment.

One of my all-time endurance sport favorites is, “Embrace the Suck”. But I’ve also found that in the days and hours leading to a race, my awareness heightens and I begin filtering information, almost tactically, through my third eye. Every song on the radio, every lucky penny, every sign, is examined through the triumvirate of You, the Race, and the Universe for its usefulness towards the singular cause of crushing your Marathon.

I’ve been surprised at what resurfaces during a race to become the amazing motivational thing that turns your mind into an impenetrable force and carries you through. For example:

After hearing Simple Minds, “Alive and Kicking” on the predawn drive to a race, the song resurfaced as a mantra hours later to help combat late-race Suck, and act as a powerful balm to redirect focus back to running form and a reminder to bask in the joy of moment.

Chuck Ragan’s, “Something May Catch Fire” manifested during my BQ run at the Quad Cities Marathon, and carried me through several redlining-it miles with the gritty mantra, “This ain’t nothing”.

And in the pouring rain at Boston this year, when the theme song from “Last of the Mohicans” got stuck in my head, I went with it, because, you know, I was a (University of Iowa) Hawkeye running through the hills of New England…

4. Break the race into Smaller Portions. One step at a time. Traditionally the Marathon is broken down to the first half, next 10K, last 10K. I like to break the last 10K into two 5Ks. But an additional technique, is to break the race down to 26 individual portions, and then dedicate a mile to certain special people who have impacted your life.

I used this technique at Boston and it was as if those people were along for the ride. Layers of meaning and purpose were added to an already meaningful day. Thinking of the joy, and in some cases suffering, brought to me by these special people kept me focused, but not necessarily on running. In the moment, yet reflective.

I purposefully placed people at points in the race where I thought they’d be most helpful. For instance, two very dear friends who’s murder I’ve struggled with for the past 10 years both got a Hill in Newton. I sensed that when the race really started getting tough, my lingering grief over Kevin and Brett might, through an act of physical and mental alchemy, become something else . Similarly, my father-in-law Jon, who took his own life, was with me on Heartbreak Hill and he helped make the task seem like nothing, and everything, all at once.

The Marathon can be a cathartic experience regardless, and I haven’t finished one yet without getting choked up at the finish. But I can honestly say that dedicating the toughest miles to the men who’s deaths shook me most, helped me find closure to my mourning and to move on peacefully.

5. Set tiered goals. Something along the lines of — Top end goal (win age group), secondary (PR), fall back (BQ), fall back #2 (sub 3:10), back end (finish), auxiliary (don’t die).

This allows mental flexibility for the many potential mid-race variables that could effect your outcome. This reduces the stress of the unknown and allows you enjoy the journey of the day regardless of the result.

6. Live fully. Tune in and bask in the raw energy of race day. The Marathon is an expression of being alive, a coming together of community, and in some senses, a metaphor for life. Smile. Race day can be one of your greatest days, a pure expression of your entire being. The running alone is the manifestation of what humans evolved to do. But we are much more than our legs. Open your mind, heart, and soul as you drain your body, and you can experience not just the race of your life, but have a life changing experience.

Happy Unicorn hunting.

Pattern recognition is the task of the Artist. This is the pattern recognition you’re looking for.

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