My biggest weakness in racing is also my biggest strength: my mental game. I usually have an incredibly sound mental game when it comes to running (in workouts and races alike). My mental/emotional strength is usually the difference between a successful run or not. I generally maintain a very positive, focused, and mindful mindset when pushing myself athletically and it is probably the single biggest factor in my races. My fitness level is pretty average, but my mentality around finding new depths and practicing self talk when things don’t feel great is what usually pulls me through in my endurance events. Because my mental game is so strong, when it falters at all, it is my biggest battle. I told my coach Chris McClung with Rogue Running that my confidence and psychological mindset would be the thing I needed the most help with from a coach. When my mindset is not tuned in to the task at hand, or if I am having negative self talk, my performance slips dramatically. I have been racing this fall and winter to work specifically on these elements of athleticism. After my last race, Salmagundi 50 km, where I almost didn’t start and almost didn’t finish, I knew I needed a win mentally this weekend.
I signed up for the Mosaic Trail Marathon (Dec 7th) as a practice race to experiment with a pacer and test my mental strength on a multi-loop course. Neither of which I was actually too excited about initially. I’ve never actually used a pacer and plan to use one or two at Bandera 100 km, so wanted to test the waters in a low stakes environment. In ultramarathon events, athletes use a pacer to help make sure they stay fed, hydrated and moving along when the fatigue really sets in late in an ultra. They can also be incredibly helpful with mindset and resetting the mental game when focus slips or negativity begins to filter in the mind with encouraging words to nudge and push when the time is right.
Multi-looped courses are notorious for being “boring” and there are a lot of opportunities to drop out of the race when you see the finish line over and over again. This would test me mentally because my last race (Salmagundi 50 km), I almost quit at the end of one of my loops because I was so faded and low on energy. Signing up for the Mosaic Marathon (four 10km loops that involved 8 laps to the start/finish area) meant I would have a chance to overcome that mental urge to quit if I made it to the finish of my marathon. Running all the loops also meant that I would need to stay mentally very strong to overcome any “boredom.” I’ve actually never experienced boredom in a race (or really in life), but maybe just the monotony could make it more challenging and less novel.
Three days before the race I strained my back doing a very strange movement getting into my car and reaching for something in the passenger seat. Classic “getting older” type of injury. My back hurt to cough, breathe, reach, and pull. Twisting and standing up from sitting (getting out of my car) was at about a 10 out 10 for pain. Since it wasn’t a running related injury, and wasn’t caused by running at all, I went for a few runs and it wasn’t terrible. Then I volunteered at a 5km race and the lifting and setting up tents aggravated it a lot so I reverted to taking some Ibuprofen to bring the inflammation down. It helped tremendously. I figured it was a total gamble to trail run on Saturday since the twisting and minor side to side motions involved in trail running might be painful and potentially make the injury worse. Ultimately, I made the tough decision to take Ibuprofen at the start line (which I never do and I don’t recommend it for running related injuries or in general), and I figured I’d have an opportunity to quit every 3 miles if something went awry. The Ibuprofen was to bring the inflammation down, not an attempt to mask the pain.
The race had a late start of 9:00 am, which meant no need for a headlamp or layers. I took off on the first lap and found a rhythm that felt comfortable but good. My coach, Chris, had previously tasked me with trying to make each 10 km loop progressive (getting faster with each lap). I kind of threw this plan out the window when I realized my back was going to be the deciding factor of this race (and after learning about my back injury he advised I not even toe the start line and to “live to fight another day if needed”). I decided to give it a try and listen closely to my body knowing full well that this would just be a training run and to quit if injury began to lurk.
I set out to try and at least go for a progressive effort. I realized that while it was 42 degrees at the start, it would be warming up into the high 70s while I was out there, so running a truly progressive pace would be a big challenge unless I went out easy. I didn’t want to waste the morning’s cool temps by running too slowly, so I found a reasonable effort and stuck to it. I plugged in my music and began to grind away at the laps.
The first lap went smooth. There were some flat straightaways that were double track jeep road - type terrain and I got a little sluggish on those sections. The more technical and the more ups and downs, the more engaged I was with my running and the more I was smiling. I passed a lot of people on these more technical sections while I got passed on the flat easy part. I recognized this and realized I needed to focus more on the easy parts to not lose momentum.
I needed to pee and readjust my shoes but I wanted to wait until after the second loop and all the half marathoners were off the trail. Single track trail makes it is a little bit of a pain to pass people in tight and technical sections while maintaining effort and pace, so I didn’t want to pass a bunch of half marathoners, then stop and take my break to take care of business only to get passed and then pass them again.
Right after the second lap I pulled over to pee and tie my shoes. I had just slipped my shoes o that morning which was a mistake because they were too loose and I could tell my toes weren’t that happy. I wasn’t in pain, but I needed to tighten them so I didn’t slide around in them on the downhills and tight turns.
The third lap was nice and I knew it would be my last lap alone so I enjoyed it and prepared for having company on the last lap. I clicked into my zone and didn't let up even though it was definitely warm out now. My mental game had been strong and I had been doing regular body scans and felt fine. I knew I would finish at this point. I took a Spring Energy gel after each 10 km loop (which also happened to be about each hour) and drank electrolytes (Tailwind) exclusively. My nutrition and hydration plan seemed on point.
Iram offered to pace me my last 10 km so I could practice having a pacer before Bandera 100 km. He joined me on the last lap. We maybe exchanged a few words right at the beginning but I kept my headphones in and stayed in my groove. I was moving well and didn’t want to break the zone I was in to try and converse. He ran behind me silently and it was nice just having the company nearby even though I was in my own head. At times I felt like I was showing him the beauty of the trail that I had learned the last 3 laps (even though he had raced the 10 km earlier in the day so he knew the trail). But sharing the beauty with another was a nice feeling and helped me smile and take it in even more. There were beautiful parts that overlooked a river and some fun twists and turns or quick ups and downs that were in really beautiful woods.
I ran the first 4.5 miles of the last loop at a slightly quicker clip than I had been running the lap prior because the second wind of having someone to run with gave me some extra energy. However, the last mile and a half I started to fade a little mentally. It was warm and my energy was dipping some. I wasn’t even really aware of it until Iram passed me and started running out in front of me. It irked me at first. We didn’t talk about it and again no words were exchanged, but later he told me that my pace had dropped pretty dramatically and he could tell it was mental because my form was still perfectly in control and fine. It’s true. I wasn’t struggling physically at all. And mentally I wasn’t exactly on the struggle bus yet, but was headed in that direction. He realized that if I just maintained the pace I had been running the whole race I would break four hours, so he decided to pull the pace a little. Each time I closed the gap he pressed a little more until we were back on track to my usual pace. I got a tiny bit frustrated that I was having such a hard time keeping up with him, but it was just enough of a mental hurdle to get my wheels churning. It made me want to pass him and get back in front badly enough which kept my mind in the game enough to not fade away into the land of total apathy (which I was teetering on the edge). Being slightly annoyed with him helped some and eventually I just surrendered to the fact that I knew he was trying to help me so I just chased him. I told myself it would be fine if he dropped me and it would also be just fine if I caught him. This was still my race even though I trusted him with taking the lead for a bit. By the time I got close enough to the finish I was able to turn on the gas enough to pass him. I took back the lead and finished the last bit at a 7:15 pace, strong, happy and proud.
I won the marathon in 3:58 for women (3rd overall) and the second place female was almost an hour behind me. I also set the course record by 55 mins (although it is a very small and new race). I take results with a giant grain of salt in these small races, but it is still exciting to do well and compete with whoever shows up on race day. I was super proud of the fact that i ran each loop consistently, within seconds of each other, and that my mental game was strong enough to not give in at the end when things began to get tough. To run such consistent splits with the temperature rising 30 degrees during the race felt like a progressive effort to me. Pretty much every other athlete out there slowed down in the second half of the race. I had a really good race and day and was happy to walk away knowing that I didn’t fade to the finish, but turned it on again to have a strong finish. AND I didn’t further injure myself. In fact, my back was feeling much better the rest of the day and has been on the upswing since the race.
The only issue I discovered later was that I had two toenails in VERY rough shape. They got infected and had to be taken off. I will be on the lookout for trail shoes that match my toe box better. It turns out that running a bunch of loops isn’t all that bad. I held myself to an honest standard with the idea of DNFing this time (meaning I checked in with how my back was feeling and it was pretty much always feeling fine), so I didn’t have a real excuse to quit. And using a pacer is helpful! Thank you Iram for the support! :)