Coaches Corner: Mental fortitude while racing.

“Your mind is your strongest muscle”

Now, I know the mind isn’t really a muscle, but I like to suspend that fact because I love alliteration and a good saying. 

I have been saying this to runners under my charge for decades. I hope to inspire them to believe that they are indeed strong enough to overcome doubt in a race. To prep them mentally to have a positive attitude for when the demons come, which when racing all out, they surely will. 

The athlete must believe in themselves in order to race well. They must trust in their training, both the mental and the physical. For it is that trust that will see them through to success when things get hard.

This past weekend was an outstanding reminder that all runners, no matter how experienced, can struggle with this lesson.

This past weekend a bunch of club members got together to race the 100on100, a 6 person relay race that runs 100 miles down rt 100 from Stowe VT to Okemo mountain in Ludlow VT. 

As we headed into the race our seed time indicated we would be in a tight battle for 1st place in the 40+ age category and a top ten finish overall. The team was pumped, albeit in a weird place mentally. One team member had contracted Lyme this summer which hampered his training. Another was 2 weeks out from an Iron Man triathlon and struggling to recover, while I was battling a string of injuries. 

The weather was going to be dicy. As the race went off it was 98% humidity, 40-60% chance of rain and T-storms under supposed cloudy skies. But the sun poked out just as we started racing at 10am and burned off the fog and clouds. An hour into the race the sun was blazing and the temperature was creeping into the high 80’s. Half our team was struggling physically and the other half were melting under the harsh conditions.

After everyone had completed 1 leg, spirits were not high. We had dropped to the back of our start group and were thus the last team to reach transition areas. 

We were in last place on the course, and arguably a worst place mentally. We seemed to have drank our metaphoric well dry, down to the dirty bottom.

We were discussing a strategy going forward, how we could cash in our chips and just get through it. Try to enjoy the day as best we could and have some fun. Then one of our team members who has a truly indomitable spirit piped in, Chris Clapp said “We are going to have fun crushing ourselves in this insane weather on this monster of a course!!!! We will not be held down!!! WE WILL DRINK ALL THE DIRT!!!!”

All the sudden the 5 of us in the van were hooting and hollering. Our sprit its were lifted and we started running with a renewed vigor. 

Everyone’s second leg went better, we started to catch other teams which provided inspiration as we ran in the company of other humans and into packed transition area’s with runners who also suffering, but yet still smiling.

As dusk came, so did those massive thunder and lightning storms and one of our team members ran the most epic leg I have ever scene in my 13 years running this race. Issac started our last cycle of running with 11 miles and 1500′ of vertical up to the Killington Ski lifts in a storm that would down trees across the course (thank you rural Vermonters who chainsawed the treesfor us, keeping the roads open) and knocked power out in half of southern VT.

He did the whole thing with a huge grin on his face and finished with a yalp. We were truly inspired.

Everyone’s last legs were their favorites and extra effort seemed to pour out of everyone (reckon the lack of heat and cooler night air helped as well). 

We crossed the line in 8th place and 2nd old guys team. We finished the evening at dinner cheering robustly for every last team that came in. It was well past midnight before we stumbled across the parking lot to our hotel to see if anyone was still hanging out at the fire pit. 

It was another great example of how no matter how hard things can get in the race, your mental attitude towards the challenges you face will frame the rest of your race and your results. This group of teammates had over 75 marathons, 10 ultras & 5 Iron Men triathlons between them. And yet we still struggled mentally with doubt about or abilities on that day. With 1 inspirational salvo from a team mate, everything changed for us. The well we thought was empty, wasn’t. Belief was the only difference.

Stay strong mentally, even when things are not going well and positive results will follow.

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