The Mind Races

In a marathon, what a runner thinks about can make all the difference

Health & Fitness

October 12, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Deborah Barnett of Columbia can run -- well enough to finish the Marine Corps Marathon in a tidy 3 hours, 2 minutes. Yet, her coach has this tendency to say the same thing to her again and again, often while tapping gently on her head:

"If I can just get you squared away from the neck up, you'll be fine" goes the phrase, as Barnett and her running mentor Mick Slonaker recall it.

Ah yes, the head game. While spectators at Saturday's Baltimore Marathon watch legs and arms pumping, shoulders set and faces in sundry expressions of anguish and ease, much of the action lies elsewhere, hidden beneath so many Fila caps, or somewhere between the noggin and the seat of human determination.

In the case of Barnett, who is not running in the Baltimore Marathon this year, Slonaker says the head game involves a struggle with expectations, complicating her attitudes about competing. She likes running more than racing, he says, and sometimes that stands in the way.

Because as runners, runner-psychologists and coaches tell it, the marathon is nothing if not a test of conviction.

On paper, Saturday's runners will follow a circuitous and hilly urban route from Paca and Pratt streets: north on McCulloh, south on St. Paul, west on Key Highway, east on Eastern Avenue and so on, circling back to finish near Oriole Park at Camden Yards. In more subjective terms, the serious runner follows another course, to some degree uncharted, beating a path to the epicenter of the human will.

If non-runners wonder exactly what these marathoners are made of, this is the same question the runners ask themselves. And they ask it again and again -- every time the starting gun fires. Bound for some inner territory, the marathoner asks: Really, what have I got? Who am I, anyway?

Cliches about self-discovery apply. Or, as Yogi Berra famously said in reference to a different sport, the game is "90-percent mental. The other half is physical."

South African physician and running sage Dr. Timothy Noakes puts it this way in his book, Lore of Running: "Even in the most crowded races the point is reached when fatigue drives us back into ourselves, into those secluded parts of our souls that we discover only under times of such duress and from which we emerge with a clearer perspective on the people we truly are."

Mental training

Jim Adams, who owns the Falls Road Running Store in Baltimore County, says the conversation about the psychological dimension of a marathon is apt to focus on the tail end of the event, seeing as how marathoners have their own turn on Yogi's arithmetic. Each marathoner has his own experience of the event, but a common wisdom says the marathon breaks into two "halves": the first 20 miles and the rest of it.

"The first 20, for most people, it's a stroll in the park," says Adams, nearly 48, who has finished 18 marathons since he started running the event in 1994. Note the runners chatting and joking with each other as they stride off the starting mark, says Adams. Note that things will likely change along the way.

The runner who has trained hard has for months been putting in 40, 60 miles a week, perhaps more. He's done the weekend 20-mile runs. The training builds confidence.

"A lot of the training is to prepare yourself mentally," says Lee DiPietro, 45, of Ruxton, who finished second among women in last year's Baltimore Marathon and plans to run again this year. "A lot of it is the power of your mental state. How you can break it down and make it seem more doable."

Consider it four 10K races, perhaps. Cut it up in digestible portions. Set realistic goals within the race. Visualize the race and run it in your mind. Physically and psychologically, the training builds a platform. The runner pushes off it, falls back for support. He tells himself: I have done the work. He tells himself again: I have done the work. Physically, I'm ready.

Then comes post time.

"When you stand in the line and the gun goes off, it's mental," says Barbara Walker, a marathoner and sport psychologist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

For all the planning, for all the marathon experience the runner may have, and for all the predictability that a mapped 26.2-mile course suggests, that step off the starting line still represents, to some degree, a step into the unknown. The runner is about to do something God may not necessarily have intended human beings to do.

"Something's going to happen, especially in the last six miles," says Walker. Even if the so-called "wall" of endurance is widely considered a function of training and nutrition more than some mysterious law of the physical universe, the runner can probably count on untoward happenings.

"You're going as hard as you can knowing that, for a short time period, you're really going to be hurting," says Troy Jacobson, an official trainer for the Baltimore Marathon.

Muscles tighten. Quadriceps ache. Old, minor injuries flare. Glucose levels drop. Fatigue sets in. Perhaps the body is saying something. Something like: STOP ALREADY.

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