“Are we there yet?” The dreaded whining question every parent hates to hear. It’s going to be a very long, long road trip when not even half an hour into a six hour drive the kids are asking, “are we there yet?” I’m sure you can recall just how long those road trips felt when you were the kid on the back asking that exact question.
Have you ever noticed just how quickly time flies when you’re not paying it any attention? And of course, it’s like watching paint dry when you’re keeping an eye on the clock.
We’ve all experienced this on a run. You will be able to recall runs where the time has simply flown by and your session feels like it’s over before it’s even started. So too, you will be able to recall runs that have simply felt like they’re never never going to end, and those can be as short at 30 or 45 minute sessions.
I have a hunch that the training sessions and races that have flow by are the ones in which you haven’t thought about how long you’ve been out there or how far you’ve gone or asked yourself, “how much further?” You’ve simply enjoyed being out there. While the training sessions or races that have taken forever and felt like they’re never going to end, have been the ones where you’ve looking at the watch not even 5 minutes into the run and hoping by some miracle to see 25 mintues on the watch face. Those runs are filled with endless nagging questions like, “are we there yet?”, or “how much further?”
One of the most benefiial skills we can learn as runners, and this incidentally can be applied with great impact on any area of our lives, is to learn the skill of staying in the moment.
Staying in the moment means to stay in the present. It means to be focused on and in the here and the now. The current breath, the current step, the current kilometer, etc, etc. Staying in the moment means not getting caught up in the worry or the fear of the future, or in this case, the finish line.
I always encourage my athletes to have running goals. Some goals are short term which may be a race wihtin the next few months to a year and some may be long term which may be a few years down the line. While having running goals is important and helps us stay motivated on a day to day basis, we have to be carfeul of losing grip with the present and becoming totally absorbed in the future goal.
It’s probably more helpful if I give an example. Let’s say you have a goal of running a marathon PB in 4 months time. It’s a big goal and it’s a goal that motivates and moves you into action each and every morning. But, all you think about is the goal. For the duration of every training session all you seem to think about is the race. You think about your race pace, you think about the distance, you allow yourself to be totally consumed by your goal.
What eventually begins to happen is that you start measuring each and every run against your goal. You start bashing yourself for not being able to run a certain pace when your goal pace is 30secs p/km faster than what currently feel a little like a slog. You start doubting your ability to reach your goal because you’re getting tired on long runs which are not even half the distance of your goal. The more you think about your goal, the more you bash yourself down, the more consumed and overwhelmed you become with your goal. Before long, you’re dreading your training runs, you’re hatting them and you’re really struggling to drag yourself out of bed.
Does this sound familiar to you at all?
The thing is this, when we allow ourselves to be consumed by the future, when all we think about and focus on is that end goal, we stop living in the moment and we miss out on the journey of getting there.
The goal is not going anywhere. You have it identified, it’s in your subconsious. For now, forget about it and just get through today’s session.
Staying in the moment is something that really takes a conscious effort at first, but it becomes easier and easier with time.
This is going to be a bit long winded, but allow me to give you a personal example of how I’ve learnt to stay in the moment and hopefully you’ll be able to adapt this into your own life experiences.
I last ran South Africa’s gruelling 90km road race, The Comrades Marathon, in 2012. Each year the direction of the race is alternated between running from Pietermaritzburg (inland, approx 600m above sea level) to Durban (on the coast at sea level) and Durban to Pietermaritzburg. Pietermaritzburg to Durban is known as the “Down run” and Durban to Pietermartizburg as the “Up run.” Although, both directions have some serious climbs and long pulls along the way.
2018 was confirmed as a down run and I had decided to enter the race in September last year when entires first opened. I had come out of a mediocre winter and needed a solid goal that would scare me back into a high level of consitency, Comrades was just what I needed.
However, things went anything except according to plan. I developed achilles problems in both heels. Usually an indication of overload (if it’s only one sided it’s usually an indicator of an imbalance), but in my case I was certainly not anywhere near overload. I felt the achilles had flaired up with the change from some inconsistency back to consistent weeks, anyway, at this point it wasn’t too much of a concern.
In November, 2 days before I was scheduled to fly out to the USA, I had a little phlemy cough. By the time I had landed in Florida it had turned into a nasty cough. I didn’t feel sick but was concerned that this might be the start of bronchitis or some other chest infection and so I stopped running for the remainder of my stay over there. I arrived back in Perth and had not got any worse and so started running again. Running was tough, I kept having these coughing fits, especially when I increased the pace or tried to do quality sessions. I decided to keep all my sessions at an easy pace.
Entering the new year, I had a few issues, 2 x painful achilles, an annoying and performance limiting cough, and I still needed to qualify for Comrades. In order to take part in Comrades you have to complete as a minimum a marathon or further. You have to be able to complete a marathon in under 5 hours and you are seeded at the start line based on your qualifying time. I had qualified with a sub 3 hour marathon for my last 3 Comrades, which meant an A batch seeding, lining up at the front of the field.
Qualifying for Comrades turned out to be a little tougher than I had anticipated. Coming from South Africa I was used to marathons taking place almost every weekend, on both Saturday and Sunday, from January through to May. This gives you a number of opportunities to qualifer if you need more than one for what ever reason. Turns out, I needed more than one opportunity. I had decided to use the Australind 50k as my qualifier for Comrades, and although my training had not been anything spectacular, I felt I could at least qualify with a B seeding over the 50k distance. 12km’s into the 50k I was hunched over the side of the footpath dry-heeving and wanting to throw up. My cough was winning the battle and there was no way I was going to get through a 50k in this state, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure what I had and was not prepared to risk my health over a 50k race. I bailed at the 25k.
I had one last option to qualify, it would mean a much later qualifier than I was used to, but I had no other options, Bunbury Marathon on the 8th April.
In the meantime I had gone to the doctor and been sent for a scan. Turns out I had heavily infected sinuses and 2 sets of antibiotics did absolutley nothing. Snorting sea water helped reduce the symptoms a little and at least meant I could keep the cough under control.
Friends, family and a number of coaching clients where at this stage asking me how my Comrades training was coming along and if I was ready for Comrades. My answer was an honest, “I’m not even thinking about Comrades at this point. I just need to be able to get through tomorrows run.”
And that honestly is what I was doing. I was getting up each morning and all I was saying to myself was, “just get through today’s run.” I get out the door and start my hobble (each run was a 5-10min hobble until the achilles eased off and loosened up) and then throughout the run I’d be saying to myself, “just get through this run.” I really wanted to run Comrades, but I wasn’t sure I could even complete a marathon. The day before Bunbury marathon I was unable to walk normally up 3 stairs at our accommodation, I had to walk up and down the stairs sideways because the achilles were both incredibly painful. A short 30-35min run, “just get through today’s run.”
The morning of the marathon, “just get through the warm up.” A hobbled start to an easy warm up, unsure if my legs would hold for a marathon. This had been one of my worst build ups to a marathon, my six “build” weeks looked like this: 45k, 102k, 102k, 82k, 85k, 98k. I set off for the marathon settling into a comfortable sub 3 hour pace. And then, instead of watching the distance or keeping an eye on the time, I focused on the stunning morning along the flat ocean. I focused on my breathing and on keeping a constant, comfortable pace. I concentrated on pulling the pace back. Anytime my mind watned to think about how far I’d gone or how much further I still had to go, I pulled myself back to now, “just get through this next km….just get through today’s run.”
Before I knew it, I was climbing the last hill, a quick forced stop at the top, with 600 meters to go, with a rough hammy spasm, and then a jog into the finish to qualify in 2h58. Way off PB, but an A seeding for Comrades.
I was in a slightly better position after this marathon with the right achilles disappearing following the marathon, unfortunatley the left was worse off, but I had qualified and at least that barrier was out of the way. The cough, while still annoying ,was managable as long as I kept snorting sea water.
I was behind in terms of where I needed to be. I needed to allow a week to recover from the marathon and then to build up as much mileage as I could in 5 weeks. I had no idea how the achilles would hold with mileage. But it was all or nothing, I had no desire to simply do the minimum in order to simply finish Comrades. I was going for Silver (sub 7h30) or nothing at all.
My focus during my 5 week build-up remained the same, “just get through today’s run.” That was all I thought about, that was all I focused on. Once I had completed 4 or 5 runs in my week, my focus shifted to, “just get through this week.” I never gave Comrades much thought, it was there in the back of my mind, but that’s where it stayed. It could simply not become a reality until I arrived in South Africa.
I certainly didn’t tick all the boxes in my build-up to Comrades, but it went extremly well. I never got sick and I ran some pretty decent mileage in the 5 weeks: 132km, 169km, 126km, 149km, 151km.
I landed in South Africa on the Sunday before race day and for the first time really allowed myself to start thinking about the race. I started to think about my race plan, my pace, how I would approach it, etc. On the Tuesday I drove the route…..I shat myself. It’s a scary route, the climbs and the descents are brutal, fear welled up inside of me, “I haven’t done any hill work, how am I going to run all these hills?”
I completed the drive, took a deep breath and reminded myself that I’ve done everything I could possibly do given the challenges leading to this point. I shifted my focus back to now and what I needed to buy and get ready before race day.
Throughout the week I managed to remain fairly calm. The night before I sat with my family and went over what I’d need on route, when I’d see them and what I’d need at each point.
The alarm went off at 2:30am and we were up and onto the road to get to the start. I had booked accommodation late, unsure of if I’d actaully be able to qualify, which meant we were 60km’s from the start. I wanted to be at the start by 4:30-4:40 so that I could do a warm up and get into the seeding pen. I figured if we left by 3:30 that gave us more than enough time to get there….I was wrong.
As we neared Pietermartizburg I noticed a lot of red tail lights in the distance and realised traffic was not moving. In an instant, we came to a griding holt. As we sat there time simply rolled on by. But something was weird, in the past I would’ve been freaking out, instead I sat there calmly weighing up my options, 1) I could get out the car now and have a longer warm up jog to the start, but we were still a little too far off for that, 2) I could wait a little longer and from the next offramp take a jog, but that was taking too long to get there, 3) The seeding batches will have closed by the time I get there and I’d have to start at the back of the field. I started to adapt my race plan if this likely scenario unfolded.
“It is what it is.” There was nothing I could do about it, and so I sat back and enjoyed a bit more time with my family trying not to think too much about the start or starting late. I’d worry about that later.
Eventually we got to a point where the traffic started moving. We got into the city centre and my family dropped me near the starting pens. With no time for a warm up I took a fast, short jog straight to the starting pen and lined up with the rest of my batch.
As with most runners, I always make sure I hit the loo before lining up for the start, but with the grid lock I was unable to. So, here I stood in unfamiliar territory, I had not been able to go to the loo….and I needed to, and I had not done a warm up….and given my achilles, I really needed to.
The gun set us off and I settled immediatley into my planned pace. 7K in, at the top of Polly Shortts I made use of the toilet and got startight back into my pace. In my mind I had broken the route up into very clear segments. Section 1: start to Umlaas (the highest point and approx 20km) – run well within yourself, it’s a tough climb out, you’ll be behind race pace. Section 2: Umlaas to start of Inchanga (40km), let the legs “spin”, get the pace up and float. Section 3: Inchanga to Hillcrest (55km), toughest part of the route with lots of climbing, run easy, fall up the hills. Section 4: Hillcrest to top of Fields Hill (70km), get the pace back and float down the downhills. Section 5: Fields Hill, keep it easy!! Real easy!! Section 6: Pinetown to finish (18k to go), pick up the pace if there’s anything left in the tank.
For the duration of the race I focused only on the section I was currently running. That was it. I never looked at the km boards as I passed them by. I never looked at anything on my watch except my current pace in order to make sure I wasn’t pushing in a section I knew I needed to keep it easy.
As I decended Little Polly’s (approx 12km’s in) I could see the highway in the distance, and from what I could see it wasn’t pretty. Tons of traffic, which meant I might miss my seconds at our planned spots which meant no psycological boost and no getting specific nutrition I had planned. I saw them at the first spot, 15km’s in, there were hundreds of people linning the street, more than I’ve ever experienced on Comrades. At the next spot, Camperdown, 24km’s in I never saw. This was a crucial spot where I had arranged to get a specific sandwich from them. At this point eating what works for me is important, if I miss this feed I end up nausious in the race (which is of course what happened). “No problem”, I thought, “I’ll see them at Cato Ridge (30km)…I didn’t. I had to adapt my nutrition plan. I only had one sachet of my carb drink with me and stated to ration that. And then decided to eat a banana in order to get something into my stomach. Fortunatley, I was able to see them again at halfway and could pick up again on my nutrition strategy.
I had managed to stay in the moment. The race flew by. That is, until I hit the 16km’s to go mark. For the first time in the race I though about the finish, that flooded my mind with how far I had run and still how far I had to run. Immediately I had a sinking feeling and a bit of a mental wobble. This lasted for a few km’s, until I caught myself and realised what I was doing. I immediatley brought my mind back to the moment, “just get through this next km….just keep this pace, it’s comfortable and the legs are good….just get through this next km.”
In no time at all I was over the final incline into the city and as I saw the stadium in the distance I was able to comfortably run 4:30p/km over the closing 4km’s. 6 years later with a route over 1km longer I was able to finish 19secs faster than my previous best in 7h14.11
That’s a long winded story, but staying in the moment throughout the journey made all the difference. It meant that training was no longer a slog and that I looked forward to my run each and every day. And by practicing the skill of staying in the moment during training meant that by the time the race arrived I knew exactly how to stay in the moment even when things didn’t quite go accoring to plan. It also meant that staying in the moment for smaller sections made 90km’s nowhere near as daunting as trying to consune 90km’s in one chunk.
This is no different for any race or goal you have set for yourself both in your running and your life. Teach yourself to stay in the moment and you’ll be amazed at the impact it has on your performance.