by Coach Roy Benson
from Run & See Georgia Magazine. November 1993
That running a marathon is difficult is a verity beyond question. How much of the difficulty is physical and how much is mental is the real
question. For the marathon, I am willing to make concessions in my strongly held belief that running is 90% physical and only 10% mental. In the marathon the split probably approaches 50/50%.
And why this radical departure from conventional thinking? Mainly because the marathon is a "thinking" runners race. You must use
mind over matter right from the first of your estimated 12,500 to 25,000 steps. There is no room at the starting line for emotional runners who will run the way they feel. Because of the obvious need
to pace oneself over the entire 26.2 miles, most of the first 15 to 20 miles should, in fact, feel pretty easy. If you run a marathon faster than you're trained to run because "it feels so easy," once the actual race starts, the dreaded wall awaits you. You will simply use up one of your vital and limited supplies of energy (muscle glycogen) prematurely
before you reach the finish. When that happens you have no choice but to slow down as your muscular system switches to slower burning fat as its remaining source of fuel.
Physiology and biochemistry aside, if you run too fast too early, the wall awaits you. When you crash into it, your only alternative is to slow way down and painfully slog your way to the finish. That it will take an almost superhuman physical and mental effort to get there is beyond question. The real question is how to avoid this agonizing
situation in the first place.
The answer is to use your head from the very beginning. You must use your mind to talk yourself into sticking with your pre-race pacing plan. Do not listen to your legs and heart. They cannot be trusted under any circumstances. They will lie to you by insisting that your pace is too slow . . . that you can pick it up ... that magic is in the air and today you
are exempt from nature's physical laws. B.S.!!! Don't believe them for a second. Trust only' your head. Listen only to your mind.
But first you must practice this fine art. You must practice this mental exercise in your workouts just like you take your heart and legs out for a spin around the track or neighborhood. Here's my favorite technique for preparing my runners for the mental discipline required of successful marathoners.
Each week. for one of your hard workouts, go to the track and after warming up, run an interval workout of four repeat l-mile runs with a one lap jog recovery interval after each mile. Use each separate mile run to imagine what you will physically and mentally experience during the following four sections of the race.
The First Mile Repeat = Section 1 thru 8 Miles
Run this one at the incredibly easy pace of one full minute slower than your planned marathon pace (PMP). Use your grade school math to calculate how fast (slow) you are supposed to run each lap and then divide that by four to see how slow you should run each of the four curve and straightaway sections of the track. (Each section is generally 100 meters of the usual 400 meters per lap running track. For your purposes 1600 meters is the same as a mile.) Figure out what your time should be for the first 100 meters and time yourself. If you arrive there too soon, stop. Turn around and walk back to the start. Tell yourself over and over that you WILL slow down and get it right this time. Use this opportunity to tell yourself over and over again that this is how easy it is going to feel on race day when you start running. Tell yourself over and over again to keep the brakes on, to ignore everyone else
around you, to run your own race. Practice restraining yourself, in all the excitement, from getting caught up in the rush to the first mile
marker. Woe awaits you if you don't listen to your head. Take your recovery lap even though it may be faster than the mile you just jogged.
The Second Mile Repeat = Section 9 thru 15 Miles
Run this mile right at your PMP. Again practice restraining yourself from running faster because it seems so easy. Use the same math to figure out your split times for each 100 and 400 segment. Run the
first 100 meters over until you get it right. As you walk back, keep telling yourself that this is the most dangerous section of the race. Here, even if you successfully retrained yourself during Section One,
is where you might experience MIDDLE MILE MANIA, running's version of Rapture of the Deep. This 7-mile section of the marathon is usually where the proverbial Runner's High seduces you with it's sweet feeling of bliss. Here is where your endorphins will kick in. Here is where your legs are really loose and relaxed, your oxygen plentiful and
your glycogen stores still available to support a subtle, but significant, increase in your pace. Don't do it! Discipline yourself with imaginary
conversations featuring warnings about listening to the split times and-staying on pace. Tell yourself not to wander out over the precipice above the bottomless blue of deep feelings about your limitless ability to float down the course. Run this one mile in practice as if your life depended upon doing it correctly. Well, at least as if your happiness
depended upon it. Cool your jets.
The Third Mile Repeat = Section 16 thru 22 Miles
Run this mile at your current 10K race pace. That's right. Run seriously this time and get a little tired. Even though you will be breathing much
harder than in the actual marathon, the experience will still be valid because you want to feel some real leg fatigue now. This part of the workout is designed to teach you how to begin dealing with the
accumulating fatigue that, even if you correctly paced yourself, is bound to start showing up somewhere during this section of the race. Twist your resolve knob up to 7 or 8 and use Self-Talk to keep plugging along. But watch out for pleas from your heart and/or legs to just ease up a bit. Ignore these initial feelings of being sorry for yourself when you realize that there will still be four more miles to go. Warn yourself over and over that this how it's going to feel if you actually go out too fast in the race: serious fatigue is going to get you.
The Fourth Mile Repeat = Section 23 thru 26.2 Miles
Now suck it up and be tough. Run this mile at your current 5K pace. Damn right it won't be easy. But who said that finishing a marathon would be easy? Enjoy some mental toughening of the First Order. Show those paragons of mental toughness, those football players practicing on the field that you're running around, what real discipline can do in the fight against the Fatigue Monster. Runners don't slow down at the end of their run and then drag over to the sidelines and suck on an oxygen tank. Runners can't stop after only 100 measly
yards. At this point in the race, you marathoners may still have as many as 7,040 yards to go when you feel as dead as that poor lineman who just sprinted 100 lousy yards. Practice being mentally tough. Deny the pleas from your legs to just slow down for a minute or two. Don't listen to them beg you to back off until they can recharge themselves.
There's no glycogen ammo left to re-charge with, so ignore the sorry blokes. They lied to you during the early going by telling you that the pace was too easy, that you could pick it up after all. Are you going to fall for their sophistry again? Don't be a bigger fool. Keep going and just promise the Good Lord that if She just gets you out of this fix that
Ollie got you into, you'll never do this again. Lie to yourself. Say anything to keep yourself going. Remember the faster you go, the sooner all the agony will be over.
Oops, you caught me lying to you. That last statement can't be true since you can't pick it up once you've hit the wall. Well, I warned you not to listen to just anybody who comes along. Trust only your head. Listen only to your mind. The rest of us may just be joking you. If you can't tell the difference, don't enter any marathons. The wall loves fools like you.
The Mind of the Marathoner
Amelia Island Runners is proud that nationally known running coach Roy Benson is a member of our club and an active volunteer. He provides free individual coaching advice at our Wednesday group runs and works with our 1st Wind Runners youth running group, and with the FBHS cross country team. Now Coach is sharing his decades of knowledge with us in written form -- with this column written especially for AIR.