The Mental Battle

Running in the fog and haze of a humid morning
Running in the fog and haze of a humid morning

“Believe that you can run farther or faster. Believe that you’re young enough, old enough, strong enough, and so on to accomplish everything you want to do. Don’t let worn-out beliefs stop you from moving beyond yourself.” -John Bingham.

I have never done an activity that requires such mental focus and toughness until I began to run. I ran my first race in the 3rd grade. There’s not much self-talk that a 3rd grader needs to have when a race is only 3.1 miles. But now that I am 21 and running my first marathon, this “self-talk” is becoming increasingly important.

I love this quote by John Bingham. It may seem cheesy to those who aren’t runners, like just another cliche that runners hold onto. For me, it reminds me of certain runs, of certain days when all I wanted was to curl up on the side of the road and quit. When every muscle in my body screamed at me, when my mind yelled at me to walk. And yet I persisted. I told my body to suck it up and my legs to keep moving. I told my brain to get its act together and the negativity to take a hike.

Because there is a kind of strength in running that goes beyond muscles and endurance. It goes beyond energy packets and recovery drinks and Gatorade. It is a kind of fuel that goes beyond carbs, fats, and sugars.

It is the dreaded mental battle.

So far in my running endeavors, I have been able to escape the pressure to train my mind because the distances were manageable. They became easier and easier until 10 miles felt more like 5 and 12 felt more like 6. But this weekend I am gearing up for my first ever 18 mile run. People keep asking me if I am ready for this, and I’ve come up with a clever, yet authentic response.

Physically I am ready. Mentally I am terrified.

Because 18 is a huge number to someone who would rather hang out around the 9-12 mile range. And because I’ve never done 18 miles.

This is where the mental battle comes in. I’ve laid awake, restless, the night before a long run. I play out the scenarios in my head, and, 9 times out of 10, I have myself beat before I walk out the door. I don’t claim to be an expert in this area. I’ve yet to hit “the wall” as runners call it. I imagine that when I do every muscle in me will seize, and I will literally head butt a brick wall.

But what I am learning is this mental battle is more important than I could have ever imagined because I see it affecting other areas of my life. I am starting to talk to myself more on the run, telling myself to suck it up. “It doesn’t hurt that bad. You’re almost done.” “The only mile that is important is this one.” “Trust your training.” “Just wait, the marathon will feel much much much worse.”

Obviously some of these phrases are more helpful than others, but for the most part, I look for the silver lining.

“My shin does hurt, but it’s not the shin splint kind of hurt so that’s a good sign.”

“My feet feel like they could fall off at any moment, but the good part is, they definitely won’t.”

But what I am learning is this mental battle is more important than I could have ever imagined because I see it affecting other areas of my life.

Yes, things feel bad, look bad, hurt really bad, but it doesn’t feel, look, or hurt as bad as I think it does. The mind does an incredible job of assessing the body. So incredible, in fact, that it makes pains up. When I first think of taking a break and walking, I all of a sudden have a peculiar foot pain. When I just want to stop and rest, all of a sudden my breathing gets all weird.

So I have to reel in my mind. I have to redirect my thoughts. I have to truly asses the situation, not letting my mind dwell on little aches and pains.

And this is crossing over into other areas of my life. Recently I started my senior year of college. Things aren’t starting out how I thought they would. There are some unexpected changes and shifts, and when I let my mind dwell on them, I become filled with self-pity. But part of the mental battle is the story that you choose to tell yourself. When I am on a run, I can choose to tell myself a certain story about how everything hurts and my time isn’t what I want it to be. Or I can focus on the fact that I get to go for a run. I get to do something that other people wished they had the endurance to do. I get to enjoy God’s creation in a different way.

The same is true about my current reality. I could tell the sad story about how this year is shaping up to be a tough one. I could focus on the hurt and the struggles. Or I could focus on something different. I could tell the story about the countless friends who are walking through this with me, about the God who cares so much for me that he desires to grow me and mold me into the person he created me to be, about the family who encourages and challenges me in the midst of it all.

Winning the mental battle is as tough as training for a marathon. It is a process. It stretches even the strongest of runners. So if you find that you are struggling to win, ask yourself, “What stories am I telling about this run?” “What am I choosing to believe?” “Is my current reality as tough as my mind is making it out to be?”

And then come up with phrases to reel your mind in (more on this later). Repeat these to yourself over and over and over again. It’s OK to be the crazy runner who is talking to herself.

Most importantly, don’t let your mind win. Keep fighting.

Win the mental battle.



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