Dividing the Race

Everyone’s heard that old saying about races: “run the first third with your head, the second third with your legs, and the last third with your heart.” It’s a pretty good expression: in the first third, your legs are fresh and your adrenaline is pumping, so you need to use your head to make sure you don’t go out too fast. In the second third, you just relax into it and let your legs carry you. Finally, in the last part, your legs are dying and your mental stamina is also gone, so you need to remember the dreams and goals in your heart in order to push yourself. Thinking back on my recent PR in Anchorage, that’s pretty much exactly how I ran the race, so I suppose it’s a pretty good thing to remember.

But what about the days when you’re not looking to PR – you’re just looking to finish and not die? 26.2 miles is pretty far, and if you’re not motivated right from the beginning, it’s going to be a long run. I’ve found that the trick to getting through these races is to have a whole bunch of different ways to divide the race. If you can have multiple milestones, it’ll feel like you’re making more progress! Here are my marathon milestones:

Mile 1 – “Good job, now just 25 more to go.” That sounds like terrible inspiration, but it works well when the first mile is really easy and you can totally imagine doing it 25 more times. Plus, it’s hard at this point to comprehend just how many times 25 is.

Mile 6.5 – “Already 1/4 of the way done!” Surprisingly, this one doesn’t even work as well as the mile 1 mantra. That’s because by mile 6.5, you’ve probably already starting getting at least a little bored or tired, so being only 1/4 of the way done kind of sucks. But if you’re feeling great, use it to pat yourself on the back!

Mile 8.5 – “More than 1/3 of the way done!” See the notes for mile 6.5.

Mile 10 – “Halfway done!” Yes, I know a marathon is 26.2 miles, but I like to play tricks with my brain by telling it that certain portions of the race don’t count. For example, I like to consider 10 miles the halfway point in a race, because once you get to mile 20, you’re not giving up and you know you’re almost there – it’s all just about hanging on and forcing yourself to finish strong. Ergo, mile 10 as the halfway point.

Mile 13 – “Actual halfway point!” I don’t think a big explanation is really needed for this one, but it’s worth noting that while it’s technically the halfway point of the race, if you share my philosophy about the first 20 miles really being the ones that count, then you can tell yourself that it’s the actual halfway point but really you’re almost a third of the way through the second half of the race.

Mile 15 – “Halfway point of the second half of the race!” See mile 13 description.

Mile 16 – “Ten miles to go!” I’ve run a ten mile race in about 90 minutes before, so I like to pretend that I’ll be done with the whole race in 90 minutes. (Ha.)

Mile 17 – “Single digits!” Mile 16 is where I start counting down the miles to the finish instead of counting up the miles from the start, and it’s always fun when I can start counting in single digits. If I’m feeling especially perky, I’ll yell out something about only single digits left to all the other runners around me.

Mile 18 – No actual phrase, but I usually take a gel at whatever aid station is closest to mile 18, so that’s always fun. Mmmm, Gu…

Mile 19 – “One mile till I hit 20!” At this point, I stop pretending that the 20 mile mark is the end of the race. However, like “single digits,” it’s exciting to me to think that I’m about to break into the 20s instead of being in the teens.

Mile 20 – “10K to go!” I’ve run many 10Ks, and if you’re a marathoner, you probably have too. Well, that’s all that’s left to this race! You can be overweight and completely out of shape and still complete a 10K, so I remind myself that I am not overweight and I am not out of shape, and I can totally do it. (If there is a 10K in conjunction with the marathon, you can further remind yourself of this fact by noting the back-of-the-packers you’re probably passing at this point.)

Mile 21 – “4 miles to go!” No, that is not my marathon-addled brain getting confused about 26 minus 21. Remember how I used to pretend that 20 miles is the end of the race? Once I hit 20, it’s time to pretend that 25 miles is the end of the race. My reasons for pretending this are that 25 is a nice round number, that once you get to mile 25 there is no way in HELL that you are not going to make it to the finish line, and that even in the most desolate races, there are usually spectators in that last mile to cheer you on and remind you how close you are. (Yeah, let’s not talk about those awful spectators who tell you you’re “almost there!” sooner than this). Plus, if the finish is anywhere near the start, chances are you know the area around mile 25, and it will make you feel like you’re in familiar territory and just about there. Therefore, it’s time to start counting backward from 25 instead of 26.

Mile 22 – “3 miles to go!” See mile 21.

Mile 23 – “2 miles to go!” in conjunction with “5K to the actual finish line!” See miles 20 and 21.

Mile 24 – “1 mile to go!” and “2 miles to go!” Around here, I start having trouble believing that the race is done at mile 25, so I sometimes start counting down to 26 instead of 25.

Mile 25 – “1 mile to go!” (Again). But now it is actually just one mile to go, and that makes me feel a lot better. Plus, I usually start seeing familiar landmarks that remind me that the finish line is reallyreallyreally close.

Mile 25.5 – “Half a mile to go!” or “Two laps around the track!”

Mile 26 – “I can see the finish line! It’s just one lap around the track!” I also usually take this opportunity to kiss my hand, slap the 26 mile marker, and then gun it to the finish. Certain races like to foil this plan by not putting up a 26 mile marker, probably because you can see the finish anyway so they assume you don’t need it. I need it, darn it! Note to all race directors out there: spend the extra $10 to get a 26 mile marker.

Mile 26.2 – “My Garmin sucks, but look, there’s the finish line ahead!” Hopefully. The worst is when your Garmin is way off, and it’s one of those annoying races where you can’t see the finish line until you’re basically on top of it (ahem, Disney). Just hope that this is not the case.

FINISH! – “I can stop running now!” Truly the most positive thing I can think of at this point. Also, where is my ice cream and beer?

You’ll note that my affirmations are much more frequent as the race goes on, which is probably why I tend to think miles 1-10 are the worst of a race. If anyone has any ideas for giving myself positive reinforcement in the early miles, I’d love to hear them!

Comments

  1. I love seeing how others get through races on the mental side, especially in the limbo of around mile 15-17

  2. Something that I did was make a list of all the important people & events in my life – my fiance, my brother, parents, my upcoming wedding, graduations, best friend, etc. When the miles start getting tough I take out my list and dedicate a mile to someone. So for example, mile 12 is for my fiance, so for the next 11 minutes I’m thinking about him, how we met, the proposal, our last vacation and so on. Your mind will start to wander part way through and that’s ok because you’re keeping yourself occupied. That was some of the best marathon advice I’d ever received.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. It’s positive affirmation that I’m not crazy for tricking myself into thinking that a race isn’t as long as it really is!

  4. A marathon seems like 80% mental and 20% physical. I talk myself through some of the smaller races I run and tricking yourself definitely helps!!

  5. This is one of your more funny posts – I love to see the inner-workings of your marathon strategy! I usually don’t start counting down until mile 17, but until then, I am in mental lock down with the iPod on!

  6. This is great, I love it! I do this on my long training runs as well. It does help.

  7. I love this post! I’ve always wondered what gets you through your many marathons, so it’s really fun to get to read this. I can’t begin to do math while running–it’s like my brain is broken or something. Thus, I completely ignore the math until Mile 17, when I finally reach single digits. Ha, that one is pretty difficult to mess up!

  8. Yes, i love going throw all my mental encouragements during a race. It’s funny what we say to ourselves silently. After all, no one else can tell I’m thinking “why the hell did i sign up for another one of these?!” or “this hill is going to kill me” or when i’m feeling more positive, “i can do this.” “I’m gonna rock this hill.” “Dont. stop. yet.”

  9. I actually find your way of dividing up the race pretty logical. I have my own way of dividng the race into sixes because I like to count them as central park loops but whatever gets you to the finish…

  10. YES! I do something very very similar to this – all about fractions. Too funny.

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