Yogi Berra famously quipped, “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.” The same could be said of running. Except, of course, the percentages are off.
Running is 99 percent mental.
I’ll be the first to admit I suffer from a mental hang-up or two. I always have. Once, when I was younger—say, 5 or 6—I threw up while I was watching The Lawrence Welk Show. (We didn’t have cable, so it was slim pickings on Sunday nights.) Of course, I had eaten something that disagreed with me. It didn’t matter. From that moment on, I understood the emetic effect of Welk and his orchestra to be gospel truth, and I broke out in a cold sweat every time the Lennon Sisters took the stage. Even dismissing the curious circumstance that I was 6 and a devout watcher of The Lawrence Welk Show, it’s a strange thing to believe.
Running, for its part, has opened a whole new universe of mental hang-ups. Running is the Wal-Mart of mental hang-ups. Hang-ups in Aisle 1! Hang-ups in Aisle 27! Hang-ups at every turn! Mere associations become cause-and-effect. At everyday low prices.
Seven years ago, I attempted a track workout after spending the entire previous day bedridden with the stomach flu. It was late July in St. Louis, and it was noon. I was prostrate on the track by the fifth lap.
And that was just the warm-up.
This disaster took place at Lafayette High School. It was almost three years before I could go back. In the interim, I trekked to Webster Groves, Maplewood, Marquette, Crestview, and Clayton—passing Lafayette on the way and adding extra miles to my commute—all because of my mental hang-up. The post-flu experience at Lafayette had been so bad, I could not separate my series of incredibly stupid decisions from the track itself. To me, Lafayette was the Lawrence Welk of running. I simply could not run a good workout there. (For the record, I have since reconciled with both Lafayette and Lawrence Welk.)
I have not, however, reconciled with yellow socks.
Years ago, after purchasing a Tweety-Bird-yellow pair of Balegas, I embarked on one of the worst runs of my life. I went home, gave the socks to my sister (I washed them first), and adopted the adage that
Roses are red
Like strawberry Jell-O.
And I can’t run fast
In socks that are yellow.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. What’s the difference between a mental hang-up and a superstition? Well, there’s a big difference! Superstition is an unjustified fear of an undesired and inexplicable outcome. Mental hang-ups are a justified fear of the recurrence of an undesired outcome.
In other words, I’m not superstitious. I’m traumatized.
One of my worst mid-race meltdowns took place in 2010 on the Katy Trail in St. Charles, during the old Lewis and Clark Marathon. After a glorious first 20 miles, I walked seven times from miles 23 to 26. I cried nine times—including at the 26-mile marker, where I started to walk and veer off course. A wonky stomach the night before (and the morning of) the race put me on the start line effectively dehydrated. By mile 21, I was empty. A couple of miles later, I broke down, though somehow I managed to finish. After the race, my sister led me straight to the medical tent where (purportedly) I asked her, “Do you have my bag?” seventeen times in a span of five minutes.
For years, I dreaded the Katy Trail. My powers of dissociation were no match for the staying ability of dehydration-induced delirium, and my knee-jerk response to references to the Katy Trail became almost Biblical as a refrain:
“Hey, Amy! Do you want to run the Katy Trail tomorrow?”
“DO YOU HAVE MY BAG?”
“I’m doing my long run on the Katy Trail.”
“DO YOU HAVE MY BAG?”
“The 5K starts on the Katy…”
“… HAVE MY BAG?”
But time heals most things. So does the 141/364 expansion into St. Charles. And with baby steps—and a few invitations from friends—I returned to the Katy Trail and made my peace.
It took 6 years. But still.
I can’t tell if I’m terrified or encouraged by how mental this sport really is. Maybe a bit of both. It’s crazy how a conversation with a friend or a timely shout of encouragement can bolster your strength just when you feel like giving up. Conversely, it’s maddening how a negative thought can spoil an opportunity to capitalize on the fitness you’ve worked so hard to achieve.
Exactly one year after my meltdown at Lewis and Clark, I ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll St. Louis Marathon. I cruised the first 22 miles only to hit a wall—hard—at 23. I couldn’t go on. Easing off my pace, I tried to comfort myself by calculating just how slowly I could run without the race being a total bust. I began to shuffle. I was done. I couldn’t go any faster.
At that very moment, a cyclist in official race gear pedaled up beside me.
“We’re bringing in the lead women,” he told me. “Right now, you’re in seventh. And sixth is 20 seconds ahead of you.”
I looked over at him.
I was just about to give up! I wanted to say.
Instead, I didn’t want to wimp out in front of an official-looking guy on a bike. So I ran faster.
And then I caught the sixth place female.
And then I ran faster.
And, somehow, mile 26 was the fastest mile of my race. By a lot.
Moments before, I was convinced I had nothing left. But after a word from a stranger on a bike, I realized I had been wrong. But how? How did everything change in an instant?
Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” It’s both a terrifying and an encouraging truth.
Roses are red,
And if you feel like slowing
Remember: It’s all in your head
And just keep on going.
… And don’t wear yellow socks.
(I added that last part, just in case.)
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story. Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.