You vs. You: The Mind Games of Running

I stood there at the foot of the looming ascent, dreading the (seemingly) endless sets of hill repeats before me and trying desperately to conjure up a legitimate reason why it would be better if I did not, in fact, run the required workout. I imagined all sorts of disconcerting mid-run scenarios, most of which involved the end of my existence.

This is going to be awful, I thought as I toed the imaginary start line. This is going to hurt… and what if I can’t hit my times? What if I’m not as fit as I thought? What if I’m not as fit as I need to be? I shook my head. Ugh. This is going to hurt.

Let the games begin!

I am sad to say my Hamlet-esque soliloquy is a familiar monologue, one I perform before every tough workout, long run, and race. Steeped in self-doubt and fearing the pain and discomfort of the task before me, I take myself out of the running—no pun intended—before the gun even goes off.

Because running is mental. Very mental.

Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” As far as I know, Ford wasn’t a marathoner, but for a man who tinkered on cars and revolutionized industry with such novelties as the assembly line, he provided some biting insight for runners. Namely, the fine line between victory and defeat rests not in our opponents, not in the course, not in the elements, but in our own heads. Sure, we have to put in the miles, we have to put in the time. But ultimately, success or failure is a decision we make before we take our first step.

NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Chris Carter was interviewed the day his former Vikings teammate Randy Moss announced his (fake out!) retirement. During the interview, Carter recounted how Moss, a rookie, called him on the first day of training camp.

“Chris,” he said, “I’m going to be the best ever. I want you to show me what I need to do to be the best ever.”  

Mighty bold way for a rookie to address a man with “HOF” written next to his name. Yet, the phone call turned out to be prophetic. That year, Moss scored an incredible seventeen touchdowns—a rookie record. He averaged nineteen yards per catch. Per catch. He was the undisputed Rookie of the Year and a starter in the Pro Bowl.

Carter went on to say that every time Moss stepped on the field, he knew he was the best. He’d tell everyone he was the best. And he was the best.

Mike Golic, the former NFL defensive tackle who was conducting the interview, added, “I was not the best, but I felt like I was. At the NFL level, everyone thinks he’s the best. It’s just the way it is. It’s the way it has to be. It’s just the mentality of elite athletes.”

And therein lies the crux of the issue.

You can win or lose a race in your head. You can win or lose a race before you even cross the start line. You can blow a workout, sabotage a tempo, or kill a long run before your Garmin has a chance to locate those ever elusive satellites.

I have never gone into a race thinking, “I’m the best.” (This may or may not be because I’ve never gone into a race as the actual best—or anything even close to the best. But I digress.) Most of the time, I approach tough runs with such helpful baggage as doubt, misgivings, inferiority, and dread.

But as runners, we need to have a little Randy Moss swagger. No, we don’t have to showboat or trademark our own end zone victory dance. No, we don’t have to broadcast our PRs or boast to the world that we’re the best. Because that’s not the point. We don’t have to convince the world.

We have to convince ourselves.

Running provides a very unique sphere in which we can truly push our limits and see just how far or fast (or both) we can go. In running, we can really go for it. Yes, it takes guts just to start. Yes, it takes guts to finish. But to do our best, to really see what we’re capable of, we have to have some swagger as well.

The next time you’re staring down the proverbial gun barrel of a race, speed workout, or long run, be the best. Be cavalier. Don’t just walk up to the start line. Strut there.

And don’t forget you guts and swagger.

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