Since I started coaching CrossFit Endurance last Fall, I've had countless conversations about running, racing, training, shoes, diet, marathons, CrossFit...the list goes on! I set a goal with my friend and running/training partner, Katie Russell, to start a blog so more runners and athletes could be a part of those conversations. So here it is, and there's no better topic to start with than the Houston marathon, which was now exactly one week ago!
Truthfully, when I signed up for the Houston marathon lottery, it was kind of an experiment. I've run a marathon before (last November in San Antontio) and followed a pretty long and organized training program from a book someone recommended. It was your traditional LSD (long slow distance) training, and it served its purpose. I completed the San Antonio marathon in around 4:40:00 without stopping to walk. When I signed up for Houston, I decided I would make myself a true test of a training method I think is pretty genius, CrossFit Endurance . I won't go into the specifics of the training because you can read about it yourself, but I will say that my longest "long run" during training was 10 miles, as opposed to the 18+ long runs I did during my previous training program. I spent around 3 hours a week running, rather than 5-7. I didn't develop any nagging pain or inflammation from overuse, and I gained a ton of strength from the weight bearing exercise that CrossFit workouts include.
The result? I finished the Houston marathon in 4:09:39 - roughly half an hour faster than my first marathon. I recovered quickly; I was able to do a light workout on the third day after the race. More importantly, my body felt unphased all the way through mile 20. What happened after that is what led me to name my blog "mile 21."
Marathoners will always tell you the race really starts after mile 20. I'm sure I'll learn something new with every marathon I run, but that's the lesson I learned during this one. My BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) was to finish in under 3:55:00. I felt like I could do it, but then there was mile 21, when I mentally started to shut down. Mile 21 (give or take a few miles) is the point in the race where runners meet the proverbial "wall." There's no real definition of the wall in a marathon, but you know when you hit it. Your pace slows against your will, because your legs feel like they've been injected with lead. Thoughts get a little fuzzy and you have to work extra hard to stay positive and focus. Muscle coordination starts to leave you, and if you're not careful, self-doubt completely takes over. The physical pain becomes next to impossible to ignore.
The biological science of the wall is the combination of a few things, but mainly depletion of your body's fuel reserves and central nervous system exhaustion - being mentally and emotionally tired. Some people may not agree, but I say that the last 5-6 miles of a marathon are entirely dependent upon mental toughness.
I read an article in the January 2012 issue of the CrossFit Journal about building Mental Toughness, and I thought the definition was pretty inspiring:
..."the ability to continue according to plan in a way that is in line with your values even though negative thoughts and emotions are pulling you in another direction. Or, in layman’s terms: The ability to get present and move forward in a stressful situation."
Honestly, I think the mental toughness I've built through CrossFit workouts and competitions in the past year is what made the difference for me in shaving 30 minutes off my marathon time. Obviously I believe in CrossFit Endurance training and programming. Even the running form we coach saved me a lot of pain during the race. But at mile 21 of a marathon - when you meet the wall - mental toughness, focus, positivity, and a relentless will to fight are the only things that will get you across the finish line.
I saw one sign around mile 20 of the race that I will never forget. It read, "Make the wall your B*TCH!!!" We meet all kinds of walls throughout our lives. What if we had that attitude about those walls, too? ;)