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Strengthening Mind Power

Lynn Jennings

01.Nov.2010

Lynn Jennings Mudcross
Photo from very early in the 1991 Women's World Championship race: Lynn Jennings - 324, Liz McColgan - 111 (to Jennings' right), Derartu Tulu - in green directly behind Jennings.

Standing on a start line after months of persistent training is an act of bravery. You are ready to unveil the results of all of your hard work. During your training phase every long run, tempo run, track session and fartlek run was accompanied by the vision of how your dream race would unfold: mile splits would be ticked off with precision, hills encountered would be dispatched with ease, fatigue would be coped with and endured.

So what happens when you hit a rough patch mid-race and your dream starts falling apart? How do you cope with the reality of fatigue and the feelings of despondency and distress? Can you shift your mental focus so that you become re-engaged with your race? If you have been honing and strengthening your mental will, the shift to reengagement will become second nature. Our mental capacity is enormous. Learning to tap into it is as important a part of your training as the miles you log each day.

One of my most memorable races was one in which I was clearly sub-par. I was running in the 1991 World Cross Country Championships in Antwerp, Belgium. As the defending champion, all eyes were upon me. My competitors were focused on me and the sporting media was out in full force. Not five minutes into the race, I knew I was in trouble. There was a pesky side wind buffeting the course. Random sand-filled patches amidst the grass swallowed my spikes and left me spinning my wheels. I could not find my rhythm amidst the lead pack and I slowly started drifting toward the rear of the group. Worse, my arch-rival Liz McColgan from Scotland was lodged squarely in the middle of the lead pack. She had given birth to her first child eight weeks previous and she was on the hunt for a gold medal.

As the kilometers ticked past, I was barely hanging on to the eight frontrunners. There was clear daylight between them and me and I was engaged in a full-on mental fight within myself. The prospect of losing was becoming more real with every step. The indignity of my situation and my misery were dragging me down.

With one lap to go, I somehow heard my coach's voice from the perimeter of the course, "What the hell are you doing out there?" he yelled. It was enough to startle me into action. What was I doing out there? If I didn't pull myself together, I'd be looking at the headlines the next day: "Jennings Loses World Title."

I spent my entire career training alone, pushing myself daily with no company except my own thoughts. I had learned early how to keep my brain engaged when my training tasks were daunting. I was adrift of the leaders and running alone. I shifted my brain immediately and visualized myself running hard by myself on my favorite hilly course at home in New Hampshire. I started to push harder and I forced myself to catch up. I felt out of synch and not very fluid but none of that mattered any more. I had to get back within striking distance of the leaders.

With 300 meters to go, I pulled even with McColgan. With 200 meters to go, I launched my kick and blew past Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia. I reached the finish line with a 3 second margin over Tulu, with McColgan another second further behind to complete the podium. It was an ugly race but I had captured my second consecutive world cross country title.

Just like many physiological aspects of ourselves, we all possess will power in varying degrees. But the good news is that we can train our will in much the same way we train the rest of our body. It's the voluntary exercise of will to do the things we don't like that makes us tougher athletes and subsequently better performers. Select an activity you don't like: getting up early for a 30 minute run, circuit training, stretching. Begin by doing it two times a week. Progress to three times a week. Do this until your chosen activity becomes second nature. You will feel good about conquering an activity you had previously avoided.

Voluntary pain is something we can become familiar with and last longer at as well, though the approach is a bit different. We can develop our capacity to endure longer bouts of pain or increased levels of pain when we feel good about what we are doing. This attitude combined with years of repetition will inure your mind and enable you to deal effectively with distress.

You want to be the runner who is prepared for that moment of truth that comes in every race, that split second when your body and mind scream "Enough" and you must decide to go all out to break through that pain or to ease up and quit. In my race in Antwerp, I learned that I had the tools to conquer my distress and push through to victory. Exercise your will as you would a muscle, and you won't be disappointed either.