Tuesday, September 16, 2008


What is it that drives us to do better? Why is it that sometimes we can't even though we think we can. I have read several articles and books about motivation and how much of success is actually attributed to mindpower - setting stretch goals, having positive thoughts to pull you through, repeating a mantra, visualization. To read about it and to actually do it are two different things. I tried and used all of these techniques and I can attest that they work, but what happens when you need more?

In September 2006 I ran my first marathon. The Montreal International marathon. Despite following a training plan and visualizing the course (I am from Montreal so I was already familiar with the route and landmarks), I was not prepared for the mental challenges this first race would throw at me....To be among thousands of runners at the start in the middle of the Jacques Cartier bridge was both impressive and intimidating. Even though it was a sunny fall day, it was cold and windy up there. I was wearing a singlet and shorts and had goose bumps up and down my arms and legs. There wasn't much room to move so I just hopped up and down to try to keep warm. I figured I could do the marathon in just over 4 hours so I squeezed into a spot between the 4:00 and 4:30 pace bunnies. I had read about pace bunnies before but never actually saw one. They were easy to spot with the ears...cool, I thought. "I just make sure I stay between them and I'll reach my goal". Off goes the gun and...nothing. It was a good few seconds before our end of the human wave started to shuffle forward. I remember remarking to the guy beside me that at this pace, we'll never finish. I also remember seeing the variety of physiques all around me - there were young and old, slim and large, tall and short. I thought if these people could do it, why can't I? As we picked up speed running down the bridge and swung onto the ramp descending on Ile Ste-Hélène, I tried to find some running room by passing and winding my way forward. I was running at a comfortable pace right behind the 4-hour bunny and felt good. I had prepared my hydration strategy so I skipped by the first water station, opting to drink from my own bottle instead. I had one in each hand to keep me balanced. I figured the first bottle would be empty by kilometer ten which would free up my hand to eat a power bar. Everything seemed to be going as planned. I passed the halfway point and felt strong thinking my training was paying off. I looked at my watch and saw that I was at 2:11. That meant if I kept it up, I was going to finish between 4 and 4:30 as planned. I grabbed some water in a bottle on D'Iberville and picked up the pace down the hill toward de Maisonneuve. There were actually people cheering on De Maisonneuve which was a boost. Someone said I had a good pace and to keep it up. Then the fellow in front of me stopped suddenly and said he had a stitch, as I passed him, I told him to take slow deep breaths to try and make it pass. Then we turned and headed up Berri. It is a steady climb of about 25m over 800m the last of which is an underpass with a steep ascent on the far side. I remember passing an old man carrying two American flags running in honour of the fallen 9/11 first responders and congratulating him. When I reached the crest of the hill, I was tired. We veered right and continued another ascent in Le Plateau Mont Royal area which went up for 4 kilometers. I began to get heavy legs at this point. By the time I reached the peak at St-Laurent and Bellechasse I had nothing left. I had not anticipated how much this ascent would take a toll on me. I still had 10 km to go and was determined to finish but my pace was much slower now. I stayed motivated by telling myself to "just run to the next corner", "to the next marker", "to the next water station", etc. At marker 35 I started doing 10 and 1's. At marker 37 I was a few hundred meters from the Stadium entrance but the course veered left and brought us around the Botanical gardens. One more ascent up Pie IX to Rosemount. Here I was passed by many people. I continued to run/walk. Once on Rosemont, I more or less stumbled forward the rest of the way to the finish. I entered the stadium and saw myself running around the track to the finish line on the big screen. It was a wonderful feeling to finish.

Fast forward to 2008. In the span of those 24 months, I had since run four more marathons and had even qualified for Boston with a time of 3:20 in Ottawa in May. I wanted to try and beat that this time around in Montreal. My training was much more structured, I was familiar with the course and the difficult spots, I had the confidence of faster times, and I even had a better race strategy. What I couldn't control was the weather. This time around, it was raining. I had a garbage bag on to keep me warm at the start. About one kilometer into the race, I ripped it off and continued. Around Ile Ste-Hélène and Ile Notre Dame, most of my attention was focused on my feet to avoid stepping in puddles. I maintained a steady pace and eventually passed the 3:30 pace group at about the sixth kilometer. Running by Habitat 67, the wind picked up and I was getting chills. I drafted behind a few people but their pace wasn't steady so I had to pass them. Someone else from Team in Training caught up to me and we ran together and chatted for the next 10 km past the halfway point (1:42). Not bad at all. I had been training on hills, doing negative splits on my long runs and had been running conservatively so far. I should be able to do a faster second half to finish under 3:20. I tackled the Berri and St-Laurent ascents without much effort and then made my way down de Lorimier toward Sherbrooke. I passed the Team in Training support group at marker 35 and still felt strong albeit I had started to slow my pace. My fellow participant had pulled ahead before the ascent and I could no longer see him. It was very humid and I just couldn't seem to kick it up a notch as I had planned. I decided I would continue on and accelerate once I reached the top of Pie IX. I passed several people on this ascent but by then I had lost ground and the 3:30 pace group overtook me about halfway up the hill. Do I stay with them and risk burning out or do I continue at my pace? I decided to let them go. As I rounded the corner, I had lost them. I then tried once more to accelerate. I must have passed 40 or 50 people in the last 2 km of the race, but I could not catch up to that group. I felt as though I was running as fast as I could but it was nowhere near as fast as my tempo runs or speed drills. 3:36. While I finished over an hour and six minutes better than my first Montreal marathon, I feel my training somehow came up short. Why couldn't I maintain an even split or better yet, post a negative split as planned? Why did I let those negative thoughts take over and convince me to not accelerate sooner? Was it my mind not letting my body do it or was it my body telling my mind I couldn't do it? If it is my mind holding me back, what do I have to do to overcome this apprehension? This is what I have to figure out if I want to beat this course next year.

Keep on running....