How An Average Runner Qualified for the Boston Marathon Part 5: Mindset

“When you make a choice and say ‘come hell or high-water, I am going to be this,’ then you should not be surprised when you are that. It should not be something that feels intoxicating or out of character because you have seen this moment for so long that…when that moment comes, of course it is here because it has been here the whole time because it has been [in your mind] the whole time.” — Kobe Bryant

This is the last installment in my series of how an average runner finally — after four plus years and seven marathons — qualified for the Boston Marathon. As I previously wrote, I did three things in one year of working with a trainer that helped me to BQ: changed from heel strike to a midfoot strike; ran less (and did more of everything else); and did speed-hill-agility training. The final piece was mindset.

Listen, I obviously had some determination and belief in myself to have even come up with this crazy goal and to keep trying to BQ after all these failed years and attempts. But not gonna lie, by October 2015, I was starting to have serious doubts. My body was breaking down, and I was not only continuously injured but developing new injuries. I also was seeing less and less improvement in my times despite running more miles than I ever had. Things were not looking good for your girl. But when I started working with my new trainer that month and told him my goal and how much time I had to take off to qualify, the guy didn’t blink; just started to get to work. Seeing him unfazed, and knowing he had worked with some serious athletes, got me to thinking that there wasn’t anything horribly damaged about my running or lacking in my ability that would preclude me from getting that magic number. If Trainer didn’t think it was impossible, maybe it really was possible.

As someone who loves listening to podcasts and reading books on running and high performance athletes, I had read/heard about visualization. So that part of the mental aspect I had done before. I had definitely imagined myself running the last .2 miles of a marathon, pumping my fists enthusiastically, and seeing that BQ time, knowing that I was going to Boston. So the visualization aspect of mindset wasn’t the issue. It was that deep down I didn’t have the confidence or real belief that I could do it. That lack of faith was understandable — after all, I had never come close to a qualifying time, nor did I know what it was like to run for an extended period of time the pace I would need to run in order to qualify. But how do you get to believing in something you have have never done or even come close to doing? Well, rather than thinking myself into being faster, I trained the mind through the body.

There’s a saying that goes “You can’t think yourself into right action, but you can act yourself into right thinking.” Great principle, and I have practiced it successfully in other areas of my life…only I couldn’t get myself to act in a manner that would get me to qualify for Boston. I will push myself to about a level 7 or even 8 out of 10. Pretty solid, but again, not enough to get that BQ. So that’s where having a trainer is invaluable. Trainer pushed me that extra 2-3 points in our outdoor workouts. There were times where I literally thought I was going to pass out in my hill sprints and track workouts. I started seeing spots and would get lightheaded; I had never felt like that before! And yet Trainer never let up, and I, in my Asian-student-desiring-to-please-teacher manner never stopped, never puked, and surprisingly never passed out. I did all the outdoor workouts. These sessions were so difficult that for the first time ever my races were easier than my training. During those tough stretches in a half or full marathon, I would just say to myself (and know to my core) “those hill sprints were way tougher than this” — and push through. I had a vault of mentally and physically demanding workouts that I could draw upon during the difficult moments in a race. In that BQ year, I PRd all three half marathons and of course my marathon. Racing became mentally easier for me because I had faced more mentally challenging circumstances in training.

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Another shift in mindset was running fearlessly. Well that’s…vague. Ha. So what that looked like was going balls out from the start in my track workouts. As a distance runner, I am naturally wired to save something for the end, to want to have a kick. I mean isn’t everyone’s dream to negative split their race? I had to try to undo that thinking in track, which was definitely easier said than done. It’s scary going out fast with no regard to whether you’ll be able to hold on and have enough at the end — what if I, I don’t know, die? What if I die??? That’s what it felt like. But Trainer kept drilling it in me to not hold back (i.e., run fearlessly), and though I’m a distance runner at heart, and still probably held back a little, I did attempt to take the brave leap to throw caution to the wind and just GO. In fact, one track workout where he told me we had 8 reps, I remember consciously holding back in the 7th rep because I wanted to save something for number 8, and Trainer cut short the workout. He said it was clear I was done. He knew I wasn’t done; I knew I wasn’t done. But I learned my lesson: never save it for another rep because there may not be another rep.

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So the eve and morning of the Revel Canyon Marathon, I found myself strangely peaceful. A month prior, I had not even planned for going for a qualifying time. My last marathon run over a year prior had me at a 4:32 marathon time (my PR was 4:25), and my original goal was to try for 4:10, which is a solid PR. However, Trainer kept bugging me to go for the BQ and aim for sub-4:00. That sounded nuts! PR by 25 minutes on my first marathon in a year? When I had only been able to take off a total of 5 minutes over the last four marathons I had run?!? But he wore me down to the point where I began to entertain the idea, and I told him I would start with the 4:10 pacer, and if I felt good, I would go for it. The night before the marathon, I felt open to Whatever. I was not going to let any prior limitations based on my own fears or past races stop me from running a great race. This is the bible verse that came to mind:

“And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.” — Hebrews 12:1

I was going to run the race that was set before me. Maybe I was fast enough to run a sub-4:00…Why not?

I was calm all during the morning of the race. I know this is crazy, but I kind of knew I would qualify, which is insane because there was nothing in my marathon history that would give me reason to think this. Even when things started to get funny before and during the race, I still didn’t get thrown. It all seemed part of the plan. There was supposed to be a 4:10 pacer, but Revel Canyon is a small race and the pacers were disorganized and there was no 4:10 pacer, so I made my first bold move and joined the 4:00 hour pace group — not the 4:15 pace group. It was the first indication that this might be my day to go fast.

Off we went. The first thirteen miles of the course are a fast downhill; however, I was not prepared for how fast. I had done a downhill course before where I was pleasantly surprised at the easiness of that stretch of mileage, but this was not a relaxed pace. This was a chance — if you were brave enough — to literally charge down a mountain. When the pacer decided to hang back because the pacer in the group ahead of us couldn’t go faster and admonished us to slow down, I made bold decision no. 2 and left the pace group. And flew down the mountain. In fact, one guy yelled at me to slow down. Ha. I only glanced at my watch a few times, and to be honest the paces I saw scared me because they had the number “7” as the starting number. I never ran 7-something miles. But I felt great, so I went for it.

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It was during these miles that those track workouts where I learned to go out fast and just use guts to hold on came into play. I ran fearlessly. And when I hit miles 14-20, and the aggressive downhill turned into rolling hills, and every runner around me looked like they were running through sand, those grueling hill workouts kicked in. Revel’s undulating hills were no match for the hill sprints I had done with Trainer. I stayed calm and steadily got through them. I eventually bonked at mile 20 when my entire body started cramping, and that’s where I had to dig deep to finish. Psshh. No worries. The last 150 meters of those 600m track workouts were a similar misery, and I had survived those.

While the image I had of me finally achieving a BQ involved me with a final push and pumping fists during the last .2 miles, in reality I found myself unable to lift my arms (my forearms had cramped!) and doing a death shuffle. I honestly didn’t even know for sure if I had qualified until I found the results table. But I think my face in the photo shows all the gratitude and happiness because in that moment I was pretty sure I had done it.

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Another saying that has stuck with me is along the lines that races are 90% mental and the other 10% is in your mind. It started as a crazy idea that someone like me could one day run a fast enough marathon to qualify for the Boston Marathon. But that was just the beginning. Somehow I had to find the confidence, toughness, and fearlessness to run that BQ race. Those were not qualities I could conjure up on my own. So I had to work with someone who could instill that in me by doing the intense workouts that forced me to push past my perceived capabilities and forced me to abandon old ideas about my limits to finally get that elusive BQ time. In fact, I qualified by over 7 minutes. Yup, I went from running a 4:25 marathon to a 3:52 in one year. At age 49. Crazy.

So there you have it. Train hard (really REALLY hard), race easy. And run free, friends. Good luck — your BQ is waiting for you!

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