It’s all in the head (as well as the legs)

Sporlab/Upsplash

On Sunday, 14 November, I made my way through the crowd of runners bunched up with their friends, stretching, downing gels, pinning on race numbers, and queuing for the portaloos. As I found the registration tent to the side of an increasingly churned up field, I was stopped by familiar faces asking if it would be the 10km or 20km route for me, and then promptly wishing me the best of luck (“you’re going to need it!”) when I replied the 20km.

Having spontaneously entered Freedom Racing’s Penrose Woods 20 km race, I felt relatively relaxed when I woke up on that Sunday morning; this would be like any other long run day. I’d done further the previous week, and I’d get free “multifunctional headgear” out of it. I was looking forward to it. I was calm. That was until I actually arrived at the start line.

I began to suspect that the race was going to be difficult when a very experienced runner from my local club looked nervous. This was then corroborated by other runners expressing relief at entering the 10k (“glad I’m not you”). I went from the usual anticipatory, excited chatter in my head, to full-blown doubt in moments. Despite having raced before and done the distance before, the same thoughts that I wouldn’t be able to run, that I wouldn’t finish, that I would embarrass myself, injure myself, kept repeating themselves in my head as I too stretched, pinned on my race number, and queued for the portaloos.

a culture within sports that acknowledges the significane of the mind on performance is gradually emerging

I was at the start line at 11am, running a minute later, caught up amongst the 10k runners speeding down the road around me. It’s a strange, and familiar, sensation to be physically able to run – to do anything really – and for that to have no bearing whatsoever on whether you can do it or not. For me, running is perhaps as much as 70% mental, and as little as 30% physical. If I want to run, believe I can run, and stay in this positive mindset, it matters very little what my body is doing. Conversely, if I feel down, doubtful, or anxious, telling myself I can’t do it, it wouldn’t matter if my body was in the best condition of my life, I wouldn’t be able to run. Of course, this relationship is not always so extreme, I have felt mentally brilliant and not been able to run, been mentally down and had some of my best runs. What is evident however, is a powerful correlation between mental fitness and athletic performance, one which recently come to light in the Summer Olympics with athletes discussing their mental-health, and one which I experienced in all its highs and lows over the course of 20k.

In the wake of this year’s Olympic Games, the often unvoiced relationship between athletes and mental health has begun to receive more media attention. With athletes such as gymnast Simone Biles choosing to focus on their mental health over continuing to compete, more emphasis is beginning to be placed on cultivating not just good physical fitness but also positive mental fitness in athletes. A culture within sports that acknowledges the significance of the mind on performance is gradually emerging, especially as more sportspeople speak openly about mental health and encourage others to do the same.

Whilst changes to the ways we talk about mental health and sports are occurring further up the chain, and hopefully beginning to filter further down, there’s still a way to go towards normalising discussion about how the mind has a significant impact on training and competing. In the running community (I use “community” very broadly here), it’s uncommon to find people openly sharing their experiences of “bad” runs even though many label any run that doesn’t meet a particular physical or emotional standard as “bad”. How can we get beyond some of these discursive barriers? Sharing is an obvious but difficult first step, so I decided to keep track of my thoughts during my race to highlight the centrality of the mind in my running, and hopefully normalise its importance alongside physical fitness.

I hadn’t seen another runner for a while and all i could think about was reaching the next marshal and stopping

Back at Penrose I was coming up to what I thought must be the 5km mark where the 10k and 20k races would split from each other. My Garmin had run out of battery before the start, so I had little idea of how far into the race I was. Up until this point the race had been entirely off road through the woods, so I had mainly been concerned with keeping my balance as the mud turned slick beneath the feet of 200 runners. As the beach came into view and the yellow signs pointing left or right offered me the choice to carry on with the 20km or drop down to 10km, the voice that had so far been supressed by the intense concentration needed to keep me upright on mud, began screaming “right! Go right!”. My knees were aching and an earlier back injury was attempting to make itself known again. I began veering to the right, but at the last minute turned left and carried on with the 20km route.

I wasn’t sure how far in I was but I’d been climbing up hill for an unseemly amount of time, sorely regretting my decision to turn left. I hadn’t seen another runner for a while and all I could think about was reaching the next marshal and stopping. I was fairly convinced I was last and preventing the race from packing up. At the cliffs above Gunwalloe, a marshal scribbled a line on my race number and I wondered whether this meant I’d missed a cut-off time – I hoped this was so, if I’m being honest. But it was only a check in point, then she sent me up the coast-path and the pain continued. I caught up to a couple of runners, motivated by thinking that I didn’t entirely know where I was and if I didn’t want to be stuck out here, I should probably keep going. One runner had a jingly Christmas hat on which turned out to be the crucial factor in getting me back to the beach. The jingles were so loud they provided me with a rhythm to run to, something to listen to that wasn’t my heavy breathing or the barrage of negativity coming from my head.

Gunwalloe cliffs | Greg Wilson/Upsplash

At the beach I downed three cups of what I was pretty sure was undiluted squash, and then stumbled across the pebbles. I knew the course would eventually become part of the Penrose parkrun route and from there it would be flat at least. I could feel myself picking up, I still don’t know if it was the squash or a change in attitude from defeated to determined, but I was feeling good. Once I’d decided I was going to finish, my pace increased and the aches in my legs and threats from my stomach faded into the background. I hadn’t accounted for how long the last 5k would actually feel and I could sense the doubts that I wouldn’t make it creeping back in again. So long as I could keep my mind distracted, my legs would keep going. I got my phone out and put on 80s music. To the sounds of Spandau Ballet’s “Gold” blaring from my backpack, I turned a corner and the finish finally came into view.

At the finish line I swore to my family “never again! That was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Never again!”, before going and slumping in the car with a pot of leftover biriani. I was genuinely surprised I had finished. Reflecting on the run now, yes it was a difficult course, but the toughest thing was attempting to keep going when I believed I couldn’t. Runs like this are hard, but they build resilience for future runs. The mind and the body know they can get over the line.

Running for me is as much a mental activity as it is a physical one. As more people are beginning to discuss their own relationships to mental health and sports, I’m hopeful that in the future equal emphasis will be placed on the mind and body as factors in athletic performance, and a more open and discursive culture around mental health will develop in sporting communities.