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Race Brain

La Jolla Half Marathon

There’s one thing that is required to run long distance races. It’s not strong abs, or the optimal leg strength to get up that crazy mile 10 hill (I’m looking at you Nike Women’s Half Marathon), it’s not powerful arms to carry you forward when your legs are beyond tired. All you need is your race brain.

Race brain did not come naturally to me. I’ve had to work hard to cultivate it over the years. I lost it for about a decade and didn’t race at all. Though I’ve recently become re-acquiainted with it, I sometimes lose my race brain right in the middle of a race. But if you can mentally prepare for it, envision yourself finishing it and then negotiate within that brain and dig deep during the tougher parts of any endurance event, you can finish it.

When I’m nearing the last leg of a race, I start assessing the state of my personal nation (how am I feeling? could I run faster? what is my pace? what is my time? am I doing better or worse than before? is that right leg cramp really an issue? where are the bathrooms, just in case? love her nike capris, i need to find those online after the race, should i eat another sports bean? why do i have the chills?) to try and sort out what my finish will look like. Even in all my monkey mind chatter, it always comes down to a single philosophical dilemma: am I holding back? do I have more to give?

You’d think the dilemma would be easily solved. If I have more energy, I should run faster/push harder. And sometimes I do. Other times, I find that even though I have reserve energy to spare, I like where I’m at, I’m feeling good and I don’t want to push farther.

There is something interesting in that moment when you find out that you are not willing to push harder on a given day. Or that you are, even though you are hurting. Or that you are willing to push only a certain amount harder and you’ll be thrilled with that result. Other times, I really want to beat a certain personal record and I give it all I have. But lately, I find I’m checking in and thinking “You know what, Callie? This, right here, this is good. You are about to finish. You feel good. Who cares if it is 3 minutes faster than last time?” And I’m able to ease into it, enjoy the moment, see the runners passing by, hear their chatter and laughter, really take in the crashing ocean waves and that gorgeous vista ahead. And that’s interesting as someone who used to care deeply about such external validators as published times.

Long distance events show you who you really are and teach you to negotiate with yourself about what you are willing to do at every mile, for as long as the race takes you. Other than regular meditation and yoga, I’ve yet to find an activity like running that requires me to so fully know myself and deal with myself and get over myself and see what I’m made of over and over again, all while under controlled duress.

If you can train your race brain to find that sweet spot between pushing too hard and not hard enough, there is something absolutely magic about seeing what you are made of and realizing that you can reinvent yourself with every mile.

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