Category Archives: Training

Trail Running Herman Creek Columbia River Gorge

5 Lessons Old Guys Taught Me About Running

During the recent Salmon Falls 50k race, I had a fun interaction with a couple older runners. These two guys were teasing me on the trail that I had blocked them out of the group photo at the race start. I’m 6’3″ and that does tend to happen. I chastised them back by mentioning that the race director (RD) asked me to stand tall to improve the handsomeness of the photo and block some of the riffraff. A little later on in the race, these guys confidently jogged past me as I was struggling to power hike a low-incline hill. Again they gave me grief about blocking them out of the photo. This time I told them I was about to take a nap, but I’d catch up to them later on. I mentioned that the RD also asked me to spend some time at the finish line to improve the race finish photos for all the old guys. We shared a laugh and away they went. That was around mile twelve. I never saw them again.

In January, I was running around the Willamette bridge loop. An old guy caught up to me and seemed to slow for a moment. He gave me a glance and then took off. I recognized the challenge and stayed on his heels. I managed to keep up with him for three full miles before we went our separate ways. A quick wave and I headed for the Hawthorne Bridge and home. Throughout the run, I was watching his stride. It seemed effortless. He didn’t bounce with each step like I did. He never seemed to take a quick breath. Just long, slow breaths and the most consistent pace ever. No headphones. No distractions. Just blasting around the river and taking me to school. I felt fortunate to recognize his fluidity and effortless stride and consistent gait.

That’s the same thing that struck me about the old guys at the Salmon Falls race. Super consistent and effortless. They joked with everybody they passed. The last time I spoke to them, I was nearly gasping.

Now, a qualification. I say “old guys” with utmost respect. These men were all in their upper 50s or lower 60s. At 36 years old, I’m still referred to as “kid” by a lot of old guys I see on the trail. When I say old, I don’t mean it in any derogatory way. Having just started my running habit fewer than three years ago, I know I’m still a beginner and have much to learn. I am hungry to improve and I read books and blogs constantly looking for any tips. I study my successes and failures on race day in order to remedy nutrition and hydration errors. Every training run and every race is an opportunity to get better.

Without further ado, here are the running lessons I’ve learned from old guys. To be fair, some of these lessons have also been reinforced by older women I’ve met on the trail. Running wisdom obviously isn’t exclusive to one gender.

  1. Set a comfortable pace and stick with it. I have a terrible habit of going out really strong on race day, only to hit a wall. I wind up walking as much as running during the second half of many races. When I get skunked by old guys in races, it’s because they have their pace dialed in. They’ve been training on long runs at that same pace they’ll use on race day. They don’t get caught up in the moment. They don’t spike their heart rate trying to separate from the pack on a long uphill. They don’t see people passing them early on and panic. Old runners stick to the plan. The endurance running adage goes something like this: start out slow and then go slower.
  2. Move efficiently. This was a difficult lesson for me to learn. It took months of physical therapy to iron out my erratic running motion. I bounced when I ran, wasting precious power vertically that could have been used to propel me forward. I never fully extended my legs behind me, which was robbing me of the power of toe-off and stunting the forward continuous rotation of my legs. I wasn’t twisting my hips at all, which was forcing my legs to land out in front of my torso and making balancing more difficult. A proper stride should feel natural and somewhat effortless, but it doesn’t come easy for many of us. From heel strike to slouching at the shoulders, so many of us are guilty of allowing bad habits to rob us of speed and endurance.
  3. Never deviate from your nutrition and hydration plan. At the second aid station I arrived at during a recent 50k, an older volunteer asked me if I was eating enough. He had the build of a runner, but I just assumed he was being silly. I was only an hour into the race. How many calories could I possibly have consumed so far? It turns out that my nutrition was way off. I should have been taking in more than 200 calories per hour on race day. Up to that second aid station, I had taken in nothing but water. It sounds like such a rookie mistake, but when you feel good at the beginning of a race, you can get caught up in the moment. I didn’t want to slow down to take in a gel or stop for a handful of potato chips at the first station. I bonked hard in that race, even though I felt that my training had been perfect. It wasn’t my fitness level. It was my terrible nutrition choices on race day. I’ve recently been working with liquid nutrition, like Tailwind. Sip every 10 minutes, supplement calories with gels or potatoes. I’m excited to try it out on race day.
  4. Train with a partner. Or two. Or ten. I rarely see old guys running by themselves on the weekend. Perhaps they do during the week. But when it comes to long training runs, they run in pairs or groups. And on race day, there they are. Running together at an agreed-upon pace that they know will work. They check each other’s effort and nutrition. And sometimes, they talk about where they like to go for pancakes after a run and they make your stomach growl during a 50k race. It’s harder to shorten a training run when you have a partner who will push you. It’s easier to make it through a difficult training run or race when you have someone who will joke with you and provide encouragement. During my most recent race, I listened to two older women discussing their running group. “Danny is in Mexico, but Ray is around. He’s still dealing with a quad issue from that 25k run.” They went through the rundown of their entire running group. It was clear that they cared about those other runners and wanted to see them succeed. That kind of encouragement on a regular basis is priceless.
  5. Leave the ladies alone. This lesson is one that I never struggled with, but one I felt obligated to call out anyhow. I’ve been in multiple races where groups of guys were running together and they had something to say to everybody who ran past. It’s all fun and games with other men, generally. But for some reason, every woman that ran near them got a fair share of mysogynistic nonsense. Comments about looks, short shorts, tight clothing and even sexual overtures make you sound like an idiot. Whether this is a generational thing or just a small cross section of morons who have infiltrated the running world, don’t be one of these jackasses. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about endurance running, it’s that distance levels the playing field. The longer the race, the more likely that women will finish as well as men. My massage therapist recently noted that of her husband and wife clients, men are the babies and women are the ones with higher pain thresholds. Let’s stop eyeing women as “the fairer sex” when we’re out running and start seeing them for what they really are: hardworking competitors who deserve respect. Let’s keep the catcalling out of our sport.

Those are my top five lessons learned from old guys. I’m sure there are way more lessons that I’ll come to recognize in time. What did I miss in this list? Have you picked up any nuggets of wisdom or helpful advice from an older runner? Comment to let me know.

 

Trail Running Muddy Henry Hagg Lake

Running Books for Inspiration, Training, and Cycle-Breaking

It’s winter here in the Pacific Northwest. And while I appreciate the mild temperatures that allow me to get outside (compared to my previous home in Chicago), the rain (and snow) have taken their toll. I’ve tried to stay positive regarding my training, but it hasn’t been easy. From unexpected ice on steep trails to downed trees from overwhelming winter storms, to shoe-sucking mud that pulls you down like quicksand in a cartoon, I’ve found it difficult to keep a smile on my face. I have more cuts and bruises on my body than I’ve ever had before. Every piece of running gear I own is stained with mud and blood.

After my successful first 50k race back in November, I was feeling confident. A little too confident, probably. I had beaten my goal time, felt amazing afterward, and was optimistically anticipating another unseasonably dry and warm winter. So I signed up for a 100k race in April. Then the rain came. And the storms blew through and wreaked havoc on every trail in the Gorge. And winter dragged on and I started missing my long run goals. An alcohol-fueled late night online shopping session found me trying to avert the training blues by signing up for an upcoming 50k in a warmer, drier climate. But even that hasn’t fully inspired me to hit my training goals, even though the 50k is just two weeks away.

Queue my last-resort secret weapon of choice: running books. From fiction novels to encyclopedic training programs, nothing inspires me like a good running book. There are several I keep close at hand for just these situations. Some are stories of challenges overcome, some feature the ins and outs of endurance training and racing, and others feel like a perfectly targeted kick in the pants. No matter what, I’m always much more eager to lace up my filthy, mud-caked trail pigs for another extended jaunt in the elements. I’m including links to each of these, but keep in mind that these are all available from the library — many as audiobooks or digital downloads. Let’s get started, in no particular order.

Once a Runner by John L Parker, Jr.

I’ve never been a competitive runner. Not really. I didn’t run cross-country in high school or track in college. I never ran around my block until I was 33 years old. My 9th place finish in my age group in the 2015 Lincoln City Half Marathon remains my best showing, but there were only 15 men in my age group. But something about this book seems to speak to the competitive nature in me that I didn’t even know existed. This is a fictional account of a competitive college-age runner. There are incredible details related to the sort of wonderful and terrible feelings you experience as a runner when you push your boundaries. I see this book now has a sequel and a prequel. I haven’t read either of those, partly because I don’t want to ruin the special relationship I feel with this book.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

This nonfiction account of Murakami’s life as an endurance athlete is a significant departure from the surreal fiction he’s known for. This book helps to keep me grounded while also reminding me that my greatest rival will always be me. Admire the athletes who surround you while training and racing, but don’t compare yourself to them. Everybody has their own road to travel.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

This is the gateway drug of running books. Scott Jurek, Jenn Shelton, the Tarahumara Indians, El Caballo Blanco, Ann Trason, Eric Orton… The list goes on and on. This account of mostly true early ultra running folklore introduced me to some of my most heralded endurance athlete heroes. Just try to read this book without seeking out Eric Orton’s The Cool Impossible or Scott Jurek’s Eat & Run, Jenn Shelton’s terrific essays or Ann Trason’s trophy history. Hollywood is turning this one into a movie starring Matthew McConaughey as El Caballo Blanco. Hopefully, the focus of the movie is the same as the book: overcoming incredible odds and pushing beyond previous limits. They’ll probably turn it into a terrible love story.

Eat & Run by Scott Jurek

This book is a great introduction to Scott and a killer recipe book as well. From his difficult family situation at a young age to discovering his passion for endurance athletics, the book doubles as a memoir. The Seven-time Western States winner has a lot to say about his mental training for endurance racing and he shares the recipes he relies on to keep up his intense training effort. The onigiri recipe has become a staple of my long distance nutrition plan.

Relentless Forward Progress by Bryon Powell

This is an unflinching look at what it takes to become an ultra runner, but it also features solid advice for anybody hitting the trails. Honest and straightforward advice comes from several heroes of the trail running community. Even if you never run anything longer than a half marathon, I believe this book should be part of your running education. There are training programs for several distances that you can apply to your own race plan.

You’re tougher than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can. – Ken Choulber, Leadville Trail 100-mile founder

Field Guide to Ultrarunning by Hal Koerner

If you’re really going to go for it in the ultramarathon world, this book deserves a spot on your shelf. Hal Koerner is a legend in his own right and his advice is indispensable. This comprehensive handbook will prepare you for running any ultra distance, with training plans, nutrition suggestions, race day advice, and gear suggestions from one of the masters. This book is more fun than it should be and always inspirational.

These are the books that inspire and motivate me. There are several more that I could have added to the list, Rich Roll’s Finding Ultra, for instance. But the list of favorite running books can be a rabbit hole and I wanted to keep this list just to my absolute favorite books. What do you think? Am I crazy for suggesting any of these? Am I obviously missing any? Comment to let me know.

Trail Run Columbia River Gorge

Gorge 400 Trail Training Run

I spent Halloween morning trail running on the Gorge 400 Trail with some terrific and goofy running partners. We started from the John B. Yeon trailhead, scooted past Elowah Falls and much more. We have had some rain recently and the waterfalls were in spectacular form. It was a slippery, muddy, rainy, and altogether gorgeous day. Video footage below from a really fun training run.

Wildwood Trail Forest Park Portland Oregon

30 Miles on the Wildwood Trail: My First Ultra Run

Milestones are funny things. I’ll never forget the elation and exhaustion I felt after my first 5k race. My first 10k race felt more like a building block than a spire, but I still enjoyed the pride that came along with pushing myself beyond a previous boundary. My first half marathon distance run was sadly punctuated by my first realization that I needed to either wear better shirts, strategically place band-aids, or lubricate certain, ah, sensitive areas of my upper body. Finally, there was my first marathon, whereupon finishing, I had to take several minutes to compose myself as the combination of pure joy and raw emotion nearly overwhelmed me. I may be more sentimental than most, but in the world of running, I have plenty of company.

The past year has found me acquiring a new obsession with trail running. Almost by association, I have also discovered a passion for ultra running. That may sound strange coming from somebody who has only finished two road marathons so far and whose longest trail run up to this point was 16 miles, but I assure you, the eagerness to run far is real. I have learned many lessons about when and how to slowly build up distance in my training. I recognize that I have plenty more work to put in before I can call myself a true endurance athlete, but after this past weekend, I feel comfortable identifying myself as an ultra runner.

The Wildwood Trail in Forest Park is described with awe by many who have traversed it. I have read endless accounts from runners and hikers extolling the beauty of this singletrack wonder. I myself have run the southernmost 8 miles of the trail on previous occasions, but I had never been north of that on this 30-mile trail. Knowing that the trail was well-marked and having the course mapped out on my trusty GPS watch, I felt encouraged setting my sights on Wildwood for my first ultra run.

I prepared myself on the morning of September 19, 2015 with coffee and dry cereal (Peanut Butter Panda Puffs, if you must know). I had already loaded up my hydration vest with 2.5 liters of water. I also loaded up a 1/2 liter handheld bottle with water. One of the 1/2 liter soft-flasks on my hydration vest also contained an electrolyte tablet. Other nutrition consisted of various GU gels, GU chews, salt tablets, and three slices of Sizzle Pie Raising Arizona pizza. Don’t judge me. 30 miles is a long time and when I get down, I crave pizza. Do not knock it until you try it. When I was satisfied that I was fully prepared, I ordered up an UBER cab.

The driver had been waiting around the corner at Stumptown and showed up in 15 seconds. I was surprised, but eagerly snatched up my gear and stepped out the door. At that moment, I realized I was still wearing my slippers. This was a fortunate catch. I grabbed my Altra Lone Peak 2.0s and bounced down the stairs toward the car in my socks. Michael, my driver, apologized for the quick arrival (which wasn’t really a problem at all) and away we went.

I chose to run the Wildwood Trail from north to south. I recognized that this would mean a difficult climb between miles 25-27 and 3,000 feet of elevation gain overall. I’m training for the Silver Falls 50k on November 7, which has 4,000 feet of elevation gain, so it was important to me that I test my mettle before that race. I wanted a baseline to provide myself with a goal to shoot for in November. The drive to the trailhead took about 25 minutes and required one u-turn to find the trailhead, but it was all good. Michael was an interesting person with great stories and I got to watch the sun rising over Mounts Hood, Helens, and Adams. Plus, any day I get to see the gorgeous St. John’s Bridge is a good day.

I jumped out of the car and walked for about 50 feet before finding the actual sign for the trailhead. I quickly stuffed my jacket in my pack. The weather felt much warmer than 55 degrees and I was happy to strip down to shorts and t-shirt from the start. I triggered the activity start on my watch and dropped into the forest.

I didn’t bring my GoPro on this run. I had my phone with me in case I needed to get in contact with my wife, but I wasn’t shooting any photos or video on this run. I also wasn’t listening to headphones. I wanted this to be a pure running experience with no distractions. More so in trail running than on the road, the sound of my breathing is cathartic to me. I feel more in tune with my body as minor aches and pains pass through from time to time. I am more prepared to make adjustments to my form and stride when necessary. As I began my first descent, I immediately noticed the stillness of the forest. My next realization was the greenery. The colors and thickness of the forest were spectacular. This place felt as remote as any hike I’ve ever done. And it’s in the city.

The next thought caught me by surprise. I skipped over a few roots and stones and hit the first foot bridge. Looking up, I saw the blue diamond spray painted on a tree marking the Wildwood Trail. A few feet above that was a sign that read “30 Miles.” For a split second, I felt actual dread. I wasn’t expecting this. I was excited for 30 miles. I was prepared for 30 miles. There was no problem. Something in the far reaches of my mind jolted me for a moment. I shook my head and smiled. There was only one other car at the trailhead and my UBER was long gone. I was on my own. The panicked part of my brain had no choice but to sit down, shut up, and hold on for the long, arduous ride for the next several hours. The dedicated part of my brain that has been pushing me on my running journey for the last 2 years took over and during the next mile, I calmed down and settled into a comfortable rhythm.

Soon enough I had a new issue. There are markers on the Wildwood Trail nearly every quarter mile with a blue diamond and a mileage marker. It wasn’t long before my GPS watch was underestimating my distance. If not for the markers, I don’t know that I would have made it. At mile 5.5, my watch was off by more than 2 miles. As time dragged on and mileage increased, it would have been really discouraging thinking I was at mile 18 instead of 25. Identifying the issue, I shrugged and persisted. This is always a possibility with trail running and the blue diamond trees were going to guide me home.

My plan was to eat every 45 minutes for the first few hours. Knowing my nutrition history, I would begin to detest food somewhere around the 3.5 hour mark. At that point, I would only be able to eat something every hour. After 45 minutes, I ate a caffeinated gel. After 1:30, I went after one of the pizza slices. But I had made a miscalculation. The slices were from a large pizza. A small would have worked better. I unthinkingly devoured the entire slice and kept running. In the end, I don’t regret eating the pizza, but it did throw off my nutrition plan. I felt full and sluggish for a mile or two, and I couldn’t eat again for over an hour. Despite my nutrition schedule getting off track, everything was going great. I resolved to move back to my every 45 minutes eating routine and avoid the giant pizza slices unless I craved them later on.

There are myriad feeder trails throughout the Wildwood Trail and plenty of people as you move south along the trail. In the first 6 miles, however, I only saw 4 other people… and 3 dogs. None of the dogs were on leashes and all were more than 20 feet ahead of their owners. I’m all for having dogs on the trail and all of these dogs were well-behaved and posed no threat, but there are signs everywhere on the trail requiring leashes. When you’re totally alone and come around a corner face-to-face with a huge dog, it takes your brain a moment to register what sort of animal this is. It takes a moment to see the people trailing way behind and breathe a sigh of relief. Even for someone who loves dogs like myself, it’s a disconcerting feeling. There are so many people who have had unfortunate run-ins with dogs that leave them with a debilitating fear of all dogs. Irrational or not, this is a note for dog owners. No matter how well-behaved your dog is on this trail, put it on a leash. The next runner, hiker, walker, or bike rider you meet may have been attacked by a dog in the past. Please give that person peace of mind by having your animal on a leash. It’s not only common courtesy, it’s the rule in this particular park. And not to harp, but the two dozen bright plastic bags of dog refuse littering the trail did very little to improve my view of dog owners on this day.

Back to the run. It was around mile 15 when I first started to feel fatigued. I didn’t have any major aches, but there was a dull pain beginning to set in at my major joint areas. I was still moving at a good clip. I did some quick calculations and realized that I was a little behind on water consumption. I was planning to refill my bottles at Pittock Mansion, which lies around the 27-mile mark of the trail. I resolved to drink more water over the next several miles to get back on track.

Mile 17 marks a comfortable downhill stretch followed by a 350-foot hill climb. I was cruising down this stretch when I caught my toe on a root. I thought it was a leaf when I saw it so I didn’t hop over it as aggressively as I should have. I began to tumble to my left and started to roll to prevent a major collision with the ground. Pressing my handheld water bottle into the ground, I braced myself for impact. Instead of rolling, I awkwardly smashed into the dirt, which gave way completely and sent me several feet down into a small ravine. My shoulder had taken the brunt of the impact, but I had knocked the wind out of myself as well. I stood up and brushed myself off, climbed back up, and walked until my breath came back to me. Strangely, just as I fell, another runner 50 feet in front of me caught a root and hit the deck as well. It was the only other fall I saw all day. He landed much harder than me and was covered in dirt, but was no worse for wear. We congratulated each other on our good fortune. We would leapfrog each other from this point on for the next 6 miles. Unfortunately, this marked the first big uphill climb of the day and the fall had taken all the wind out of my sails. I wound up hiking nearly all of the climb before reaching level trail and breaking into a run.

Somewhere around mile 23, my wife called me. She had parked at the zoo/Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial where the trail ends. The plan was for her to run to Pittock Mansion and back, with the intent that I would finish my run somewhere around the same time as her. I was moving at a good clip at this time and I was feeling pretty confident. I encouraged her to run the 3 miles from Pittock to the zoo and I would catch up to her at the parking lot. I advised her that I was pretty sure that I was approaching the stone house on the trail and would be beginning the major 700-foot ascent from there to Pittock Mansion. We hung up and I cruised along the descent to stone house. On my approach, I was struck by how many people were hanging about. I scanned the crowd nonchalantly until my eyes settled on a familiar figure.

My wife had run all the way to stone house, 5.5 miles from the zoo. Completing the circuit back to the zoo would make this her longest trail run. I could not have been happier to see her. This was the best surprise I could have received and it took me a moment to say anything (see above where I talk about being a bit of an emotional wreck when I push my physical limits). We ascended together on the steep trail to Pittock Mansion, running when we could and power hiking when we had to.

Somewhere around mile 21, I had taken a salt tablet. It seemed to help a lot and I should have taken one right before this ascent, but I decided that I was done with food at this point, which included salt tabs. This was a mistake. Any food at this point would have been advisable and I should have stuck to the plan. I took on another gel around mile 26, but it was too late. It did some good, but didn’t have the impact it might have a couple miles earlier. Lesson learned. Eat before the going gets really tough. Stick to the plan.

My wife had brought me enough water to make it to the end and I was happy not to have to stop to refill any water bottles as we passed Pittock Mansion. Reaching the trail on the other side of the Pittock parking lot, we finally began to descend again. After 27 miles and all that elevation gain, I found descending to be extremely painful for my knees. I spent the first 1/4 mile getting my footing back and adjusting to the new terrain and finally was able to run intermittently when the trail was either gradual downhill, level, or gradual uphill. At this point, I stuck to power hiking on steeper hills and gingerly toe-tapping down steep descents.

I was excited to be back in familiar territory by this point and I know these last couple miles well. I was somewhat nauseous. I controlled that by maintaining a slow jog or walking when necessary. Beyond the challenge of crossing Burnside Road without becoming roadkill, this part of the trail went smoothly. Honestly though, a 45-mile per hour road with 4 lanes passing through a forest with no lights, no bridge, no tunnel. Come on, Portland. Figure this one out before somebody gets killed here.

After a moderate uphill the last 1/2 mile was level and mostly downhill. After a couple false starts, I was able to improve my pace to a full run and finish strong. I crossed the finish line exactly 6 hours and 31 minutes after I started. Specifics of the run are below.

I could not have done this without my wife’s support. I could not have done this without such a beautiful trail right here in my backyard. In another post, I’ll detail how I dealt with the mental and emotional side of running these distances without company. Loneliness on the trail is very real. How you react to loneliness has a great effect on the success or failure of your run.

As accomplished as this milestone makes me feel, I recognize that it is simply another building block. Still, it feels pretty spectacular to call myself an ultra runner for the first time. Hopefully, on November 7, I’ll be able to call myself an ultra race finisher at the Silver Falls 50k.

Julie Smiling Half Marathon

Oh, Be Joyful!

I was speaking with a runner yesterday about a recent 10k race. After a difficult week emotionally and physically, she ran her fastest 10k ever. She started the race with the intention of accessing all of her pent up emotion and frustration and unleashing it on the course. But a funny thing happened.

She left the starting line at an aggressive pace. Her first two miles were flat and fast. She knew there was a tough hill at mile 3. The excitement of the race buoyed her until she reached that hill. She carried a full head of steam into the start of the hill, but it was unsustainable. Her run soon become a power hike, which became more of a brisk walk. It was during this stretch that she expected to fall back on her reserves of pent-up frustration to carry her through. But as she started to sink physically and emotionally, she didn’t focus on anger. She didn’t focus on the professional sleights of the previous week or her emotional suffering. She started to think of the support she had received.

Her friends and family were there for her during her most trying moments. Listening, helping, caring. During the difficult days leading up to the race, she wasn’t alone. And when the going got tough on race day, her mind drifted to those people who loved and supported her. That’s when the engine started to turn. She attacked the hill, roasted the downhill, and turned in the performance she’s so proud of today. Her son was waiting for her at the finish line. They shared a wonderful embrace while she was wiping away tears of joy.

Joy is a powerful tool in the runner’s arsenal. So much is made of the runner’s high, but I wonder how many runners truly understand the role that unbridled happiness can play. Whether you’re squeezing in a 5k on your lunch hour or working through a 20-mile training run on the weekend, you can put the power of joy to work for you. Everyone seems to have different ways of accessing and harnessing positive emotions, but here are some of the methods that have worked for me.

Visualization

This is something I started putting into practice while training for my first marathon. I didn’t even realize that it was a recognized tool at first. On my longest training runs, I would inevitably go to dark places emotionally. I would feel the grind of so many miles taking a toll on my legs and I would begin to wonder if it was all worth it. “All these weekend hours that I could be spending with family and friends. Or sleeping. If I was this dedicated to starting a business, I’d probably be a massive success by now.” Whenever these thoughts would start creeping in, it seemed to trigger an automatic response buried deep in my brain. I would picture myself in the home stretch of the marathon. Crossing the line with a smile on my face and having a medal draped over my head. These images in my mind were so powerful that I would sometimes feel emotional to the point of tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. Many times a smile would flash across my face and I had no power to stop it. When you’re at mile 14 out of 20 on a rainy Sunday morning while the rest of the world is just waking up or heading to brunch and you’re grinning uncontrollably like an idiot, you’re starting to understand the power of joy.

Mantras

In the past couple of years, I’ve become obsessed with reading books about running. It isn’t enough that I spend 30% of my waking life running. I have to spend an hour every night laying in bed reading about it as well. There are many common threads that seem to run through every running book, autobiographies in particular. But the thread that’s important to this conversation is mantras. This may seem like new age silliness to many people, but I can assure you that I am not a spiritual person and I have used a mantra with great success. Sometimes a mantra is a single word or short series of words that people will repeat internally. I’ve heard other people muttering mantras to themselves during races. However you choose to use them, mantras can help bring you back into the moment and elevate your mood. Scott Jurek’s powerful mantra is a great lesson for all of us: “This is what you came for.” We have chosen endurance running as our preferred sport, or hobby, or lifestyle. When the going gets tough, we have to remember who made that decision. Timothy Olson tends to focus on the here and now. Like many runners, he doesn’t stick to just one mantra, but he uses whatever mental tricks he has at hand to power through. One he has mentioned is from Thich Nhat Hanh which says, “I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now. I am solid. I am free. In the ultimate I dwell.” That’s way more than I’ll be able to pull out of my memory banks when I’m mentally exhausted during a race or long training run, but I like the premise.

Whether you’re owning your suffering like Jurek or living in the now like Olson, you can find joy in tough circumstances. Using a mantra to free your mind of negativity is a powerful tool in the runner’s arsenal.

Meditation

There are several preconceived notions to dispel for many people when they think of meditation. Most envision some sort of religious chanting monks clanging giant gongs or hippies handing out flowers at an airport. The truth is, while some forms of meditation do focus on spiritual awakening or enlightenment, meditation can help you clear your mind. You train your mind to focus more, which means you can begin to zero in on positive thoughts more frequently and hold onto them for longer periods of time. One variation of meditation that I utilize is called body scan. Body scan is about sitting still for a period of time and focusing on every part of your body. When nothing else is clouding your mind, you can truly feel what’s happening in every part of your body. And whether you like to visualize a ball of light traveling to injured areas or you prefer to “breathe into” a tight muscle group, body scanning can be an effective recovery tool. I won’t get into this too deeply. If you want more information, you can download an app like Calm or Headspace. You may not be meditating during a run (although I’m pretty sure there are people who could), but you can train your mind to release negative thoughts. Keeping negative thoughts at bay will free you up to focus on the positive.

And Yes, Runner’s High

Alright, alright. Yes, I’ve experienced it many times. I have felt the endorphin rush, speed burst, energy spike throughout my running life. I would caution you about relying too heavily on such a thing. I experience it less and less these days. It’s also woefully unpredictable. You cannot count on it to pop up when you need it most. While you may burst into song or smile like the Joker for a quarter mile, runner’s high is neither dependable nor long-lasting. For best results, look elsewhere.

At 4am on the morning of the San Francisco Marathon last month, my wife asked me if I was still happy I signed up or this race. “I get to run through the streets of San Francisco for the next 4 hours. How could I not be happy?” Sadly, there are many people who will never know the joy of running. They either decline physical exercise in general, have other priorities, or are physically unable to run. When I think about those people, I appreciate every run that much more.

Do I suffer at times? Absolutely. Can even the shortest run feel like an eternity from time to time? Sure. But I choose to suffer joyfully. I have the ability to run, the perseverance to overcome difficulties, and the determination to finish each race with whatever strength I have left. That gives me pride, confidence, and perhaps most importantly, joy.