The Importance of a Positive Attitude

If you are like me, there are many times during a training session or a race when things get tough or don’t go the way you were hoping. That’s when doubts and discouragement arise and negative thoughts fill your mind. It could be adverse weather, an incident with another person, a mechanical issue with your equipment, physical pain or distress, nutritional problems, a really difficult section of the race course, a really hard element of your workout, or any number of expected or unexpected issues. When these things occur, how do you handle them? Do you have the tendency to sink into negative thoughts and let them affect your attitude or how the workout or race will end up? Are you even tempted to quit or not even start? If you answered yes to each of these I want you to know that I too have struggled with all of these from time to time as well.

I’d like to share with you two events from my athletics journey that have left an imprint in my mind on the importance of positive thinking and not giving up in the midst of adverse conditions and daunting physical challenges. I will then discuss some helpful strategies that you can use to turn negative thoughts to positive the next time something unexpected happens to you.

2007 Boston Marathon:

During the winter of 2006 and the spring of 2007 I was on an emotional, physical and motivational runner’s high unlike any a had experienced before as an athlete. I had finished my collegiate career at Wichita State University in 2005 and continued to train hard in pursuit of exploring my running limits. In the fall of 2006 I decided to run the Chicago Marathon, my first marathon. After running with a large pack for the first 13 miles, I managed to stay with the athletes that continued to run at the pace required to qualify for the Olympic Trials. As we headed into the wind for the last 5k, I was finally alone and had to put my head down and run as hard as possible to make the cutoff time. I ended up coming across the line with 9 seconds to spare in 2:21:51. The cutoff for that year was 2:22:00. I was exhausted and very sore, but had qualified for the Olympic Trials!

I followed that race up with a 66:17 PR run at the Houston 1/2 Marathon which doubled as the US 1/2 Marathon Championships in January of 2007. I was really rolling and feeling good in training and racing. My goals for the upcoming Boston Marathon were to dip way under 2:20:00 for marathon, which I new I was certainly capable of given a nice day and a competitive field. I new Boston would have the competitive field, but what about the weather? Growing up in Kansas I was no stranger to weather extremes, and that spring didn’t disappoint. Every week brought heavy wind, rain, storms and even 10 inches of snow the day before I flew to Boston. I was never able to hit my goal paces for the marathon specific tempo runs that I did each week. Sometimes I was 10-30 seconds per mile slower than goal pace. How was I going to run 26 miles at those paces if I couldn’t manage to do 8, 10 or 12 miles at those paces in training?

As I flew to Boston, the news was full of talk about a nor’easter blowing in to New England just in time for the marathon. In fact, the race was nearly cancelled for the first time in the 100 year history of the race as 60+ mph winds and flooding rain blew in the day before the race. Fortunately the weather had calmed down enough by race time to start the event. We still had to contend with flooded roads and a head wind of 24 mph gusting to 40 mph for the entire race. As Boston is a point to point course, we would be running into the wind the entire day.

As the race started, no one wanted to take the lead as we battled into the stiff wind. The front pack started out slowly together for the first 10k, before it started to split up. I was feeling good sitting in the second pack, and decided to bide my time as long as possible to conserve energy for the second half and the hills and wind that I would be battling most likely on my own. As we ran into the hilliest section of the course, the wind continued to blast us. My training partner Matt and I continued to pass runner after runner that went out too fast or weren’t dealing with the conditions well. As we crested the 10k to go marker at the top of the last hill, I switched my mind into full on 10k race mode. I pretended that I was just starting a 10k race, that I was fresh, and that I was going to catch as many runners as possible. I ran as hard as I could into the wind all the way to the finish. No one passed me the last 13 miles of the race, but I passed many runners. I ended up crossing the line in 21st overall, only 8:00 behind the winner. This was by far the closest I ever came to the front of a big time marathon race. My time was 2:22:13 which wasn’t a PR or sub 2:20:00, but considering the conditions, It was a my best marathon ever and probably the best race I ever ran.

Looking back on that race and the events leading up to it I realized that I had the perfect preparation for the conditions and was able to manage my effort and stay positive in the midst of miserable and discouraging running conditions. Before the race started, I overheard many of the elite runners worrying about the conditions and allowing themselves to become distracted on elements that they couldn’t control. I choose to stay positive, remember the great training I had leading into the race, and focus on some of my favorite Bible verses as I ran. Two passages went through my mind constantly: Philippians 4: 11-13 “ Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” and 1 Corinthians 9: 24-27 “ Do you not know that in a race all runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” These verses helped me to keep my perspective and emotions in check as I ran. In the worst conditions I had faced as I runner, I had just run the best race of my career, in large part due to thinking positively.

2015 Dirty Kanza 200:

Fast forward a few years and to the fall of 2014. I had been struggling with trying to stay healthy as a runner as well as find motivation to continue to train for races and PR’s. After 23 years of competitive running, and despite my best efforts to stay healthy, my body just wasn’t taking the training I wanted to put it through. I was really discouraged and didn’t know what to do. I thought about stopping competition completely and just exercising to stay in shape. One Saturday I was visiting my parents and I decided to take my sister’s mountain bike out for a spin to go ride some of the old roads I’d run thousands of miles on over the years. I just needed to get out and move and enjoy the countryside. The ride ended up being 3 hours long with no water. I had a blast and had even come across two gravel cyclists that were out training for the Dirty Kanza race coming up in a few months. This lead into an interest in gravel cycling as it met a number of the things I was looking for as a runner and athlete: adventure, exploration of physical limits, being outside and moving, and competition.

I got a gravel bike and started training for a local 50 mile race. My first gravel race. There is a large learning curve to cycling, especially on gravel. Tactics and equipment choice are huge and must be mastered to have the best experience and result. Many hours of training must occur to prepare for the longer races. I was used to running for up to 2:30:00-3:00:00. Now my shortest races would be 2:30:00 or more. My running coach at the time thought I should sign up for the Dirty Kanza race. It was already closed, so I would have to wait on a transfer. I thought that doing the 100 miler would be a great start. My coach thought that would be no problem for me and that I should do the 200 to really challenge myself. That seemed really ridiculous to me, but he was right. To really challenge myself and go into the unknown, I needed to get a slot for the 200 miler.

The Dirty Kanza 200 is a single day 200 mile race through the rugged Flint Hills of eastern Kansas. Riders are exposed to wind, sun, arrowhead sharp rocks, endless hills, fatigue and dehydration the entire day. My training leading into the race was solid as I was able to ride a lot of miles in the 4 months I had been training on the bike leading into the race. I ended up getting a slot about 6 weeks before the race. I was now in the 200. The longest ride I had leading into the race was 116 miles on mostly gravel. I had absolutely no idea how my body would react past that distance. To top the challenge off, it rained constantly during the weeks before the race causing major flooding out in the Flint Hills. The race course was certainly going to be muddy.

The night before the race it rained again ensuring some fresh slop awaited us. The best advice I got the day before the race was to keep the bike as clean as possible and don’t try to ride through really muddy areas. I took that advice the entire day. I didn’t have to wait long as 11 miles into the race we hit a three mile mud section where we had to carry our bikes on our shoulders. It was completely unridable. I heard after the race that many athletes quit right there and didn’t even attempt the rest of the race. I’m sure glad I didn’t quit as the rest of the day the course was mostly rideable except for one more mile section around mile 100, that required a hike a bike. The race broke me down physically, mentally and emotionally. I bonked a couple times and had to allow my body to come back around. I ended up finishing 5th in my age group and 28th overall in 14:24:07. After the race I realized that this was the hardest race I had ever done. I was absolutely spent and exhausted for a few days. Looking back I thought about the many times where I was tempted to quit and questioned why I was doing this. I had to draw motivation from others and break the race down into manageable segments to finish successfully. Thinking about how far I had to go and the entire distance of the race would have been too much for my first time out there especially considering that it was 89 miles farther than I had ever ridden before.

A few strategies that I find helpful when dealing with negative thoughts are:

1) Break the workout or race down into manageable segments. Focus on the repetition, lap or mile you are on right now. Be present in what you are doing and do it as well as you can. Once that segment is done, shift your focus to the next segment.

2) Turn negative thoughts into positive. Is the wind hammering and slowing you down? Say to yourself, everyone else is dealing with the same wind, or this wind is make me stronger and I’ll be ready to perform well the next time I encounter this type of wind.

3) Find confidence in the preparations you’ve made and trust that you are ready to perform the task at hand. Remember all of the training you’ve put in and now you are doing the very event you’ve worked so hard for. Enjoy your time as you compete and soak up the experience of the event and all that surounds it.

4) Focus on the things you can control, not the things you can’t. Weather, other people, equipment problems, nutritional issues and many other things will from time to time present difficulty and adversity. Don’t let these derail your ability to have a good experience. You can still learn from and gain rich experiences even on the days that don’t go the way you’ve planned.

I hope you’ve benefitted from this blog and wish you the best in your pursuits. Remember to think positively as much as possible in every area of life. And be sure to reach out to others if you are struggling with negativity or difficulties in your life. You’ll soon find that everyone struggles at times and it’s best to work through challenges together.