Yes, No, Fear: Marathon brain training is no joke

There was an article in the Times a while ago that I keep thinking about during marathon training. It is here: 'It's More Like a Suicide Than a Sport,' and it's a both a love letter to basejumping and a eulogy for Hervé le Gallou, who recently died during a jump.

The article quotes a friend of his: 

Dave McDonnell, an English friend of Le Gallou’s, said that before he quit base jumping, he used to hear three distinct internal voices at the exit point, which he called “Yes,” “Fear” and “No.”

“If you’re all tuned in, there’s ‘Yes,’ ” he said. “On the mediocre days, there are two other voices­. One’s ‘Fear.’ Your body is screaming out at you, ‘Don’t do this,’ because it’s dangerous, unnatural. You’re there to conquer your fear. But there’s another voice that hangs around every now and again, and that’s called ‘No.’ Something’s not right. You can never put your finger on it — it could be something in your pack job, or the weather, or the people you’re jumping with, or your mind-set. It’s just, ‘Walk away, don’t go jumping today.’ The difficulty is trying to discern between ‘Fear’ and ‘No,’ because they’re both telling you the same thing. ‘No’ is your sixth sense that’s trying to save your life.”

It should be said up front: Marathon training isn't basejumping. The danger that lurks is of a completely different type. I don't risk sudden, violet death every time I go for a run. But distinguishing between "No," and "Fear," is one of the important lessons all sports can give us, and one of the lessons I hope I'm in some way exporting from running for use in the rest of my life.

I used to be highly in tune with "No," and "Fear." When I rode horses, knowing the difference was more than just the pinnacle of horsemanship -- riding is dangerous, and knowing the difference could save my life -- and my horse's. Competing brought new dangers because of the adrenaline, the desire to win, and the unfamiliar environment: At Spruce Meadows (a huge international show in Calgary, Canada) one year, I was working and saw a girl my age do something crazier than anything I would do -- in a jumpoff (the timed tie-breaking round at the end, which is shorter and faster than the first round), she galloped up to a huge vertical (usually a bad idea -- an approach to a vertical requires a very careful, controlled canter) and left out an entire stride, to save time (another risk -- the horse would be jumping long and flat, instead of high and round -- not the kind of jump needed to clear a vertical). I had stopped to watch her round, and whispered under my breath, "No, no no, NO NO! NO!" as I saw the moment she made the decision to do it. Amazingly, the fence stayed up, and she and the horse cleared it in one piece. Everything in my brain screamed "NO," but she knew she could do it. She had learned the difference and conquered fear.

Riding taught me that I'm more conservative than I like to imagine myself to be. Partially, this is because I've had to ride tougher horses: the younger ones, the badder ones, the less experienced, on worse footing, with worse training, and so on. I'm conservative because it would be dangerous to be otherwise. I misjudged "no" and "fear" in my early days, and the consequences were serious: I flipped a horse, I was trampled, but more commonly, the horse tried to do what I asked, only to fail and become upset or afraid, and our training was set back days or weeks. These mistakes were devastating and filled me with guilt: for the horses' sake, I need to be 100% certain that nothing bad will come of what I ask them to do.

In this respect, the transition from riding to running has been strange. Running isn't about anyone else. It's just about me and my body. I normally feel highly in tune with my body. I know when I'm about to get sick. I know when I'm becoming stressed or anxious, and need a break from whatever's giving me stress or anxiety. But lately I notice I am wrong more frequently that I would guess. I say "no," only to realize later that I could have done it, that I was actually just afraid.  I have trouble knowing the difference, and this surprises me. 

I want to just repeat that here again, for myself: I say "no," only to realize later that I could have done it, that I was actually just afraid.

Here are some recent situations in which I was absolutely flummoxed by whether the voice I was hearing is "No" or "Fear":

  • I had an interview the other day for a great job, one that I knew would challenge me -- a lot. Instead of being excited by the challenge and confident that I could do it, I felt worried and anxious, and almost hoped I wouldn't get it.
  • On Monday I was sure I wouldn't be able to finish my 17-mile run. As an experiment, I decided to force myself to keep running, no matter what -- and lo and behold, I finished it (rather dramatically, I threw myself in the grass after, but that was more for effect). 
  • Recently I tried strides for the first time. You know -- they're sometimes in training plans, usually six to ten 100m sprints to finish up an otherwise easy or long run. I don't know why I'd never actually done them before, even though plans I've used in the past have called for them. I think I was hearing "No, too fast! It's too hard! You'll hurt yourself!" but as I was doing them, adrenaline and exhilaration took over, and I realized I was just fine.
  • I reduced the mileage in my entire training plan. I've been exhausted since Week 1, and my legs always feel tired. I have trouble finishing my workouts. Was I afraid of being tired and hurting a little, or was it the right thing to do?


Here's a photo of Tilly for no reason.

Here's a photo of Tilly for no reason.

Marathon training is teaching me that there are a lot of tricky ways my brain tries to hold me back. I'm not sure why finishing this marathon feels so scary to me (It's just a half marathon x 2!) and why I'm having so much trouble convincing myself that yes, I can actually do this. That day at Spruce Meadows, I saw a girl do something I thought couldn't be done. In my short adult life, I've surprised myself with times I've undone my perceived limitations, and recreated myself in ways beyond anything I thought possible. The main reason I read so many running blogs is to see people "like me" do things I'm afraid of, as part of a long campaign to expand the universe of things I can imagine doing myself one day. How many of us never would have dreamed of doing a marathon, an Ironman, or an ultra until we followed along with someone else's training? 

So, is anyone else having trouble with the mental part of marathon training?