Runners Suck at Math

I constantly debate with myself regarding whether running is more physical or mental, whether it’s one or the other, whether it’s an equal combination of the two or something else entirely. Recently I broke it up into percentages and came up with the following formula.

Running is 70% physical and 80% mental.

Like I said, runners suck at math. At least this one does. Or maybe not. Those percentages actually make complete sense to me.

As evidence, I eased into the very beginning of my long run this past Saturday, under a darkened sky slowly transitioning to a deadened grey. The air was bitingly cold and I felt restricted by the full coverage of layered spandex necessary to keep my temperatures at a tolerable level.

Add to these less than stellar conditions, coach had me scheduled to run 18 miles with 12 at around marathon race pace, which is somewhere between 5:30 and 5:45 pace at my current fitness level. In hindsight, I knew I wasn’t ready for this….not this morning. I could probably knock out a handful of miles at this pace, but I wasn’t sure I could hold on for all 12, for a number of reasons. Still, there is no success if one doesn’t try.

After the 3 mile warmup I started in on the quickened pace, knowing I was taking it slow in hopes that my body would warm up and instinctually pick up the pace. I hit the first mile and looked at my watch…5:35. Wow! It didn’t feel like I was running that fast. I looked again……oh. 6:35. Nevermind. My spirits plummeted and so did my resolve. I ran another half mile and instantly knew this run was over. My body slowed to a jog. I decided to finish out 10 miles and reset the system for another day.

And on this day, the 80 percentage became painfully apparent. See, I had the 70% physical within me, somewhere, hidden deep, but the 80% mental was front and center. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say that in 2 days I was scheduled to drive 9 hours to North Carolina for an emotionally draining court date regarding a visitation fight for my son, which filled me with a preemptive sense of dread that I simply couldn’t shake. I went to sleep with the dread Friday night, woke up with it Saturday morning and despite caffeine’s best efforts, couldn’t shake at the start of my long run, carrying it with me into the compromised effort.

After struggling through the first mile and unable to concentrate on anything except my frustration with having to fight for my son, an increasing weight fell upon me as I considered having to run another 11 miles with effort while thinking about the building stress. No amount of mental strength could overcome the dread of what may come…..and I was done. It simply wasn’t worth it.

I drug myself back home and prepared to recharge once the episodic stress had run its course.

The 80% was just too much for the 70% that day.

(To quickly conclude that narrative though, it turns out that my day in court was more a victory than some of my best races ever were, and which I celebrated by running a strong and quickened 12 miles on the hotel treadmill.)

Back to the percentages though. I think about them often when it comes to the marathon. Some people feel I’m a very abrasive individual (damn facebook personas), but I think my intensity is actually an asset when it comes to distance running. I pay attention to the personalities of my teammates and can pretty accurately predict which of them will succeed in the marathon and which won’t, and it always comes down to their general demeanor. To be frank, some of them are just too damn nice. They aren’t fighters. They are super positive, very friendly, and just don’t seem to have that “fighting spirit” in their core. Which is NOT a bad thing, but I’m not so sure how that translates to running a marathon.

On the other hand, there are those who are fighters. They aren’t always pleasant to be around, and can be downright aggravating sometimes, but I also trust them to pull out the weapons when the miles start fighting back. They have developed the 70% physical game necessary to carry them to the finish, but they’ve also honed the 80% mental game that takes over when the body has been worn down. And in the marathon, the body WILL wear down. It’s how you keep going at that point that separates the successes from the disappointments.

For some, the percentages of running make more mathematical sense. They measure out 60% physical effort with 40% mental effort. Or vice versa. Or something that equals 100%. And that might get you through a solid 5k, 10k or even a half marathon, but it simply isn’t enough when it comes to the full 26.2.

Running that distance at the speeds we hope to simply doesn’t make sense….and so our math can’t either.

It takes an angry intensity. It takes a physical development. And maybe most importantly, it takes a mental development that overcomes personal stresses in training, physical obstacles in racing and the inevitable dying that comes in the last six miles of a marathon.

Do the math for yourself, just make sure your answer doesn’t add up.


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