I can’t see my front runner. I’m looking through the trees and I can hear cheering, but no one’s come out yet. The girls earned a perfect score of 15 literally 20 minutes ago, which is something rarely seen as a coach. Now the boys have a chance to do the same. If the girls and boys both put up a perfect score it’s honestly something that I have never seen before in all of my coaching.
I asked Katie, one of my Cross Country ‘animals’ who just finished as a top-five runner for the first time, to come and cheer on the boys with me. I’m still shouting encouragement for the boys, who have yet to emerge from the woods, when she comes over. Katie begins to tell me about her race. Honestly, I’m only half listening. What I mean is that half of my focus is waiting for my runners to come out of the woods, and the other half is ‘kind of’ paying attention to what she’s saying. All the sudden a few words trigger my ears to fully listen. Katie is talking about a woman on her course who was cheering for her daughter to get up the hill. She explained that she decided to replace that woman’s daughter’s name with her own name, so every time this woman cheered for her daughter, Katie imagined that she was cheering for her.
I begin to feel my attention bend away from the woods and onto Katie’s words.
She continues on about the large crowd in the woods. They were yelling and screaming and cheering and you couldn’t even tell who they were cheering for. Katie said she began to visualize all those people were shouting for her and that they were pointing at her, smiling at her, and encouraging her on. Now, you may be saying that is really sweet and nice, but I want you to take into account that Katie had not been even a top 10 runner so far this season. On top of that, she had stomach cramps right before the race started.
I asked her where she learned to do this visualization. I heard someone in the crowd behind me say she would make a great coach! I agreed, she absolutely would. Then I said, “What you’re talking about will get you to the next level, Katie. Top five at the middle school race is only the beginning for someone who knows how to use their mind.”
Fast forward. Both our girls’ and our boys’ teams ended up sweeping the meet with perfect scores! We took the bus ride home cheerfully, both me and my assistant coach knowing full well that we had a 20-mile run to do as soon as we got back to the school. We’re training together for 50k. I don’t think I realized how much the meet wore on me, or how much energy I gave out until mid-way through the third lap of a five-lap, looped route we had chosen to do for this run.
I was really struggling. When you’re that physically exhausted, sugar (i.e. energy) becomes scarce for your mental faculties, and your emotions run high. The mind begins to look for your “why.” It needs to know, in the wake of serious energy depletion, that there’s a bigger purpose. So, I took some time and sat down on the side of the trail. I’ve done a lot of 50k and 50-mile ultra-races in my life and I wondered why I was doing this one. I needed to know. I thought of how my friend was doing his first 50k, so he was inspired for this accomplishment. I also knew that I wanted to do a 100-mile race in a year or two, but that was a long way off to try and justify getting around this loop two more times.
Then, I thought of Katie.
I realized I could visualize these next two loops, these last 8 miles, as the very end of my hundred-mile race. I imagined this was my mind questioning me while I was trying to finish that race; how would I find the energy to finish? I imagined races where I had struggled. I imagined pulling out fresh shoes, eating some soup, the dark of night, sweat coming off of my brow. The look of total understanding runners give each other in the late stages of a race. What would it be like to be only 8 miles shy of 100 miles and feel this bad? More importantly, how would it feel and how would I get through it? Because it was coming. No matter how much I trained physically, there is no substitute for being completely physically, mentally, and emotionally fatigued and moving through it. I got up. I visualized myself leaving the aid station, walking at first then easing into a slow run. I reminded myself how with every step forward I was getting closer to the finish line. I imagined people cheering as I crossed the finish line. Handing me soup and a warm blanket. The feeling of completion.
When I finished those last two loops I had level of pride in myself that I haven’t felt in a long time. It was truly difficult, and I felt courageous for getting through that training run. More so than some of the races I had done in the past couple years. It took a 13-year-old girl on my cross-country team to remind me to visualize what I needed to give my absolute best effort. To use my mental tools in a way that would benefit my reality instead of allowing my environment to dictate my performance and when I would throw in the towel. In the darkest moments of my races to come I will remember the inspiration I borrowed from Katie.