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August 04, 2014

Mind Games - What's Next for Kate Grace

Kate Grace

This is supposed to be a race report, and it will get there. But first, I like to pass on some tips or knowledge in my blogging. For the nitty gritty: I have a race coming up, a 1500 at the Shoreline All-Comers meet this Wednesday, August 6th. If you are in Seattle, come join in a heat!  And then watch us race at 8:25 pm. Getting there: Shoreline Stadium at NE 185th Street and Fifth Avenue NE.

Confidence. I used to think it was an innate trait. You had it, or you didn't. I had it, and that was my secret weapon. I might not have been the most exactly trained runner, but I knew I could win, and that was that. Not thinking about this secret sauce worked well, I would tend to race above my predicted place or time. But I've learned in the past few months that what I had wasn't strictly self-esteem. It was more like a combination of momentum and ignorance. Put them together, and you get the "beginners luck" effect. But, if you take a few initial successes, and use that as the base for confidence, what happens when the challenges arise?


This was my issue over the past few months, as I moved past the initial successes (of last year, or my early season races). First, I had a string of random body pains. Nothing so major as to stop training, but it seemed like every other week there was something that caused me to shorten a workout. Then, all of a sudden at USAs, my IT band was super inflamed, to the point where striding felt like hard work. I had a blow-up race in the 1500 final, probably caused by a combination of  the physical  symptoms, and my mental insecurity due the timing. After that, I went to Europe to try and get my racing mojo back, but there were no lanes. Worse yet, the race directors and people I would normally turn to to help with getting in meets seemed to have turned their backs. You didn't race well? Not worth my time (I perceived them as saying).

It's the classic sophomore slump. Outside feedback doesn't say you are special? You must not be special. fuck. Now what? All I could think of was to wait around and sulk.

BUT! There has to be a but. My "aha" moment came when I realized that sports psychology is a whole area of training dedicated to helping with these issue. All those mantras that may sound like fluff are actually the mental equivalent of workout plans. Getting mojo back is just as much a concerted effort as planning intervals and tempos. And, the benefits are consistent and incremental in the same sense. Maybe each individual workout doesn't create a  world class runner, but do a few of them consistently, and it's just science, things will improve.  

I ran an 800 in Linz, Austria, about two weeks after USAs. It was... blah. Not great, not bad. I finished fifth, in 2:02 something. My fitness felt fine. It was the mental portion that was, dull. Like a haze. It was that race that drove home the idea that this had to be as much a priority as getting in my training session.


After consulting coaches, reading weird books, these are three methods that have given me results:

1. Exercising Your Chimp 
Lauren gave me a book called The Chimp Paradox. At first, it's a strange premise. The author, Steve Peters, splits the brain into the human and the chimp. The human is rational, the chimp is the animal. If a reaction to a situation is overly emotional, mean, defensive, etc., it's not you, it's your chimp. He doesn't use this a mechanism to let you off the hook, you are still responsible for your chimp's actions. It is a way of getting past guilt, and creating a system to deal with yourself. One suggestion that I liked is something called "exercising the chimp." If a stressful situation comes up, there is going to be an emotional response. He suggests finding a way to fatigue your emotions like you fatigue your legs on a treadmill. Only once they are manageable can you hope to move on to finding a solution.

My second race in Europe was supposed to be a 1500 in Heusden, Belgium. It's a low key meet, but historically, the races are paced and fast: the perfect setting for a PR. This was going to be my redemption run. I traveled to the hotel, and when I went to go through the motions of checking in, I was denied. I was not considered a part of the international competition. My initial reaction was a combination of demoralized and humiliated. It was total "chimp." I went into the concrete stairwell (sound proofing!) and broke down into tears. All the horrible, negative thoughts passed through (this was all a waste, i am worthless, i want to go hide in a hole somewhere. i can't race the B race. i'm going to leave. right now. no one cares about me.). Sure enough, after about ten minutes of this, my chimp was tired. I stopped crying, made a few calls about a race the next day, and went on with my race prep. This time it was in a military-like fashion: get in, execute, get out. The A race did go really fast, but I won my heat, and it was my own personal victory.


2. List of Fears and Antidotes
Another tactic for squashing fears is having an arsenal of affirmations to combat negative thoughts. I was having a lot of these, everything from "my body will not cooperate" to "I''m losing muscle" to "this is a stupid endeavor."  In this exercise, you write out a list of any fear that has popped into your mind, and then write an affirmation that is its exact opposite. Whenever your mind starts turning, immediately say your affirmation three times. It is forced at first, but effective in changing the thought pattern.

This isn't a magic cure-all, but I have seen improvements. Last weekend I was a part of a 4x800 in Eugene. It was a high-performance portion tucked into the World Junior meet. Our group was the Pacific Northwest crew, composed of two Seattle runners, Phoebe Wright and Erica Moore, and Wazzie Lauren Wallace from Sacramento. All weekend, I would silently repeat my affirmations. I wasn’t suddenly superman, but I was calm before the race, and excited. We were up against the "all-star" team, which had faster season bests across the board. But in the race itself, we ran them even. I got the baton right with Ajee Wilson, the current world leader. I stayed on her though 700 meters, and while her finishing speed was quicker, the run up until that point felt smooth, even easy. There was strength in these legs. I was back to tasting a PR.


3. Race Plan 
Races are a different beast. I can run smooth in the beginning, when it is like a time trial or practice, but I wanted to find a way to get to that edge of competition. That's where a race story comes in. I will plant little mental cues at different sections of the race. It's a way to bring up the special focus or grit that is needed in the final stages.  I've been working on creating my story, what I will think about at 800, one lap to go, the final stretch. One suggestion was a battle scene. I've also been toying with the idea of using the names of loved ones. Like, the race is a pack of people trying to harm them, and I have to stay close enough to be able to come to the rescue. It sounds a bit kooky, but I use it to give me the extra oomf when the fast pace is starting to set in.

I tried this at the 1500 in Belgium, and it worked for a tactical race. This week, I get to test it at full speed. Jesse Williams and Danny Mackey of Brooks have organized a paced 800 and 1500 during a Seattle all-comer's meet. The idea is to get rabbits through the first 1000, ensure a fast start, and set up the athletes for an attempt at a season or personal best. It's the ultimate sports psych move: if good things aren't coming your way, create your own chances.

And there I am, back at mantras and pithy sayings. Maybe that's the whole goal of this mental battle after all: working to get back to that state of childlike hope. It's like beginner's luck, 2.0. The ignorance gives you the ability to continue believing in big goals, the awareness reminds you this can't be a passive activity, you're going to have to fight. And somewhere in the middle you realize, the momentum is worth fighting for.


Adrienne | August 5, 2014 at 8:57am

Mental Sport

Fast K8, Your post really hits home to me! I've been struggling with the mental aspect of the sport for many years now. My PR in the 10K remains to be the first time I ever ran the race! I've come to learn that you have to train your mind just as much as you train your body to gets past these barriers. Thanks for sharing! Keep inspiring! Adrienne :)

Amy | August 5, 2014 at 9:16am

Glimpse of Your World

I love that we get a glimpse into your world, your mindset. It reminds me that, while your pace is astronomically faster than my own, our worries, our set backs, and our fears are very similar. The strategies you have used to overcome are awesome. Thanks for sharing them with us.

Blair | August 5, 2014 at 11:52am

This really resonated with me!

I started working with a coach last June and made huge progress. Big PRs in every distance and I lined up at almost every race determined, focused, and confident. I'd feel like I was flying and pick people off along the way. I had an awesome race at a half marathon in March where I ran way faster than I thought I was capable of and I think even my coach was surprised. Then, three days later I felt some soreness in my knee at the end of the run. I ended up only having 2 days of actual pain but after that was a cascading effect. Chronic knee tightness and then stride issues, where it felt like my left leg wasn't moving in sync with my right despite my best efforts. I panicked as Boston was coming closer and closer. I lined up at Boston without my usual race day confidence. I wondered how my knee would hold up, if my stride would cause me issues or cause my muscles to fatigue too soon. I ran a nice PR but fell short of my goal. Since Boston, I took some time building my mileage back and getting a nice base as I prepare for a marathon in November. But I so related to this because it hasn't been as easy or confident this go-round. My body's ability to quickly recover has been one of my biggest strengths but it's felt like every day/week something new is bothering me and my confidence and race day performance is suffering in the process. I'll have great workouts but line up at a race and run scared. I am going to practice the affirmations and race plans. I mostly just loved reading this to know I'm not alone! I agree-the momentum is worth fighting for and right now my biggest goal is not a time or pace but getting that scrappiness and confidence back!

Liz H | August 6, 2014 at 6:39pm

My Chimp is in Charge

I can't believe I stumbled upon this blog and more specifically - this post! First of all, I saw you race in Sacramento at Nationals and I can't tell you how amazing and inspiring it was to watch you race in person. Just amazing. I will never forget that experience. Secondly, I have recently been struggling with my chimp and I can't seem to get it under complete control. Midway through this past track season (March), I raced my first 10k on a track and surprised myself, my coach, and my team with a GREAT time. After that, however, I battled with some foot pain and had many failed workouts due to my sensitivity to the heat (you know, the Sacramento heat!). Because of these issues I was afraid to really push myself and give my workouts everything I had, even though before that I had no problem exerting myself. My subsequent races were just OK efforts at best, and for the rest of the season I never came close to hitting the time I did in March. I was afraid everyone thought my one great race was a fluke, and that I wasn't really as good as my race time actually reflected. Every time I stepped on the track I felt I had something to prove, and it was that pressure on myself, and with all eyes on me, that would cause fear and anxiety and my chimp to surface. Now that track season is over and I've "rebooted" myself, I'm trying desperately to leave those negative feelings behind and train fresh for cross country. So far so good, but I already feel a little anxious when I think of my first race. Those feelings that I have something to prove keep surfacing. I like your ideas of writing down fears and antidotes, and creating stories during races. Most importantly, I think repeating affirmations before races will have the most impact, because it's the doubts and fears that I need to completely annihilate from my brain. I've been reflecting on this all week as I'm building mileage again, so your post couldn't have come at a more perfect time for me! Thank you!!!