Playing a sport is nerve-wracking. Physically demanding tasks entail a psychological burden. Being expected by your coach or teammates to perform at your best when a group outcome is at stake can be uncomfortable. Even when you toil in relative anonymity and are racing just to beat your own best times or achieve a Boston Marathon qualifying standard, and expectations are almost entirely your own, your own head can gleefully throw up impediments to goal attainment.
Those of us who aren’t elite runners are lucky. When we foul up a race, to the extent anyone else notices, we can say, “It just wasn’t my day” or “I couldn’t hang with the pace for some reason,” and people accept these explanations without judgment. But if you happen to be fast or a key member on a highly regarded team, and you have a not-your-day on which you just can’t hang, other people notice.
Shalane Flanagan is one professional runner unlikely accused of not bringing it when it counts. She has won six U.S. titles each on all three standard surfaces (track, road and cross-country). At 36 and still going strong—as seen by her 2017 New York City Marathon win—her string of records, medals and dominant wins obscure the fact that her high-school and college cross-country careers were marked by rare but significant struggles.
Despite establishing herself as a supreme talent as a 10th-grader at Marblehead High School in Massachusetts, Flanagan never advanced past the Foot Locker Northeast Regional Championship, fading to 20th as a junior with a gastrointestinal illness and wobbling to a DNF as a senior—when she was among the favorites to not just win but go on to claim the national title—after charging through the first mile at a suicidal pace.
As a college frosh at the University of North Carolina, Flanagan took an impressive fourth at the NCAA Championships, and went into the championships the next fall having amassed sufficiently extraordinary credentials to earn her the National Runner of the Year award the evening before the race. That honor in large part led to her undoing on the course: a terrific mid-race half-mile surge to the front ended in a spate of walking and a 22nd-place finish.
After this setback, Flanagan consulted with Dr. Greg Gale, now the director of the sports psychology program at Duke University. She describes this process as quick (“two or three sessions”), clean and productive.
“After I verbalized my fears and anxieties,” she says, “I was fine.”
Lesson No. 1: Be honest with yourself
Simply admitting out loud that you have the same demons as anyone else is often the key to slaying them. Most of us would probably prefer to think that we’re more limited by physical than mental limitations, because we don’t want to think that we are constitutionally unfit for race-day duty thanks to unnavigable mental barriers.
The one road title Flanagan hasn’t won in seven tries so far was the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles, which is staged in famously warm and shade-free conditions. Although she co-led most of the race, as is her wont, her wrenchingly painful fade to third in the final two miles was memorialized by the television cameras. She made the Olympic team, but even as she lay recovering at the finish, she was already aghast at the assurance of facing similar conditions at the Games. “I was thrilled to make the team,” Flanagan recounts. “But I was terrified to run in Rio.”
Flanagan’s response was an energetic quest for all the wisdom she possibly amass about counteracting the effects of heat on performance. By the time she started the Olympic Marathon in Rio de Janeiro six months later, she had more than made up for whatever shortfalls had managed to plague her in this area despite being not only a determined competitor but a studious one. In the expected nasty conditions, Flanagan ran to an impressive 6th-place finish in 2:25:26, only 1:22 behind the winner.
Lesson No. 2: Turn a perceived shortcoming into a strength
“Race your strengths but train your weaknesses” is a common mantra in coaching circles. You may have more control over picking and choosing your races than an Olympian and national champion does, but don’t be afraid to tackle workouts and races outside your comfort zone, as this can help spur breakthroughs in your usual venues. For example, if you don’t like hills, run a mountain race as a training run a couple of months before a flat marathon.
Asked about the inevitable tendency to mentally return to the scene of bad-race crimes, Flanagan proposes a zero-tolerance policy, something she says other elites have echoed. “Learn from those races and try to forget they ever happened,” she says matter-of-factly. She suggests isolating the mistakes made in a race from the venue itself, which is useful in keeping your mind from creating negative associations with a given course or distance, and moving ahead while addressing those mistakes.
Lesson No. 3: Learn, but don’t linger. Exorcise your demons and carry on.
In high school, I had one bad race on the course that would later be used for the New Hampshire State Championships. It was actually a course made for my style and tastes, and I’d run well on it numerous times. But after fading with a head cold that one time, I was never the same at Derryfield Park again, and it was almost entirely in my head.
Finally, Flanagan has succinct advice when it comes to the basic idea of screwing up an athletic contest when the pressure is on.
“It’s only choking if the athlete thinks it’s choking,” she advises. “If that happens, you set yourself up for a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
That calls to mind a reality touched on already. Competitive running is hard – not just owing to its physical and mental demands, but because it is agonizingly difficult to run to your full potential in any given race regardless of your level of preparation. On the track a 5 percent slowdown turns a four-minute miler with a shot at an NCAA title into a 4:12 specimen who could be soundly beaten by the country’s top high-schoolers.
Turn that on its head, however, and you bask in this: Whatever performances you’ve laid down, you didn’t do it because you were lucky. There are no eyes-squeezed-shut, wildly-swinging-for-the-fences home runs in distance running. If you broke 20:00 for 5K a year ago on a fair course and your workouts indicate you’re just as fit today, you’re capable of doing it again. You can’t control the weather, your competitors’ abilities or other externalities, but you can always run with confidence. And just like fitness, confidence springs from rehearsal, not just talent.