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Set and Reach High Goals with Mental Preparation

I ran cross country and track for Gustavus Adolphus College, a division 3 college in St. Peter, Minnesota. Although I did well there, setting 5 school track and field records and qualifying for the NCAA national meet four times, I know I did not achieve all I could. I never finished All-American (top 35 placing in a cross country NCAA meet or top 8 at a NCAA track and field meet), and never ran faster than 17:46 for a 5k. I truly believe this is because I never had the guts to set audacious goals, dream bigger than should be realistic, and never chased those goals and dreams with everything I had.

I took some time off after college to pursue my career and attain my MBA. I still ran, but it wasn’t structured. It wasn’t until a debilitating hip injury in 2010 that I started to wonder what I could do under the guidance of a coach. I was introduced to Jerry Schaubach, a retired high school coach in the city that I worked. We met and I told him that my big goal was to qualify for the Olympic Trials in the marathon.

Anyone should have heard that goal and laughed. I was a 1:24 half-marathoner at the time, and in order to qualify for the Trials I would need to run faster than two 1:23 back-to-back half-marathons to qualify (the Olympic Trials standard was sub 2:46). I have never had the guts to make goals this big - improving that much typically isn’t feasible, right?

But, to his credit, he believed in me. He wrote a plan that increased my mileage quicker than I would have thought possible. I went from dealing with a hip injury that didn’t allow me to run at all to running 30 miles a week to a maximum mileage of 80 miles/week in a matter of 3 months. I would never have thought I could run mileage like that, but my coach’s weekly plan kept the increases feasible.

I worked a lot on the mental aspect of training a lot during this time. First, I decided that for the first time ever, I would be vocal about my goals. I told a few people at work that my goals were to qualify for the Trials. This scared me to death. What if I didn’t qualify? I would be a failure in their eyes, as well as my own. But, I knew that if I didn’t publically announce my goals I would allow myself to let go of the goal too easily.

The first marathon I raced under my coach’s guidance was the Twin Cities Marathon where I finished in 2:51, over 5 minutes slower than the Olympic Trials standard. I knew I could race smarter and become a stronger marathoner with another cycle of training, but I still wondered if running a sub 2:46 was even possible.

Fast forward to two weeks before Grandma’s marathon the following June. I had trained harder than I ever had and was hitting times in workouts that I hadn’t hit before. My mileage had hit a peak of 90 miles/week, which was also a new high for me. Two weeks before my race, I began visualizing to help prepare for the race. As I lay in bed at night, I visualized the entire race, including the clock’s finishing time as I finished. I needed a sub 2:46, so visualized a 2:45:50.

For some reason, I didn’t believe in what I was trying to visualize. I had never had this problem before. I recognized it was because I didn’t fully believe running under the standard was possible. Perhaps it was because I knew so many other talented women that had missed the standard multiple times. I talked to other runners about my dilemma and they recommended seeing a local sports psychologist. I was floored. I didn’t have a problem! There was no reason I needed to see a psychologist!

I was convinced to set up a time to see him, and I promise you, if you’ve ever had thoughts like those above, that it will be worth your time to set up an appointment to see a professional. Dr. Asp was able to identify the fact that I wanted to hit the standard because I didn’t want to disappoint the individuals I had told about my goal or the family that were coming up to watch me. We talked through this together and came to the conclusion that thinking that way was not going to help propel me through pain during the last 10k of the race.

Instead, he encouraged me to focus on my effort during the race (full effort = full victory!) and the reasons I was racing (I love to run and love to prove myself). He made a race prep CD for me that I listened to for two weeks before the marathon.

I can’t tell you how much his mental coaching and CD helped me. I ended up racing well under the Olympic Trials standard, 2:44:46, in a race that I still consider to be one of the easiest I’ve ever run. Mentally, I was confident and patient. I embraced pain better than I ever have in a race. It was almost a surreal experience, even.

For anyone that hasn’t set really high goals or focused on their mental preparations before a focus race, I wholeheartedly suggest you reach out consider both. Without high goals, you may not push yourself to limits you never thought feasible. A professional might be able to identify holes in your mental preparation and channel your mental energies in better, more beneficial areas. Both goal setting and mental preparation obviously made a huge difference for me in my race-day performance, and I know it could for you as well!

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