Around mile 6, the dull ache in my stomach starting growing stronger. I felt simultaneously bloated, gurgly, and hungry—not a desirable combination anytime, but especially unpleasant during a half marathon.
Yet instead of fixating on the pain, I simply accepted it and pushed onward. “You didn’t train for this race,” I told myself. “Of course it’s going to be painful.”
As my stomach pain—plus other familiar running aches—waxed and waned through the remaining 7 miles of the Daufuskie Island Half Marathon, I continued repeating this mantra: Your pain is expected, and it’s okay. And then at mile 13, that pain turned to glee as I rounded the last corner and saw the giant red race timer ticking over the finish line. I crossed it three minutes ahead of my previous personal best—a number that had plagued me for five and a half years, despite multiple attempts to beat it.
My experience running this race last month (which I was invited to run as a member of the media) was both magical and extremely confusing. Magical in that I toured a beautiful, historical island on foot (Daufuskie is in South Carolina, directly southwest of Hilton Head), and somehow achieved my best time in the process. Confusing in the sense of HOW, exactly, did untrained me pull that off?! My previous best time had been achieved after months of hard, dedicated training. This go-around, I’d done far less and yet fared better (at least when it came to my finishing time). It went against all logic. But then I started thinking about it more and wondered: Could my lack of training somehow be partially responsible for my success?
Of course many factors can affect performance on race day—I would guess that the fact that the race was at sea level helped. (My previous best time was also set at sea level, but I was living at sea level at the time. Now, I live and run regularly at a moderate altitude in Boulder, Colorado.) Nutrition, sleep, and stress levels can also play a role, though in this particular case, I wouldn’t say I was doing great by those measures after a cross-country flight.
Beyond those external factors, though, is an often overlooked element that can have a big impact on performance: your mental state. And in replaying the narrative I told myself before and during the race, I realized that is where my lack of training may have actually paid off.
To be clear, I'm not advocating for a no-training approach. There are the obvious safety risks of running a long-distance race without properly preparing your body beforehand, and there’s also the reality that a good training plan will, more often than not, make you faster. Also, while running through discomfort is one thing, if you experience any sudden, sharp, or worsening pain, always listen to your body and stop. Never run through pain if you think you might have an actual injury.
That said, I do think that in my particular scenario, not training provided several important mental advantages that translated into real results. Let me explain.
I went into it with very few expectations and instead of stressing about hitting a time goal, I told myself that simply finishing would be a win.
Let me just say that I had the best intentions of training…until winter weather, winter holidays, winter laziness—you get the point. By the time I actually felt ready to begin training, the race was just two weeks away. And so I just kept up my regular workout routine in lieu of the tempo runs, long runs, and hill repeats that a typical half marathon training plan demands.
I should note here that in general, I’m pretty fit. I work out about five times a week with a mix of short-distance running and strength training, and I’ve finished four half marathons, plus a full marathon, before this one. Overall, I’d say I’m always trained enough to at least finish a 13.1-mile race. But to finish it quickly and without walking part of it? That’s a different story.
So when race day rolled around, I had fully accepted the fact that I was undertrained, and though I’m the type of person who, in a competitive setting, will never not try my hardest, I kind of let myself off the hook before the race even happened. This took a lot of the pressure off my performance, which I think ultimately helped me tackle the race loose and relaxed.
Ariane Machin, Ph.D., sport psychologist and former collegiate runner, calls my approach an "underdog mentality." Going in with a mind-set that the odds are already stacked against you “takes the pressure off completely,” Machin tells me. “There’s no expectation.”
“In general, runners are rule followers and want to do things in a particular way,” adds Machin, explaining that the discipline the sport requires often attracts more rigid, perfectionistic personalities. People with these tendencies (*raises both hands*) tend to also set high goals for themselves and are very good at following a set path to reach the goals. This, of course, can be beneficial in helping them achieve what they want, but at times, it can also lead to overwhelming pressure and stress. Especially when things don't go as planned.
Setting low expectations for my performance really helped me let go of the stuff I'd normally obsess over. As I mentioned, my sleep, nutrition, and stress levels leading up to the race weren’t ideal, mostly because I’d had a long day traveling the day before. The morning of the race, I woke up feeling sleep-deprived, dehydrated, stiff from flying, and bloated from eating greasy restaurant food. Yet instead of fixating on how much these external elements might affect my run, I was able to easily shrug them off by mentally adding them to the existing list of reasons I probably was going to have a bad race anyway. And looking back on it, I think that because I didn’t give these conditions much weight, they ultimately affected me much less than they could have.
I also knew beforehand that the race was not going to feel good.
“It’s almost like you were inviting the pain,” Machin says when I explain the mantra I repeated to myself both before the race and during its most difficult moments. She’s right—and not only did I invite the pain, I embraced it fully when it arrived.
What’s more, by telling myself beforehand that the experience was likely going to hurt horribly, I perhaps surprised myself when it wasn’t overwhelmingly painful, she posits, and this could have provided a positive mental boost.
Lastly, I didn’t bother tracking my pace and instead just listened to my body.
If I had actually trained for the race as planned, I probably would have developed a specific pacing strategy in advance, worn a watch on race day, and tracked my splits mile by mile. Instead, I simply listened to my body and paced myself accordingly. When I felt good, I pushed myself. When I was really hurting, I backed off a little. In between those moments, I simply tried to soak in the beauty of my surroundings: the live oak moss trees, the historic southern mansions, the great white egrets nesting along the beachside course. Looking back, if I had tried to follow a pacing strategy, I may have missed these important bodily cues and the stunning scenery.
The one exception to this is that about halfway through the race, when my stomach really started aching, I asked a fellow runner how much time had elapsed (there were no pace clocks along the route). When she told me, I was astounded—I was going faster than I’d imagined or even thought possible. Machin thinks this midrace revelation may have triggered positive thoughts and emotions, serving as a vital confidence boost that spurred me to keep pushing when I may have otherwise slowed down.
She notes that hearing my time could have easily had the opposite effect, if it were a number that I deemed slow. Thus is the potential downside of tracking your pace. Being behind where you want to be—even if it’s just a few seconds—can “grate on you a little bit,” she says. Ditching the watch and simply running based on how your body feels can help you run more intuitively and ultimately, enjoy the experience more. In certain scenarios, like mine, this combo of mindfulness plus joy can lead to faster running.
Going forward, I plan to take what I learned from this experience and combine it with an actual training plan.
When you have a personality like mine, “it’s very uncomfortable to mix things up a bit,” says Machin. But the fact that I learned to let go in this scenario may help me going forward because it proved I can find success without following a strict plan. “Sometimes not following the plan is the plan,” says Machin. “When you realize you can still succeed not following the rules, it’s very freeing.”
My main takeaway from this whole experience is this: Of course it’s important and hugely beneficial to actually train for a race, but at the same time, it's important to listen to your body, allow for flexibility in your plan, and maintain healthy perspective. With this newfound mind-set, I plan to *actually* train for another half marathon later this year, and I'm excited about what might happen this time.