“Anything, including self-deception, that distracts a runner from the task at hand will be a detriment to performance.”

-Kenny Moore

In 1975, twenty world-class distance runners descended upon Dallas to partake in rigorous psychological and physical testing– the first tests of their kind. Scientists wanted to find out whether runners were just legs and lungs or something special (or what made their legs and lungs so special).

One psychological test asked the runners what they thought about during races. Earlier tests on sub-elite athletes revealed complex narratives used to disassociate the runners from discomfort: one runner, a carpenter, built a house during races, completing the house by the time he reached the finish. Another, a musician, ran through Beethoven symphonies. Another pretended to be a train. The scientists were eager to learn how truly elite athletes dealt with discomfort, and were utterly disappointed.

When asked what they thought about during races, every single elite runner answered “the race.”

When probed further and asked how they approach pain, the most eloquent answer they received was “If I feel bad I try to push harder, because the others are probably feeling bad too.”

The point is the race. Discomfort is a given. Why construct a means of missing the reason for your training?

During one particular humid half-marathon, I misjudged how I felt and began dropping the pace halfway through the race. Two miles later, I realized the severity of my mistake; I slowed and wallowed in self-pity for a mile, until a lone spectator on the endless highway home locked eyes with me and said “Focus.”

I did not know this man, but he gave me the single best piece of advice I’ve ever received mid-race. Focusing, rather than wallowing, seemed such a novel concept. I felt bad. I had to finish. Neither of these indisputable facts would change over the next three miles– why dwell on it? So I focused. I realized I felt bad but not dead, and, doled out efficiently, had enough energy to finish respectably.

You must treat yourself objectively over the course of the season, carefully destroying your body to make it stronger. You must treat yourself objectively during races as well– taking meticulous stock of your capabilities to cover a distance as efficiently (quickly) as possible. You cannot do this without ironclad awareness and focus.

When you are racing, think about the race.