One Saturday morning not too long ago, I set out for an 18-mile run. When I started at 7 a.m. it was clear, cool, and dry; the reason running in Alaska is perfect. Westchester Lagoon was still and mirrored the Chugach Mountains. On the coast the sun slowly rose across the Inlet, illuminating blues, greens and the smooth expanse of mudflats at low tide. I thudded along the trail.
This was the longest run I'd ever set out to do. It was the second-longest run in my Midnight Sun Marathon training schedule, also the first marathon I've ever signed up for. As I rounded a bend toward Lynn Ary Park, the app I use to track mileage told me I'd run three miles.
At that moment, I looked out across the water and felt extraordinary. It was an enormous, fluttery sensation. I felt eerily similar to what you might call "in love," "enchanted" or "high as a kite."
I thought: "I've already run three miles. That means I only have 15 left to go!"
The thought that immediately followed brought all of my fluttery nice feelings to a screeching halt: "I think I might be going insane."
There is a difference between constantly telling myself to think a certain way and actually thinking that way. It was a strange, unnerving feeling to not beat back negative thoughts such as, "I only ran three miles?! But that means I have 15 left! This will never end!" and instead have a positive thought pop naturally to mind.
However, this type of thinking, more than the physical miles, is what will get me through the marathon. Through running longer and longer distances I have accrued several important mental tricks that help me get through running (and some other areas of life, as well).
Read on, even if you're not a runner. This is still for you.
It's the work you put in, not the talent you have
There's a funny thing people do when I announce I am going to go for, say, a 20-mile training run. They look me up and down. Now, I can't say what they're thinking, but if I were to hazard a guess, it would be this: "You? Are going to do ... that?! With those legs? And that squishy layer of beer calories you've been working so hard on all winter?"
The answer is that although I don't exactly have a raw talent for running, I've been working toward it. I started running one mile, eventually moved up to two, then five, then a half marathon, etc. Eventually the marathon idea occurred, as it was bound to. When I started training for the marathon, six miles was hard. Now 20 is hard. It is amazing -- I mean that, it is astounding -- what you can do with a steadily increasing, incremental training schedule. This should ring true in the Alaskan ethos: that it's not necessarily those who have the talent who will make it the farthest; it's those who are willing to work and work and work.
Don't go to the bad place
You know what it is. The bad place is easy to get to. It's also the most natural. An example is this thought: "I've only run three miles and I have 15 to go. This is impossible."
A great way to prevent yourself from getting to the bad place is simply to know what meets your needs and keeps you happy. Then, make sure you do those things. Drinking water, wearing the right clothing and having some kind of fuel are the basics (water, food, shelter -- it's very primal). Then, add podcasts, friends and music. You can trick yourself both short- and long-term into enjoying running by having things along that you enjoy.
Another trick for not going to the bad place that I learned recently: Count the miles down in threes, not ones. Running long distances mile by mile is tedious and feels endless. Increments of three feel much more manageable. It's like when you're counting down to something exciting, like a vacation. Instead of thinking in terms of hours, count down the number of times you have to fall asleep before you get to what you want. Sleeping is like magically fast forwarding life. So is counting miles by threes.
Nobody wants to do something again that was terrible. Especially when you first start training, make sure you save some mental tricks for the end of your run. It helps your brain want to go out and do it all over again. Have a friend join toward the end or save a good (or good/bad, I'm not judging) song for when you need it most. Even if you're alone, smile. Smiling triggers endorphins, aka those fluttery feelings I mentioned before. It also makes you look like a crazy person on the trail, but who cares? You very well might be a crazy person, especially if you're like me, running long distances and thinking overly positive thoughts.
Running, and other long, energy-intensive activities can be draining, and there is a fine line to just muscling through or doing it well. Overall, I try to finish in a way I'll look back on and feel happy about. I have tremendous respect for the many miles my body allows me to drag it through, but truly it is my mind that does most of the work.
Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.