Runner Tough

by Dr. Benita Zahn

I’ve got finisher medals from 5 marathons, probably a dozen half marathons and countless shorter distance races. I’ve taken my age group a few times but mostly I happy to finish with a time I aimed for. Then again, sometimes I’m happy just to have finished.

My first half marathon was Covered Bridges. I don’t even remember the year but it’s at least 25 years ago. I was well trained, or so I thought. But the pre-race dinner didn’t sit well so my sleep was subpar. And it rained. No, it poured that morning as we traipsed through a muddy parking lot to find a sliver of shelter at the Suicide 6 ski resort, the race start. That name alone should have been a warning. By mile three the rain had eased, and we enjoyed the warm scent of fresh baked goods wafting from a bakery in Quechee, VT. By mile 9 our support person was ready with a dry shirt. Back then shirts were cotton, so you know how heavy and miserable my tee shirt felt by then. But no reprieve because at mile 9.5 the skies re-opened. I remember willing my feet forward the last mile of the race. I found something within my psyche I didn’t know that I possessed. I was dogged, focused solely on crossing the finish line. Even as I write this, I can conjure that sense of overwhelming exhaustion. But I kept going. And yes, I’ve experienced it again and kept going.   And my money says that anyone who’s ever run distance knows that feeling. So why do we keep going? Are runners somehow different from ‘other people’ or is it something in the way we’re ‘geared’ that draws us to running?

I’ll venture a non-scientific guess: it’s all the above.

I’m not sure how many runners played on a team in school. My sport was swimming. Yup, a solo endeavor that required focus and an ability to ‘gut it out’. I also love biking. Yeah, no team action there either. However, there is a camaraderie among runners you might not find with other athletes. Perhaps because we so acutely understand what the other runner is experiencing and knowing they’re out there, no teammate to help them.

You might remember the story from the 2017 Dallas Marathon where then 32-year-old Chandler Self was leading the women’s pack. With the finish line in site, she ran out of gas, experiencing that awful feeling I described, and fell. But that wasn’t the end of her race. A 17-year-old, Ariana Luterman was part of a high school relay that morning and lifted Self not once, but 4 times. Self-went on to win the women’s division clocking a 2:53:57.

Happy to have finished on her feet, Self said after the race "When you can’t run, you walk. When you can’t walk, you crawl, and no matter how many times you fall, that just means that is how many times you get back up again," she said. "I know I would have made it across that finish line no matter what."  And yes, she thanked Luterman, extensively.

So, runners keep going. And they help other runners keep going.

A 2020 article in Runners World looked at research showing that runners exhibit passion, grit and mindset with passion and grit leading the pack for running success. Yes, you must physically train but you also have train mentally. As I’m fond of saying, and not alone in saying this, half of runner happens in your head.

Visualization is a powerful tool to support a running challenge. There’s ample research showing that as we visualize an action, we activate the neurons used in running.

Runners are task oriented. A 2015 article in Psychology Today, written by a marathon running psychologist, notes the value that plays in completing a distance run, considering all the steps that must be completed to accomplish that feat. Additionally, psychologists who study personality traits find runners score above average on conscientiousness. The author continues by noting that marathoning allows extreme people to connect with others. He means extreme in the kindest of ways, noting that marathoning is an extreme endeavor. And while we run alone, we are surrounded by others doing the same thing, so we form mini communities along the way.

A local woman, Lichu Sloan, is in her 70’s. She didn’t embrace running until her early 50’s and then there was no stopping her. She has competed in marathons around the world, on every continent. She travels alone but has forged a running family among others chasing the same outcome: running someplace new, challenging oneself, experiencing new cultures and with every step, learning more about themselves. She’s just back from the Guyana Marathon and Suriname Marathon. She notes they were the most tiring and tough both physically and mentally. The logistics of getting to the countries playing a major role. And then something she hadn’t expected to encounter in Guyana: wild dogs. She and other runners were surrounded by them and one of the runners was bitten. It happened at 4 am. Additionally she and the 3 other runners she was with went off course. She credits them for gutting it out, finding the course again and keeping her moving.

When I reached out to her to congratulate her on this latest accomplishment, and could I mention her in my story she readily agreed with a bit of advice for all runners: Make sure you’re up to date with your tetanus shot. You never know what you’ll encounter on the road.

Along with that bit of advice let me add, as you sign up for races this upcoming season remember to hone your passion, honor your grit, find your friends along the road, and smile as you run that’s been shown to lift your spirits. Oh, and take pictures. Unless you’re on a tear for a PR those moments to capture the moments are well worth it.

BenitaLogo.pngAbout Dr. Benita Zahn

Benita is a certified Health and Wellness Coach working with clients at Capital Cardiology Associates. Benita spent more than 40 years as a health reporter and news anchor at WNYT in Albany, NY. She covered issues such as wellness, treatment breakthroughs, aging, nutrition, and the latest health care trends. Benita’s work has taken her around the world and across the USA.  Benita is a contributor to the weekly “Live Smart” page in the Times Union, the HMRRC Pace Setter and the new magazine 55+LIVING. Benita also created and co-hosts the podcast EVERYTHING THEATER.

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