24, 23, 22, …

There is a moment in every race where a decision has to be made. The decision of whether to push through the pain or give up. On the first day of class this January, I remember listening to the case studies of the different athletes and their accomplishments. At the end of the case study, the class was polled about the biggest factor in helping the athlete succeed. Many classmates answered that it was the abnormal physiology or the specialized training that led to the success. While these are both correct answers, there was one answer that seemed to be overlooked—mind over matter. In my opinion, the aspect of mind over matter is what separates the good athletes from the great athletes. The physiology and months of training are vital to the athlete, but when the breathing and heart rate starts to rise and the lactic acid starts to build up, the athlete can go one of two ways. He or she can push through it or ease up.

I’ve run many races over the course of my life but I had never raced an indoor 5k…until yesterday. The 5k is a 3.1 mile race. This equates to 25, 200 meter laps on the indoor track. In a race like the 5k, it’s easy to say, “take it one lap at a time.” I can say from experience that this is much easier said than done. In my race this weekend, aside from an uncharacteristically slow opening lap, I ran just under five minute pace for majority of the first half of the race. As the race went on, fatigue was setting in. I watched the lap counter every time I went by wishing that I was making more progress then I actually was.  With about 9 laps to go, I didn’t think that I was able to maintain my pace to the finish. As a result, I eased up a bit from 36-37, 200 meter pace to 39-40 second lap pace for a couple of laps. I ended up finishing my last lap in 32 seconds. Clearly I had enough in the tank to finish the race strong but I let the intimidating number 9 stop me from trying to hold my pace for a little longer.

The point that I’m trying to make is that it’s one thing to be in good enough shape to achieve a goal, but it’s another thing to actually do it. This is the idea of mind over matter. I’m a huge believer in training and doing the right things on and off of the track, but as the level of competition increases and the playing field is leveled, the mind can make all of the difference. Mental preparation can be the difference between winning gold, getting a personal best, or, in my case, qualifying for a race. The Division 3 New England qualifying time in the 5k is 15:30. I ran 15:36 and change yesterday. I know that I have the fitness to get the time, and had I been a little more mentally strong, I could have achieved the standard and avoided another 5k that I need to run if I want to qualify. And I think we can all agree that avoiding a 25-lap race on the indoor track would be a win.

After having this experience yesterday, I wouldn’t be quite so fast to jump right to the “exceptional physiology” or “good training” button on the class poll asking about an athlete’s success. Who knows, I might just select mind over matter next time around.

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3 Responses to 24, 23, 22, …

  1. ugogal says:

    This is why your fearless professors included this as an option for every single case study!
    My college track coach told me a story about my brother (who also ran for Amherst)..he had never lost to a Williams guy in outdoor going into his senior year. He wasn’t in top shape because of his senior thesis but coasted most of the season…then had a tough race against a Williams guy…that he won on sheer guts alone. That was a big difference between him and me (that and the fact that he had more talent).
    Prefontaine is probably the greatest example.

  2. I also agree that mind over matter plays a major role in an athlete’s success. The power of the mind is truly amazing when put to full use. Last summer, I read a book called “Body, Mind Mastery” by Dan Millman, who was an Olympic gold medal gymnast. The book stresses the importance of connecting physical training with mental training as well, for an athlete. After reading it, I began to follow his advice and saw remarkable improvement in my climbing. I highly recommend this book to any athlete who is looking to expand their training arsenal and to improve in any sport.

  3. riverrat says:

    I thoroughly agree with you that mind over matter is a key factor in many people’s success. I imagine that there are so many people out there with “exceptional physiology” or even “good training”, but they have to have the mind set to keep themselves going and continue to push themselves and want to do better. My soccer coach always told us that the mind was the first thing to go when you got tired, which is very true. As soon as there is a bit of muscle fatigue, your mind starts to drift to just stopping and being over. Even those people with “exceptional physiology” get tired sometimes and will just have to keep there mind in the right place so that they can use their physiology to its greatest potential.

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