The ubiquity of Boston Marathon jackets during race weekend and the examples of mental toughness shown by elite runners Meb Keflezighi and Kara Goucher provide lessons on becoming your best self.
Lesson one: Believing in yourself will be easier if you stay connected to your tribe.
Scenes from Boston Marathon 2014 weekend
By the Saturday before this year’s Boston Marathon Monday, all the structures for the invited guests and media were finished, tents had been set up in Copley Square, traffic was already blocked off in certain areas, and the area was swarming with marathon charity teams, runners coming to get that packets, and people like me who wanted to support the race in person even if not on the day itself (I had to work Monday). As you may know, the running field had been greatly expanded and the crowds were expected to have doubled since the previous year, sending a very clear message of strength to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers and their ilk. The area was also a virtual ad for Boston Marathon jackets. And not just the neon orange ones from this year. Perhaps it wasn’t true, but it seemed like there were more people wearing marathon jackets than regular ones. People work incredibly hard and sometimes run multiple marathons in an attempt to qualify to run the Boston Marathon, and some never succeed (and it’s only gotten harder to get in). Yet, walking around the Boston area that weekend, even accounting for the fact that some people had a jacket for other reasons (charity, for example), made the qualification seem not just doable, but almost ordinary.
There’s an important lesson in that, and it is this: If you have a goal (whatever it may be), and you spend more time with people who think that goal is worthy, doable, etc., that goal will seem more possible; those feelings are infectious. But, of course, the opposite is true as well. This power of our social connections to shape our behavior and belief system is illustrated quite well with multiple research findings that friends and loved ones strongly and subconsciously influence our weight. But I think this phenomenon holds for most things. The people around us give powerful messages about what normal is. That why if we’re not getting support for a particular goal or dream, it’s crucial we find our people/tribe somehow, even if that’s only through research (examples from history, the media, etc.). Of course, the beauty of the Internet is that if we aren’t finding our people IRL, then there’s a 99% we can find them online, people who make our dreams seem perfectly normal and natural to attain.
Lesson two: Believing in yourself is a make-it-or-break it quality.
Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi throws out ceremonial first pitch at Boston Red Sox game (and my first game of the year).
Of course, while who you surround yourself with is crucial, in the end doing well—however you define that—comes down to just one person: you. Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi illustrated this well. Although he was not favored to win, Keflezighi did just that, beating out younger competitors just two weeks before his 39th birthday. How? By focusing on practical skills such as skillful rehab of injuries, knowing what kind of running strategy suited him best, and racing smart. But without the more (seemingly) abstract mental toughness and its very important subcategory, a deep belief in himself, it’s unlikely that Keflezighi would have won for all of America.
As Karla Bruning wrote in her wonderful “Lessons from Boston Marathon Winner Meb Keflezighi” (bold mine):
If Meb Keflezighi believed all the press about him, he’d never be the Boston Marathon winner or finish top five at any race. But when everyone else counts him out, Meb still believes. And he turns that belief into results.
A recent study found that mental toughness accounts for 14 percent of the variables that influence finish times such as fitness, weather, fuel and the like. Keflezighi taps into that 14 percent to beat faster runners. Lesson? We all can use mental toughness to believe in ourselves, even when no one else does.
Lesson three: Belief in yourself can require a lot of work.
Lauren Fleshman (L) and Kara Goucher (R); scenes from Boston Marathon weekend
On the belief in oneself front, Kara Goucher is one elite runner who has been open about her battles with negative self-talk. I was thrilled to see she was at the Marathon Expo at the Oiselle section, along with the very inspirational Lauren Fleshman (who is gracing the June cover of Runner’s World in the short version of my favorite running shorts). The two were signing autographs and posing for photos with fans. Goucher has long been a personal favorite, and one of the things I like best about her is that despite being one of the most noteworthy runners today, she’s had her share of Imposter Syndrome. She has grit in spades. Confidence in herself? That’s been much harder to come by. From a 2010 Runner’s World article:
[Her mind] tells her she’s not worthy to compete at nationals, at the World Championships, at the Olympics. Look at the women around her. She’s out of her league. There’s a world record holder. There’s a gold medalist. Compared to them, who is she?
In a more recent interview with The Runner Dad, Goucher shared her “learn from the tough times” mindset:
You know, I think we all have that point in a race where we start to doubt ourselves. I mean, I have always had it, even in my best races where I think I don’t know if I can keep doing this, I feel terrible…I don’t know how much more I can give. For me, I try to go back to places in practice where I’ve struggled…Whenever I have a bad day I try to think what did I get out of this day. Maybe I didn’t hit my mile split perfectly, but what did I get? Well I learned to push through discomfort and I learned how to position my body. So I try to go back to those places in races when it gets tough…You just have to kind of stick with it and remind yourself you’ve been there and fought through it before and you can do it again.
I admire that Goucher has faced the mean girl parts of her mind head on by, for example, working with a sports psychologist. I also admire that she has been brave enough to share her battles with the rest of us and that she keeps putting one foot in front of the other (a lot faster than most of us, of course), sometimes even setting some very public goals for herself, such as intending to win Boston in 2009. She didn’t win, and I’m sure her heart was broken for awhile, but she’s continued moving and growing—while continuing to deal with roadblocks (especially in the form of injuries)—making some big changes along the way (having a baby, changing coaches, creating new goals, choosing new sponsors, etc.). I love that she seems to base her choices on what’s right for her as she grows, rather than getting caught up what was right for yesterday.
As Goucher has once said, “Progress is rarely a straight line. There are always bumps in the road, but you can make the choice to keep looking ahead.”