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Conquering the mental challenges of prepping for a big race

The Boston Marathon is less than a month off and, as usual before a big race, I'm getting jittery, nervous and excited. But during these last weeks of training for my second run on the storied course, I've also been feeling something more akin to dread.

My worry is not about running a race where, horrifyingly, two bombs exploded last year, killing three and injuring more than 260. The first anniversary of that event will undoubtedly be solemn in a city where memories of deadly acts of domestic terrorism are still so fresh, and that is bound to have an impact on the race, too.

Maybe I'll feel more anxiety about that when I get to the start line – and who knows what other emotion?

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Right now, though, I'm not just questioning whether my training has gone well enough to reach my best-case time goal. I'm questioning my very will to try for it.

Looking for answers, I have turned to sports psychologist Leith Drury, who helps Olympians and elite amateur athletes train their minds as they train their bodies – to be strong.

Drury has walked her talk – and swum, cycled and run it. At 55, she won her age group at the world championships in Olympic-distance triathlon. The experience hooked her on high-performance thinking, and she went on to earn a PhD in that area.

She has taught me to write extensive race plans, accounting for every detail from prerace preparation to minutiae on the course – pace and split-times for every kilometre, and exactly when I should be taking in fuel, water and sports drinks. Planning reduces anxiety and also the chances of sputtering out of energy.

She also taught me to break long races into sections (for me, four is the ideal number) and develop imagery and positive self-talk to help me through each section, especially at the last when fatigue sets in.

That gave me a big bag of sports psychology tricks, but unfortunately, none of them seemed to help me out of this funk. So I invited Drury to lunch, fully expecting her to haul out another rabbit to perk up my worn soul.

But as soon as I told her how I was feeling, she told me not to race. She didn't mean to not run Boston, just not to race it. Instead, she suggested I ease up and focus on soaking up the experience of this special marathon, and even on having fun.

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I'm still in shock. Most folks would not put "fun" and "marathon" in the same sentence. I used to run for fun. Since taking up marathons three years ago, I have gotten my thrills from racing the monster distance at the cliff edge of my cardiovascular potential. And I have been training virtually non-stop, year-around, to support that.

While I love the fitness results and the mental toughness I have gained, the single-minded focus is starting to wear on me. Drury tells me I'm in "negative recovery," and the way to "positive recovery" is to step back from the intensity, even focus on other sports my run schedule hasn't allowed these past few years.

This is the toughest mental challenge she's thrown at me yet. I don't know how I'll respond. Will I "take back Boston" by running it as hard as I can? Or will I find another way to be Boston Strong? I'll let you know in April's column.

Margaret Webb's reflections on running, Older, Faster, Stronger, will be published by Rodale Books in October.

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