How a self-proclaimed born quitter found the willpower to finish his first marathon
"In long-distance running, the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be." – Haruki Murakami
Everything was going fine in my first marathon until I reached the 30-kilometre mark. Suddenly, my legs between my hips and knees felt like concrete blocks. Runner after runner was passing me. Lake Ontario was shimmering a few hundred yards to my right, and I thought about wading in to its waters and sitting on the beach. I felt a sharp pinprick pain in my left Achilles tendon, something I had never felt on any previous run. The only way I could keep moving forward was to lean heavily to my right, only touching the excruciatingly hard concrete with my left heel. I looked like Igor from one of those old black and white horror movies.
As I approached a turn in the road, I prayed I would see the point where the race route turned back to the finish line. Instead, the road stretched on forever, no turn in sight. I stopped at an aid station and drank four tiny cups of Gatorade. I poured a cup of water over my head. I rubbed my legs and delicately massaged my Achilles. Finishing wasn't worth it if I was going to suffer a long-term injury. Maybe I should give up, I thought. Finishing seemed impossible, let alone in my goal time of under four hours. I still had 10 kilometres to go.
I am a born quitter. At the first sign of adversity, I usually fold like a chair. Down five sets to two in tennis? Why even bother? No chance of making my goal time in a 10 kilometre race? Might as well just walk to the finish. And here I was again, farther than I've ever gone on a run but with still a long way to go.
"Don't look for excuses to quit," I told myself. "Remember your reason for finishing this thing."
FIND A GOAL
A year ago, I decided to try and lose my gut. I was coming up on 40 and I felt tired and fat and lazy all the time. I hired a personal trainer and changed my diet. Over the next six months, I dropped from 212 lbs to 182 lbs. It felt great. I had energy and I could look in the mirror without groaning. I wrote a big article about it.
A week after the story was published, I had put on 10 lbs. A week after that, I was up another 3 lbs. There I was, quitting again.
Studies of how difficult it is to keep weight off vary widely in their conclusions. One often-repeated statistic is that 95 per cent of people will regain any weight they lost within a year. But that number was based on a 1959 clinical study of only 100 people. Other studies have said 20 per cent of people successfully keep their weight off for a year. The truth is, no one knows the exact number. But there is one truth that is impossible to ignore: Losing weight is hard, and keeping it off in the long run is even more difficult.
Willpower may often fail us, but, as a U.S. National Institutes of Health study conducted in 2016 found, the body fights tooth and nail to put the weight back on by dropping a person's resting metabolism, meaning the person will burn fewer calories when at rest.
After six months of the persistent effort required to reach my goal – getting over constant hangriness, going to the gym three days a week even when, in the beginning, it made me sick to my stomach, avoiding chips and pop with the same sadness of having to stay away from a dear friend who gets you into trouble – I saw myself backsliding and was desperate to get back on track.
In June, I vowed to run the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in October, even though I had never run any distance longer than a half marathon. Training for it would mean having to keep up good habits. But the mental challenge of it was even more compelling to me.
Every marathon runner I know has told me that, no matter your physical conditioning, the last stretch of the race is a mind game – can you summon the grit to finish? As someone who's usually all too ready to throw in the towel, it seemed like the ideal challenge.
TRAIN YOUR MIND
As the experts told me, completing a marathon is as much mental as it is physical, if not more so.
"By definition, a marathon is not something where you're going to be able to get yourself in to a mindset and stay there for three or four or five hours. You need to be prepared for your thoughts to go in a variety of directions," says Dr. Kate Hays, a founding member of the Goodlife Fitness Toronto Marathon psych team.
Dr. Sharleen Hoar, the mental performance lead at the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific, in Vancouver, says mental training works the mind like a muscle – it takes time and effort.
"We call it mind gym," she said. The elite athletes she works with will regularly come in for practice – "conscious, deliberate ways of thinking and dealing with emotions," she says. If you're frustrated, ask yourself why? If you're bored, know that it will pass. If your mind is consumed with negative thoughts, focus on something positive that will give you energy, such as an upcoming aid station, she says.
Redirecting your thoughts this way isn't easy, but it can be done, she says. She suggests that adding 10 minutes of mindfulness to my morning routine is a great place to start to learn to pay attention to what's going on in my mind and begin to redirect my thoughts. Each morning, or as often as I could, I would sit in a chair, my eyes closed, breathing deeply. I imagined myself running. I imagined myself enjoying running the entire race.
I slowly got better at it. Still, sitting on a chair attending to my thoughts was one thing, but being 20 kilometres into a training run and trying to convince myself that I wasn't bored and tired and fed up was something else entirely.
"THINK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE"
One thing that paying attention to my thoughts taught me is that negative thinking of any kind made me feel like I was running through sludge.
Positivity, meanwhile, has a natural buoyancy.
It's why you have to find any way to distract yourself, says Ray Zahab, a Canadian adventurer, who ran an average of 70 kilometres a day for 111 days across the Sahara Desert in 2006, among his many other feats of endurance.
"My mental strategy is always to think about something else," he told me. Often, he'll relive a day at home with his family, from brushing his teeth in the morning through to every other detail of the day.
In the lead up to my race, he said, I should try to see every part of the event, focusing on the positive aspects, of course.
"Between now and your marathon, every day you should visualize running that marathon course – what it's going to look like, how you're going to feel with your feet hitting the pavement, what it's going to be like crossing the finish line, what it's going to be like putting that finisher's medal around your neck," he said.
On longer training runs, I would imagine a day at the park with my wife and kids, all of us playing together. I had tried going through a regular day in my mind, but it was too boring.
MIND YOUR MANTRAS
"See it, be it" may sound like a laughable cliché, but when every muscle in your body is screaming at you to stop, it's one of the last tools you've got left to help you push through the pain.
Mantras are another such tool. "They can be really grounding. And they can be a source of energy," Dr. Hoar says.
They can do much more than that, in fact. A meta-analysis of 32 studies published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science in 2011 found that "motivational self-talk" helped athletes do better on tasks that required strength or endurance.
My mantra was "dig deep," something I once screamed at myself during a particularly painful training run. A friend I met at the start of the marathon told me his was, "Persistence beats resistance."
That same friend was running with a mutual friend, who was holding a sign that said 3:54:54, the time he was going to finish in.
Scoff all you want, but the right mantra can be just what you need to succeed when all else seems to be failing you.
"It's extremely helpful," says Dr. Sharleen Hoar, the mental-performance lead at the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific, in Vancouver.
But it has to be the right mantra. So far, it is not an exact science, but what research there is shows there are a few key principles to keep in mind when crafting your mantra.
For one, make sure it is framed positively.
"They can't be 'Don't do something,'" Dr. Hoar says.
Positively framed mantras are associated with improved focus and resilience in endurance performance, she says.
"There is an association with a longer period of persistence towards a difficult and challenging goal," Dr. Hoar says.
Another good tip to keep in mind is to make your mantra action-oriented. "Smooth," could be a good mantra, as could "Enjoy this," Dr. Hoar says.
"They are far more directed towards what you want to be doing in that moment," she says.
And it is the moment that is all-important when it comes to mantras.
"Where the usefulness of those mantras really come in is to bring you back to your moment. When we get too far ahead of ourselves and we start thinking in the future – I often have to say to my triathletes, we have to dive off the block before we can actually finish the run, so let's not worry about the run until we get to run," Dr. Hoar says.
In the moment, it is easier to convince yourself that you can take another few steps along the race route than it is to think about what's waiting for you ten kilometres down the road.
"It's when we start getting concerned about the next hour and half that we start to lose the energy and we start to lose what's really important," Dr. Hoar says.
Canadian endurance athlete Ray Zahab is a perfect example of using a mantra to stay focused in the moment.
"I repeat in my head, 'Just get down the trail, or get to that mountain, or to that town, or to that frozen river, as fast as you can,'" he says.
Everyone's mantra will be different, of course.
U.S. gymnast Laurie Hernandez whispered to herself "I got this" before her beam routine at the Olympics in 2016.
Percy Cerutty, a famous Australian running coach, adopted "Run hard, be strong, think big" as his mantra.
As chef de mission for the London 2012 games, Mark Tewksbury implored Canadian athletes to remember the mantra "Why not me?"
And then, of course, there is the Little Engine That Could's famous "I think I can, I think I can."
Some mantras may not follow all of the principles outlined here. All that matters is that it works for you.
GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING
I kept pace with my friends for most of the race. But by about the 35-km mark I could see the sign getting farther and farther away, like a boat drifting off towards the horizon as I stood on the shore.
I thought about my family waiting near the finish line, including my dad, a lifelong runner with several marathons under his belt. I thought about how happy he would be to see me finish. I thought about how much it would suck to explain to my kids why I never made it to the finish line.
I was in more pain than I'd ever experienced during exercise. I still had seven kilometres to go. Bodies were strewn across the road. Ambulance attendants were hovering over a man lying spread-eagled on the grass. Several people were collapsed on the asphalt, unable to make it even to the curb.
It's a secret fact of marathons that the 10-km stretch between the 30-km and 40-km mark is actually 100 km long. This is what I realized about mental fortitude during that impossibly long stretch. You have to remind yourself that the thing you want most is more important than the thing you want right now. You have to remind yourself that the person you were doesn't determine the person you are now or the person you are going to be. You have to remind yourself that it is up to you and you alone whether you choose to quit or summon the resolve to keep fighting. That the best way to fight is with joy and gratitude, even when you're convinced you'll probably spend the next six months on crutches.
That's what got me through. When I reached the 40-km sign, I was elated to know I was so close to finishing. I saw my family holding a big blue sign that said "Go Dave!" in big sparkling letters. 500 metres. 400 metres. Me still hobbling like a mad scientist's assistant but smiling. My legs still concrete, my body an old machine of grinding gears. I crossed the finish line in three hours and 57 minutes. I've never been more proud of coming in 1,383rd place.