Harnessing nervous energy

Tokyo Marathon 2017

The concept of racing a marathon is always the most appealing the further away the opportunity exists to actually run a marathon. In the cold, dark winter months of December and January, or the sweltering heat of July and August, fantasies of tackling the marathon--the tantalizing rush of emotions tied to tactical soliloquoys of surge and reprieve, feint, parry, and breakaway--serve as the carrot that keeps the workhorse training mentality from grinding me into the ground. 

In a curious betrayal of the mind, however, when the week of a marathon finally approaches, my fantasies of endurance racing glory are suddenly tinged with a new thought. "What's with this marathon business anyway? Wouldn't it be nice to sleep in on Sunday, relax, enjoy a breath of air for being a breath of air instead of cursing it for not containing enough oxygen to keep my muscles from screaming?"

The battle between the desire to unleash a primal scream as I race through the streets of Tokyo, and escapist thoughts of a lazy Sunday morning dominated my week in Japan for the 2017 Tokyo Marathon. Fourteen years and 50, 60, 70 marathons into my career and the nerves that accompany a big race still stubbornly persist, raising from the deep like a swarm of cicadas entering adulthood. 

When I landed in Tokyo it had been nearly four months since I had last run a marathon and I was nervous. I always grow a little frustrated when I hear people brashingly announcing that they like feeling nervous, that the nerves give them energy, or mean that they care, or what they are about to do matters. Nerves, to these bold soles, are nothing but positive, motivating feelings. Brilliant! Congratulations on being amazing and so intune with your psyche, but quit rubbing it in! 

Sure, that's the positive spin on handling nerves, but it wasn't a natural connection for me to make, and it has taken years of mental training to get there. Nerves suck. Sure they bring with them extra energy in the form of adrenaline, but they also bring shortness of breath, dry mouth, nausea, and illogical foggy thinking. For the longest time nervous energy was a conundrum to me leading either to overreactions or no reactions at all. I'd spend my race weeks fantasizing about being in any city other than the city I was racing in, and spend my race days wasting valuable energy nervously overreacting to fluctuations in pace by my competitors. The discipline to harness that energy and administer it sparingly did not come natural to me. I am not one to describe twisted guts, dilated pupils, dry mouth, and an underlying urge to vomit, as "fun." 

The process I went through (am still going through) to handle my nerves was (is) tedious. As with much of what I do in my racing career, it began with self-deception. Or, as the sports-psychs like to call it, positive framing. Like a wise monk on a mountain I trained myself to consciously recognize my nervous thoughts, note them, and then send them on there way while I refocus on my task. "Hey bud, you're in Tokyo, pretty cool city huh? Wouldn't it be great to sleep in a little Sunday morning and then maybe check out your surroundings, eat some sashimi, visit a temple, high five Mickey at Disney World, not run this marathon against really fast guys that is going to make your body scream and could potentially color your career, one that you've worked so hard on, in a negative light?" This is a thought I would note as my escapist nerves trying to get the best me. I would note it, mark the first part as valid and the second part as a ridiculous, preemptive overreaction, and respond. "Very good points you make there oh brain of mine, but would it not be better to go out and crush this new marathon course like Godzilla in every movie ever?" 

I may scare passing children as I shout this conversation with myself, walking down the street (just kidding, these conversations happen in my head, usually), but after years of repition I have actually begun believing myself. My escapist thoughts last for a few moments before excitement to race ushers them out.

Consequently, these internal dialogues help me view the energy that comes with nervousness in a far more positive light, and when I am no longer scared of the source of my energy I find I think much more rationally about how that energy is used. 

The mental exercises that took years to develop were also coupled with advances physically. I was able to pinpoint weaknesses in my racing that caused some of my greatest bouts of nerves and set about fixing them. As I became stronger physically, I had less and less material for my nervous brain to attempt to pinpoint to support the reasons for being nervous. "But you may get dropped down this hill," my brain will scream.  "Whatever," I can now respond, "I'll close on the flats. Ain't no thang." Nerves quelled. Boom.

Meanwhile, on race morning in Tokyo, I was locked in and ready to push. I felt fresh and loose while I warmed up and about 75% of the shaking that I was doing on the start line was due to the fact that I was cold, not nervous (my incessant smiling, however, which a fellow American pointed out, may have been due to nervous energy, but smiles are positive. Force yourself to smile the next time you are in a situation you don't want to be in and I guarantee it will help change your thought processes for the better).

The race itself was probably very exciting to watch and ended with a furious sprint, but would be unremarkable for me to account in this narrative. What I found interesting, though, was that I am finally efficient at utilizing the nervous energy that bubbles up around a race. Japan is chock full of amazingly fast racers that love to push the pace and are constantly surging and counter-surging. The first 5k of the race includes some screaming downhills (my weakness) and the baseline pace is very fast. Gone are the days when I would have wasted too much energy in the opening miles of the race, nervous that if I  didn't stay on the pack down the hill my day would be done. Instead, at the bottom of each hill I would calmly and rationally string together a few hundred meters of sustained effort and ease myself back on the pack. 

As the race progressed and the constant surging whittled the pack from 20 to 15 to 10 and finally to eight, I was tucked comfortably and calmly in the top four. Responding to surges with the minimum amount of energy necessary. I was in control of the nervous energy, not vice versa. 

By the time we closed into the final kilometer of the race, the notion of nerves no longer existed. My thoughts were locked purely on physical motion, navigating a challenging, and incredibly rough and bumpy, final stretch of road, followed by a hard left hand turn and ferocious sprint across the finish line. I finished fifth in the sprint finish. It was a bit disappointing and I felt I made a couple mistakes that possibly kept me from landing in the top three. I was also pleased, though. It was only the first marathon of the year. I felt very strong and fit for an early season race, and more importantly, I convinced my nervous energy that it is better to work with me than against.