A couple of weekends ago, I broke through a running ceiling that had been hovering over my head for years: breaking 8 minutes per mile in a half marathon. I ran a 7:57 pace overall and a personal best by 4 ½ minutes. It felt great. Well, after the race it felt great, during, not so much. This race was more of a test of my mental stamina than it was of my physical abilities. I have run 8 minute miles over and over again in training. It is a pace I can absolutely sustain, and can go faster over shorter distances. But the half marathon distance has always been a block. It is the race distance I have completed the most and I know the distance well. Yet, despite practice, knowledge, and desire, I have always ended up on the wrong side of 8 minutes for every half marathon.
Two years ago, when I ran the same half, I managed an 8:19 pace (still a PB at the time). I could’ve gone faster physically but I didn’t believe I could – a culmination of injury memory and self-doubt. My inner dialogue was a back and forth of “I can”/”I can’t,” a tug of war between two arguing siblings. In disagreements, the loudest and/or most persistent voice often wins out. I distinctly remember early on in that race, saying to myself: “I can’t sustain this pace.” My 8:19 average was perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At this most recent race, I arrived resolved. At the start line, I noted the pacer for a 1:45 half marathon and stuck closely by until the last three miles. The sibling rivalry between “I can” and “I can’t” was still present, knocking on the door, the “I can’t” vying for my undivided attention. I am stronger than I was two years ago and I knew I could’ve run faster two years ago. My mind worked harder than my legs in this race. The miles ticked by, and with them, a 10 mile PR (sub 80 minutes!) and the realization I might actually achieve my goal. With 5k to go, I stepped up the pace. The last mile was hard. It undulates comparative to the rest of the race, meaning you really have to dig deeply to get through it. There was another woman, who had also stuck diligently to the 1:45 pace group leader for 10 miles. In the last mile, she pulled slightly ahead of me but waved me forward to join her side by side. “Come on” she said, “you can do it.” At that point, I didn’t think I could do it, my resolve was crumbling. The “I can’t” was beginning to take over as the stress began to increase. I tried really hard to shut the negative messages out by repeating “you can do it, you can do it” over and over and over to myself, focusing on her encouragement and on my coach’s advice to just “hang on.” My last mile ended up being a 7:33 (my fastest mile) and the oh-so-important “point one,” was a 6:30 average. I crossed the line in 1:44:29, a massive PR and with one smashed 8 minute ceiling.
What holds us back is often the stories we tell ourselves or that our culture and environment teach us. Finding ways to push back against those narratives, and write new ones for ourselves, is central to overcoming barriers in your training (or work, life, etc.) that can habitually stall you. Some people are great at this, others less so. I think I fit into the latter category but continue to try – this most recent “win” has certainly helped. As I prepare for my “A” race this September, my fourth half-iron distance triathlon, I have to remember this as I start my run. We get to write our own stories in these moments. We get to “hang on” if we choose to do so.