Are You Sabotaging Yourself with Race Day Woes?

If my mid-marathon victim complex were a giant egg-beater.
If my mid-marathon victim complex were a giant egg-beater.

I recently found myself standing on the starting line of the 44th annual Portland Marathon. Along the journey to that moment, I did all the right things. I signed up with a coach and followed her workouts to a tee. I pushed myself to hit paces in my workouts that I used to think were unreachable. I believed I was capable of running a 3:25 marathon, which would be a ten minute PR.

It was time to stop doubting myself and to trust in my training, but as I stood there I knew in that moment that a ten minute PR was not lying before me on those 26.2 miles of Portland road. What was this self-doubt? Was it nerves? Was it self-sabotage? Whatever it was, I felt deep within myself that this would not be that breakthrough race I have been striving for.

At that point, I still had a few minutes and 26.2 miles to run and more importantly decisions to make.

I hate doing all that work to race a marathon only to arrive at race morning not feeling it. This time I might be able to chalk it up to being tired, stressed out from work, and my husband’s hectic travel schedule. There’s also the double ear infection I got the week before the race; maybe this time I can chalk it up to antibiotics. Or jet lag or the pressure knowing everyone in my life knew I was there to do more than I felt I could do at that moment. Maybe it was all of that. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

[pullquote]Disaster Transport: /dəˈzastər tranˈspôrt/ n. : that point in a crappy marathon in which the runner adopts full victim complex, starts walking and crying, feeling sorry for herself, and generally being ridiculous.[/pullquote]All my running friends and Salty herself will tell you that I struggle with the mental game of running. However, over the course of 25 marathons, I have learned how to control my negative self-talk during a race and it has been a game changer. And by game changer, I don’t mean that pushing my negative thoughts away has always led to breakthrough performances, but it has led me to enjoying the sport in a way I could never do if I took it too seriously.

Back to the start of the Portland Marathon, against my better judgment, I decided to go out with a pace group. I knew from the way their pace felt that they were going too fast for me right then, but I hung onto a little hope and stayed with them for the first mile. The next two miles were uphill, so I backed off a bit. I figured I would catch the group on the downhill after mile 3.

As I sped downhill, I started to gain on them until something happened: I got a side stitch on my left side. A side stitch at mile 3 of a marathon? Really? Who gets a side stitch at mile 3? I let the pace group pull ahead, thinking that trying to keep up with them was stressing me out. Maybe if I relaxed and just did my thing the stitch would go away.

Another mile of more relaxed running went by and a funny thing happened. Nope, it didn’t go away; my right side started cramping up too. By mile 8 I was clutching my sides, but, like so many marathoners in the throes of a terrible race, remained hopeful it would magically disappear and I’d be able to at least salvage a decent race time.

I hit mile after mile and the cramps weren’t showing any sign of budging. What was going on? I’d never had anything like this happen before.

Around the halfway mark I felt myself starting to give in to what I affectionately call disaster transport. You know, that point in a crappy marathon where you adopt the full victim complex, start walking and crying, feeling sorry for yourself, and generally being ridiculous?

I looked up and saw the gothic towers of the St. John’s suspension bridge rising into the sky about 4 miles in front of me. The highlight of the race is getting to run over this beautiful bridge. The day before the race, we drove out to Cannon Beach which is about 90 minutes west of Portland. In one of the shops I found a framed black and white photo of the St John’s Bridge for a mere $20. As a civil engineer named Bridget, this was a perfect souvenir.

Good friends, beautiful bridges and valuable lessons make marathons worth running.
Good friends, beautiful bridges and valuable lessons make marathons worth running.

As I struggled to run towards the bridge I was thinking how my perfect souvenir was turning into nothing more than a reminder of what a disaster this race was (still in victim mode). I decided then and there my goal was to get to the bridge and enjoy running across it. Whatever happened after that would happen, but I wasn’t going to let the picture be ruined. I was going to make a good memory to associate with it.

As if to taunt me as I was digging deep to outrun my victim complex, there was a ridiculously steep hill to get on to the bridge, but the view of the Willamette River on that gorgeous morning was more than worth it. I took as many mental photographs as I could. I even managed to jump for the camera on the bridge. I came down off the bridge and the cramps were still going strong. At mile 20 I finally decided to let myself walk a bit to try to get rid of the cramps – it didn’t work. I panicked thinking about running 6 more miles.

At this point I finally got that I had a choice; I could wallow in my own self-pity and make this final 6 miles last far longer than it needed to be or I could deal with the circumstances I was dealt and run the best 10k I could. I thought of the advice I’d given my daughter during her first cross country season. I told her that I didn’t care if she was the fastest or the slowest, as long as she always put forth her best effort. I owed it to her and to myself to put forth my best effort no matter how far off goal pace I was.

I stopped being a passive participant and starting acting. I focused on the people around me, rather than on myself and my self pity. One by one I tried to reel the people in front of me in. Slowly, I started bringing my pace back down. At mile 23.5 the cramps finally let up and I ran as hard as I could. I was 10 minutes over my PR rather than the 10 minutes under as I had been hoping.

I finished knowing I had run my very best that day. I didn’t cry and I didn’t beat myself up for missing my goal.  I stood at the finish realizing I had learned an incredibly valuable lesson: it’s always a choice. We can choose to focus on the negative and feel like a victim, or we can be active participants, doing the best with what our day brings us. When the only thing that matters is pace and time, which aren’t always 100% in our control, it’s easy to get into that victim mentality when things don’t go well.

But if we measure our success based on the net positive outcome of the race, whether that’s time or just how many life lessons or mental pictures of beautiful bridges or celebrating your friends’ PRs, we always succeed. There’s always something that will go wrong during a 26.2 mile race. Accept that!

Most of us run to relieve stress, to challenge ourselves or just to have fun. At the end of the day, we won’t remember our finish times, the race shirts will be shoved to the bottom of our drawer and the medals we cherished so much will collect dust. What will remain and what will shape us are the memories we make and the lessons we learn. So the next time you’re having a bad race, be an active participant and choose to chase down the positive rather than fixating on what’s going wrong. It may change your entire race.

Have you ever ridden the disaster transport to victimhood and self-pity in a race? Have you ever consciously made the choice to not be a victim in a race? If so tell us about it!

I'm a running mom of two little girls, who is busy balancing life, work and marathon training. It's always training season for me because I'm on a quest to run a marathon in every state, while constantly striving to be the best runner I can be. Running has led me to some great adventures and I always have a good story to share!

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  1. Way to fight through! I definitely struggle when races aren’t going the way I want them too. It sometimes seems easier to just give up with a “good excuse” than to truly do the best you are able. But even if it feels good in the moment, giving in to one’s self-pity is rarely looked back on with pride. I have a friend with a bra that says “No Excuses” on it, and while I’m not generally a fan of bras with writing on them, I do think of it when I start to rationalize a predicted disappointing performance. Also, your comment about the Saint John’s Bridge made me smile. Just about every race in Portland goes back and forth across WAY TOO MANY bridges. My running friends sometimes refer to them as mountains (Mt. Saint John’s, Mt. Hawthorne, Mt. Burnside, etc.).

  2. Bridget, this is one of the best post-marathon stories I’ve ever read ( and I read everything ‘running!’) You’ve run many marathons, but looking back, you can probably name the ones that really stand out because you overcame mental and/ or physical stress. And what you learned about yourself in Portland is definitely cause for major celebration!!

  3. Barb,

    Thank you so much. You have no idea how much I respect and admire you. Yes, every race teaches me something. I feel like I am on this epic journey, and by the time I reach my 50th state I’ll have it all figured out. (If not, I’ll just start on round two!)