Overcome Mental Blocks, and Soar in 2015!

12/30/2014 - 18:17

By Lena Hollmann
Again, a new year lies ahead of us. A year full of promise, a year full of plans. Maybe you have a special challenge that you want to accomplish in 2015, but aren’t sure you can. For a runner this could be running a marathon or an ultra, or finishing your first 5K.

Sometimes we might doubt whether we are ready and able to take on new challenges, in running or otherwise. Self doubt is rampant, and all of us probably have felt it at some point. We are not sure whether we are going to be able to pass a test, complete a project, or finish a race. But even if the task at hand is primarily physical (like finishing your first marathon), what’s holding you back is often mostly in your head.

In addition to being a runner, writer, and running coach, I teach fitness classes for seniors. One day a lady came to my balance and toning class, telling me she wasn’t sure whether she would be able to get through it, because she had problems with her balance. I encouraged her to try it, reassured her that the she could hold onto her chair when needed, and that she would be fine.

She completed my class with flying colors! And she was back the following week. Her self doubt was primarily mental, and all she needed was to defeat her inner demons (with a little help from me).

A year ago I had my own challenge. I had signed up for a marathon, my first one in 10 years. Special circumstances had prompted me to enter, and now I had to complete a few training runs covering more miles than I had done in many years. Not to mention the race itself! Would I be able to get through all that training, and the marathon, without getting injured? And would there be other obstacles in the way, like inclement weather? Winter in North Carolina can be a beast sometimes, and last year was exceptionally challenging. But I told myself I could do it, stuck to my training schedule, and finished the marathon in just under 4:35.

Even elite runners doubt themselves sometimes. Missy Foy of Hillsborough, NC, is a former elite runner and Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier. She is also a type 1 diabetic. Before she qualified for the Trials in the year 2000 she was told several times by doctors, coaches, and others, that it wasn’t possible for a diabetic to do so because “if it could be done it would already have been done.” But she prevailed, seeking out coaches and sponsors who believed in her and her dream. And she became the first diabetic Olympic Trials qualifier ever.

Still, she told me that self doubt was one of the biggest demons she had to fight off during her entire running career. And she had a stellar career, becoming a nationally ranked ultra marathoner several years after her Trials race. She has completed about a dozen 50 mile races, the fastest in 6 hours and 55 minutes. But because of her diabetes, she had to overcome obstacles that most of the rest of us don’t have to struggle with.

First time events can be extra challenging. For example, running your first 5K. Even if you did training runs that are longer, it’s different when you put a race number on! For John Farrow of Albuquerque, NM, it was particularly challenging when he ran his first 5K, since he had not completed that distance before. So he started at the very back of the pack. But not only did he finish the race, he also had a lot of fun running it! Later he decided to run a marathon, but he had doubts he could complete that also. A friend of his had tried to quality for Boston, but ended up with injuries instead, and gave up running. And Farrow didn’t want to suffer a similar fate. But he persevered, and qualified for Boston in his first attempt.

As we get older physical challenges can become more daunting. We are more injury prone, and maybe we also have other health challenges. For the lady in my balance class, the question was whether the balance and strength she had was enough for her to get through the class. And for me last year, the question was whether I would still be able to train for and complete a 26.2 mile race at age 62. I had been able to do it several times when I was younger, but was my body still strong enough to handle all that training?

There are several ways we can overcome challenges that may seem insurmountable at first. But we must know how to tackle the beast. It is possible to eat an elephant, as long as we do it one bite at a time. Likewise we can tackle a larger project by taking it one step at a time, sometimes literally when it comes to running! For example, Diane McManus of Philadelphia, PA, takes a hard interval workout one repeat at a time. This way, what sounds like a killer workout when the coach announces it beforehand, could become like a piece of cake! Well, not quite. But when the feeling of accomplishment and confidence kicks in after a hard workout or race, it is certainly worth it.

We also need to stay within reason when we challenge ourselves. To “stretch it a little” can be a good thing, especially as we get older. But if we set impossible goals, we set ourselves up for disappointment.

For example, could I run another marathon? The answer would most likely be ‘yes’. Could I run a three hour marathon? NO!! Even though I could run faster than that in my younger days, it is far from what my body would be capable of at this time. But could I run a four hour marathon? Maybe, provided I dedicated myself to my training for several months, stuck to a strict schedule and diet, and got plenty of rest between sessions. But am I willing and able to make my marathon training such a priority that everything else, including shorter races, ends up on the back burner? Probably not, since I have other competing priorities and obligations. We have to decide how much time and effort we are able and willing to put into a specific goal, and whether the goal we are seeking is worth it. The loftier the goal, the more we have to devote ourselves to it.

And if we still doubt ourselves, it helps to seek support from others. It could be something as simple as having them as role models. Esther Dill of Cary, NC, is my age, runs several marathons per year, and has qualified for Boston three times. So when I decided to run my marathon last year, I was thinking of her. I said to myself: “If Esther can run several marathons per year, then I should be able to run one more!” But sometimes we may need someone who gives us a hand along the way, like a mentor or a coach. One of the people who was instrumental in getting Missy Foy to the Olympic Trials in 2000 was her very knowledgeable and supportive coach, Jim Husk. Without help from him and several others it would not have been possible for her to make it to the Trials, Foy said.

Last but not the least, don’t let other people’s setbacks become yours. Sometimes there may be lessons to learn, and you need to modify instead of copycat where others before you have failed. At other times their starting point may be different from yours. For example, if your buddy failed to qualify for Boston, it may be because he had some health challenges that you don’t have. Or maybe he didn’t have as much base mileage as you do. If John Farrow had been discouraged by his friend’s failed marathon attempts, he would never have made it to Boston!

And what am I doing to keep myself challenged during the upcoming winter months? I signed up for a local race in March, the Tobacco Road Marathon. But this time I decided to settle for the Half Marathon.

Lena Hollmann is a certified personal trainer with American Council on Exercise (ACE), and also the Southern Region Director for RRCA. She lives and runs in Cary, NC, and can be reached at

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