Do you choke? Or have you ever choked in a big race which you have been pointing toward for months? I don’t know a runner who hasn’t. Actually, I don’t know an athlete who hasn’t choked at least occasionally.
But choking—falling flat or succumbing to pressure in a big situation—in running, especially marathoning, is a lot different than say, missing a crucial free throw or blowing an important putt or field goal.
In a marathon, all of the pressure is self-imposed. The whole world isn’t watching us and few, outside of our immediate family and training partners, even have a conception of what it takes to even run a marathon. This isn’t to suggest that the pressure in a marathon isn’t real—clearly, it is—but it derives from our drive to succeed or PR. Nobody else really cares what we run or place or cave to the pressure.
That self-imposed pressure is a killer which really only exists for most of us in the marathon. If we run a lousy 5-K or half marathon, there’s always another one next week. Not so in a marathon. We invest so much of ourselves in the months and months of training and when the magic day arrives, we want to put it all on the line. We all have our goal times but the pressure to achieve those can be self-defeating.
In a fascinating article in the May 17th issue of the New York Times Magazine, Gretchen Reynolds, a former colleague of mine at Runner’s World, examined a study which looked at the brain activity of a person who chokes, which, she defines as someone who fails in a pressure-filled situation.
The study Gretchen writes about was performed by scientists at Johns Hopkins University and Cal Tech who examined what happens in the brain of a person who chokes and those who don’t. The 26 test subjects were subjected to a mentally taxing video game while lying down in an MRI, but the results are certainly applicable to athletes, even runners. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
What they found was that some of the subjects who were termed “highly-loss averse” (afraid of losing) made gains when they intensified their efforts (concentrated harder), but when a $100 bonus was added, they choked and their performance declined greatly. Their counterparts with low loss aversion who should have been unconcerned with the $100, also choked. According to Reynolds, “People supposed to be strongly hostile to losing choked only when they might win; people supposed to be unfazed by losses fell apart only when faced with losing.”
“The findings are counterintuitive, I know, said Vikram S. Chib of Johns Hopkins who led the study.
He’s right about that. But if we are to believe the results of this study it shows that how we frame a high-pressure, high stakes competition like a marathon and whether winning or losing (such as a PR) is heavily emphasized, greatly affects how we perform.
In a marathon, we can’t get psyched up like a football player does, bang our heads on a locker, rant and rave and expect to run well. Nor can we fear loss/failure in a race. That’s just as counterproductive as being comfortable with it.
The takeaway from all this might be to find what your own tolerance is for winning and losing, rather than someone else’s. Going into a marathon and applying too much pressure to oneself almost never works. Neither does accepting losses (poor races) too readily.
Reynolds suggests that you are likely to find it easier to avoid choking if you can find that proper balance of framing what works for you and you alone and avoid all the external forces, such as well-meaning peeps continually asking what you want to run and whether you’ll PR.
It’s almost always better to low-key it prior to a peak marathon, rather than self-imposing strict time goals that can only add to the pressure of performing. Everyone has time goals they shoot for, but there should be greater latitude than one specific time you hope to better. A few minutes either way will reduce that pressure.
O You missed my birthday, but for the man who has everything (and then some): The actual spikes that Roger Bannister wore when he ran the historic first sub-4 minute mile (3:59.4) on May 6, 1954 will soon be for sale. Bannister’s spikes are being auctioned off by Christie’s in September in England. The spikes weigh just 4 ½ ounces and Bannister used a grindstone on the spikes to make them even thinner. The shoes will go for somewhere 30,000-50,000 pounds. “They served me great purpose,” said the 86-year-old Bannister who has Parkinson’s Disease. Part of the proceeds from the sale of his shoes will go to neurological research of Parkinson’s.
O Needless to say, it was hot and humid at the Memorial Hermann North America Ironman Champs in The Woodlands last weekend. After winning it last year, Austin’s Kelly Williamson finished fourth among the women’s pros in 9:08:34, 13 minutes behind the winning time of newbie Angela Naeth. Kelly’s marathon split of 3:01 was the fastest of the day among the women, but she gave up too much ground on the bike.
O Big ups to Melanie Etherton of Austin who won her age group (35-39) at the USA Triathlon Off Road Nationals last weekend in Alabama. The off-road tri used the Olympic distances (1500 swim, 30-K bike and 10-K run) which Etherton finished in 3:07:29 to take top honors.
O Chris Brewer is leaving the Livestrong Foundation after 17 years to become president and CEO of the Love Hope Strength Foundation, a nonprofit cancer organization based in Denver. Brewer, himself a cancer survivor, will remain in Austin and commute to Denver.
O Austin Marathon race director John Conley, who has been hobbling around with a bad hip for more than a year, is getting a new one. Yesterday, he had hip replacement surgery at Seton. Conley’s hoping he can ditch his cane and might even be able to run again in the not-so-distant future.
O Baby news: Congrats to Christy and Tony Barnett on the birth of their daughter Hazel Wright Barnett last Thursday. Also, belated congrats to former Austinites Joe and Kara June Thorne (who live in Grover Beach, California) on the birth of their second child, a son (Harrison James).
O The Hoka One Middle Distance Classic Meet in Eagle Rock, California (near Pasadena) was canceled midway through due to torrential rain, but at least some of the events were run. In the men’s steeple, Matt Cleaver of Rogue was sixth in 8:36, but his teammate Austin Bussing PR’ed in 8:41, just missing the automatic qualifier for the US Championships (though he may get in anyway). In the women’s steeple, Stephanie Garcia won in 9:37, but Rogue’s Lennie Waite was fourth (9:45), Sarah Pease was sixth (9:52) and Mary Goldkamp was seventh in 9:53. Sally Kipyego, the former Texas Tech star, was sixth in the 1500 (4:11) and Rogue’s Hilary Holt was ninth in another 1500 heat in 4:19.
O Mr. Hoka himself—Leo Manzano—dominated the 1500 before the rains came, winning in 3:38.96 with former UT stud Kyle Merber third in 3:40.03.
O More Rogue: Anne Jones, a 1500-meter runner while at UT, is retiring from track. She’s pursing a doctorate degree in Pharmacy at UT and is leaving tomorrow for the summer to study in Barcelona. After that, Jones, is moving back to Houston where she’s from, to finish up her degree. Jones – who graced the April cover of Runner’s World – says she might even run a marathon in the future.
O The UT men’s and women’s team dominated the Big 12’s in Ames, Iowa last weekend, marking just the fourth time in league history that a team has swept the outdoors and indoor champs in a season. Among the UT distance runners, Sandie Raines starred, winning the first Big 12 5000-meter title in school history. Her victory in 16:31 gave the Longhorn women a secure lead going into the 4 x 400 which they won anyway. Raines also finished second in the 1500 meters. Craig Lutz was second in both the 5000 and 10,000 meters to score valuable points. Next up is the NCAA West Prelims at Mike Myers, May 28-30.
O Occasional Austinite Scott MacPherson finished second last weekend in the Portland Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon. ScottyMac ran 1:05:36 to finish 20 seconds in back of Luke Puskedra of Eugene. Carissa Fleskes of Austin was seventh in the women’s division in 1:25:47.
O Luke’s Locker Driveway Summer Series got underway last night and it didn’t even rain. The series will take place every Wednesday evening at 7 through August 19th at the Driveway Austin Motorsports Track course (8400 Delwau Lane). There will be an ongoing series points total for the 3.2-mile run. Go to Luke’s Facebook page or to register and more info go to eventbrite.com/e/lukes-locker-driveway.
O Hard to believe, but next Saturday (May 30th) marks the 40th anniversary of Steve Prefontaine’s death in a one-car accident in Eugene, Oregon. There’s a great remembrance of Pre on competitor.com by Jeff Johnson, the man who dreamed up the Nike name. Here’s a link: http://running.competitor.com/2015/05/features/jeff-johnson-what-makes-pre-so-special_128389.
O What I’m listening to this morning: “Moonflower,” by Santana.
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