U.S. Club XC Championships: Mind & Body Games on the Pain Train

A goal for any “A” race training cycle should be to recreate — to practice — the feelings of discomfort you’re likely to experience during a race situation.

You practice going fast and feeling tired. You practice pushing your body and mind to respond to the fatigue and pain. Log the right amount of those experiences in training or tuneup races and you’ll be ready to conquer those feelings during crunch time of your big race.

There’s no better example of this preparation than two weeks ago when I traveled to Bend, Oregon, to compete in the USATF National Club Cross-Country Championships.

The 10K wasn’t a goal race, but would be a rare opportunity to run side-by-side with a deep field of elites and post-collegiate runners. Anyone who joins the USATF can register, and I was motivated to compete against the best.

Upon arrival in Bend, our team previewed the hellacious course. It was a rollercoaster of hills, rocks, pine needles, mud and even hay bales — nothing I’d seen during my flat training in Chicago. To make matters worse, the race was at altitude!

We knew that this would be an opportunity for physical and mental training — about capturing the painful “effort” to help us for our spring races.

My goals were simple: 1) Avoid injury; 2) Don’t fall face-first anywhere; 3) Don’t get lapped by the elites; and 4) Prepare the mind and body for future hurt.

The race was a slog from start to finish and after the first of five loops (~1.8K), I knew I had a one-way ticket aboard the pain train. My initial thought: “There is no way I’m going to make it through four more laps of this course.” That thought replayed at the end of each subsequent lap.

I also kept telling myself, “Keep turning the legs over as best as you can and you’ll make it through.” I did finish and looking at my splits, my pace didn’t drop off by much. I was able to stay on the rails.

Beat up and humbled by the brutal course, I’ll use the experience — the burning sensation in my lungs and the mental fight required to continue — to springboard my next cycle of training and my spring “A” race. I can return to that feeling when my dedication or perseverance lags or when the race gets tough. If I did it in Bend, why not now?

At the post-race party, I talked with Alan Webb, former Olympian and the American mile record holder. He also ran the XC race and expressed the same struggles and doubts.

He, too, was humbled. “It was the hardest race I’ve ever done,” he said. By the third lap, he was also in survival mode trying his best to mentally push through the pain to the finish.

If Webb races in the spring, he’ll certainly have an advantage over anyone who didn’t run in Bend.

Kevin Granato is a running coach for #GranatoRacing, a 2:38:00 marathoner, freelance writer and former professional hockey player. Feel free to contact him at CoachGranato@TheRunningInstitute.com.

Michael Chin