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How Top Runners Reframe Their Races

Call it the great reframing.

After a big race, professional athletes and amateurs often face the same challenge: how to react when the run doesn’t go according to plan A, B or C.

It’s something that Ryan Hall knows well. A two-time Olympian, and the only American to run a marathon in under 2 hours 5 minutes, Hall has had to strengthen that mental muscle as an athlete and now as a coach to runners including his wife, Sara Hall, the second fastest female marathoner in American history.

“I went through this process throughout my career, and it’s one I continue to cultivate as a coach,” Ryan Hall said over the phone this week. “When you have a bad race, you don’t want to talk about it to your co-workers or peers. But I’ve learned that actually every single one of those conversations is an opportunity to reframe this narrative in my own mind and with other people.”

It can take time. Hall points to his 10th-place marathon finish at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as one of the most difficult disappointments of his career. He went into the race as a podium contender and was absolutely dejected at the finish. He is able to see that experience in a positive light now, he says, but it took him three years after the race to get there. “It’s a learned skill,” he says.

For some people, talking about a disappointing race with others can be an isolating experience, said Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist. He calls it disenfranchised grief. “We use that term when the loss of something may not be widely understood, and we see that a lot with amateur runners,” Dr. Ross said. “The marathon is so important for us, that when it’s done, the general public, our family and friends, they don’t understand it. Why is it so hard?”

After this year’s Chicago Marathon and Boston Marathon — both of which were run in warm weather, slowing down athletes — many runners were eager to reframe how they thought about their races.

Sara Hall was among them. After failing to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics at the U.S. marathon trials last year, she refocused on another big goal: setting a new American record. She ran the London Marathon — an elite-only event held last year on Oct. 4 instead of its usual April date — in a personal best, 2:22:01, placing second. A few weeks later, on Dec. 20, she raced in the Marathon Project in Chandler, Ariz. (she races relentlessly), finishing in 2:20:32, the second fastest marathon ever run by an American woman.

She was just under one minute off the American record — 2:19:36, set at the London Marathon by Deena Kastor in 2004. She targeted the 2021 Chicago Marathon with the record in mind.

“It’s hard not to envision it going a certain way,” she said, days after finishing in third place in Chicago with a time of 2:27:19. “I envisioned a great weather day, that I would be in the hunt to win, to set an American record.”

Unlike professional athletes in many sports who have the opportunity to make up for a disappointing performance almost weekly, many runners compete in fewer than half a dozen races a year. At the Tokyo Olympics, some athletes cried openly when they were disappointed by race results. Others were able to quickly reframe their narratives by the time they posted to social media.

More athetles, including Scott Fauble on the far left in orange, have been sharing their disappointments and how they are reframing those performances.Credit…Steven Senne/Associated Press

“The word disappointed doesn’t quite feel strong enough,” Scott Fauble wrote on Instagram after his 16th-place finish at the Boston Marathon on Monday. “I don’t think I need to belabor that fact, so I’ll sign off with some positives. The crowds were amazing — you guys carried me home those last 10 miles. My body feels generally whole. There will be more races in the future — more chances to live up to my expectations.”

“This race certainly wasn’t everything we’d hoped for,” Reed Fischer posted after his ninth-place finish at the Chicago Marathon, “but it’s a massive step in the right direction and proof (to me, at least), that I belong at this stage and in this event.”

In this process, Dr. Ross said, professionals and amateurs alike are able to normalize feeling two things at once: sadness and gratitude.

“I think there is a really powerful shift that we need to make between outcome goals and performance standards,” Dr. Ross said. Outcome goals are usually time or place goals. Performance goals can be much more about mentality.

“When the day is not your day, we get lost and upset because we are able to recognize that the outcome goal is out of reach. That’s when falling on performance standards is so important. It’s less about the outcome. It’s how you show up.”

It’s a concept that Sara Hall took to heart in the days after the Chicago Marathon. She loves being process focused, looking to little victories and identifying the next goal.

“Out there, you have to do whatever you can to stay positive, and I did stay positive the whole time. That was a win in itself,” she said. “I told myself I was still in it. I focused on how good my stride felt, and how grateful I was to be in the race.”

It will be no surprise to see her show up again.

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