The Journey with Mental Preparedness: When a Finish is a Win

If anyone had asked me 5 years ago if I ever wanted to run a marathon, I would have laughed in their face. I would have made some joke about “only running if someone was chasing me” and we would have chuckled and that would have been the end of it….for a while.

Later, I would have felt sad because I believed I COULDN’T run a marathon. I believed my weight, my speed and my lack of athleticism would hold me back from ever doing something that huge. I am built more like a linebacker than a runner. My legs are thick, my shoulders broad, my stomach is more like a pony keg than a six-pack.

By 2011, when I became a runner, the answer was the same. Sure, I could bust out a 35 minute 5K. I could struggle through a half marathon and not feel like I was dying the next day, but I was no marathon runner. Leave that to the lean and the fast. Even though I had lost a significant amount of weight, I was still too big, too slow.

The first two years of my running life consisted of losing weight, training and signing up for races. As I would get fitter, I would get faster. My 5K time went from 40+ minutes to a solid 32. Between June of 2011 and August of 2012 I shaved almost 10 minutes from my 10K time. My first half marathon was barely under 3 hours. Four months later I ran a half marathon almost 20 minutes faster. I wanted this to continue. I wanted every race to be a personal record. And as I ran more races, the idea of a marathon didn’t feel that impossible. In fact, it started to feel doable.

So I registered for one.

As I trained for my first marathon in 2013, I realized that more than anything else, marathoners have to train their bodies AND their minds.   I recognized that strength, determination and motivation were important ingredients for a marathon, along with great shoes, training and support.

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And somewhere along the way, I recognized that finishing was the most important part of the journey. Not breaking records, simply crossing the finish line.

And on March 17, 2013, after 6 hours, I crossed my first marathon finish line. To date, it remains the greatest day of my life.

But, true to form, I wasn’t satisfied…I wanted to do better. I wanted to go faster, be stronger, get lighter. So I started training for my next big race.

And then I got injured. It was a fluke injury that came from overuse, not enough stretching and a faulty gait, not to mention the fact that, although I’ve lost weight, I’m still more linebacker than lean.

Being injured changed everything. I missed 7 long months of running, endured my first “Did Not Start” and was told that maybe I wasn’t built for marathon distances.

But I worked on it. I went to two different Physical Therapists – one to strengthen and one to train my body to run so I would be injury-free. I swam, walked and worked out with weights. I did whatever my PT told me to do. I wore my race shirts and running shoes to therapy sessions just in case they told me I could start running. The day they cleared me for 5 minute intervals, I went straight to the gym and did 30 glorious minutes of said intervals on the treadmill.

And I signed up for my 3rd marathon.

I started training as soon as I was completely cleared and thought, “I can rock this marathon. I will be better than ever. I will come back strong and PR.”

And my body said, “Uh, Stewart?” (my body calls me by my last name like an athlete), “Yeah, we have 30 extra pounds and you haven’t been running, let’s think realistically.”

And my heart said, “Heath?” (my heart shortens my name, just like my mom does), “ You can do whatever you set your mind to…you’re magnificent.”

And my brain said, “Ms. Stewart?” (my brain behaves as if it’s my first grade teacher), “ Think, be smart, train well.”

And my soul said, “RUN!!!!!”

Beginning again after 7 months is like starting over.

To run another marathon I had to listen to my PTs, listen to my own body and put in the miles. There would be some walking. There would be some stopping to stretch. But, I would finish.

It wouldn’t be easy, but I would do it.

As my training went on and mileage got longer, I would have these long internal conversations with myself about my abilities and my expectations. I would try to be kind as I explained to myself that we are doing the best we can with what we are working with.

A finish is a win.

I believe we often become a slave to our own expectations and not meeting them. We expect so much of ourselves and don’t learn to manage those expectations, so much so that we fail to see our incredible accomplishments.

These expectations cripple us to what our potential is. They keep us from reaching for goals and dreams because we don’t want to fail.

The beauty of a road race for the average runner is that finishing, regardless of time, is a win. The simple act of deciding to do something, committing to it and following through is entirely possible when it comes to running.

So, that became my goal. I wasn’t smashing any of my previous records. I wasn’t suddenly going from injured to my previous fitness. I was simply running and finishing.

Thank goodness this was my plan leading up to the 2015 LA Marathon because as race day approached, it became apparent that my own struggles would not be all I was dealing with. March 15th 2015 was on pace to be the hottest LA Marathon in its 30 years.

I was ahead of the game because every runner, not just me, was going to have to manage their own expectations. Race Directors encouraged people to slow down and to stop frequently.

“No problem”, I thought, “I’m doing this already.”

Race day came and I was as ready as I could be. I had prepared, not just my body, but my mind. I knew the reality of what I was facing and crossed the starting line with my best friend with two goals.

The first was to enjoy the race as much as I could. I wanted to stop when I had to, drink when I needed it, run through water when I could and hug anyone I knew on the sidelines. I did not want to have my memories of this day be filled with feelings of heat, pain and misery. I wanted joy and fun.

Secondly, I wanted to finish. I wanted to finish next to my best friend who was coming back after having her first child. I wanted to finish with a smile on my face and with a sense of accomplishment, and that word again, joy.

I knew my body could get through 26.2 miles, but our minds are more difficult to train. It is hard when things don’t end up the way you wanted to or look the way you imagined.

But I finished the race and it was exactly as I wanted it to look.

It was almost 90 degrees and I was way off my PR, but I didn’t mind. I had committed and put in the work and it paid off in the best possible way.

In every single picture caught on the course I am smiling and 7 hours and 27 minutes after I started my 3rd marathon I ran through the finish line and yelled, “WE DID IT!” to my best friend.

Crossing the finish line!

Crossing the finish line!

And deep inside, I heard my body, heart, mind and soul yell, “WE DID IT!” in unison.

I made a commitment and stuck with it. Even though it was hard, even though it didn’t always look pretty, I followed through and finished.

And that, my friends, is a win.


Heather Stewart is a 2015 ambassador for The Biofreeze San Francisco Marathon who runs and lives outside Los Angeles. When someone tells her they can’t run, she always says, “Yes you can, you have to decide to try.” She’s only been wrong once or twice. 







3 Replies to "The Journey with Mental Preparedness: When a Finish is a Win"

  • comment-avatar
    May 5, 2015 (2:12 pm)

    Thanks so much for sharing this. SF will be my first ever marathon and I’m at the stage where doubt is starting to creep into my long runs. I have to remember that crossing that line will be a mega achievement, no matter how long it takes.

  • comment-avatar
    May 5, 2015 (4:05 pm)

    I love hearing about people running their first marathon! I know you’ll do great! Remember to give yourself a break and, in my opinion, training is harder than race day! Keep up the great work!
    See you in SF!

  • comment-avatar
    May 21, 2015 (10:20 pm)

    Heather- What an amazing story! It was great meeting you at the LA marathon Expo. See you in July!