Overcoming the inner talk on race day

I originally wrote this back in 2015 for someone I was coaching for a half marathon. It’s my account of a race I ran three weeks before theirs. I wanted to give them an idea of how, whatever your fitness level, if you’re pushing to your limits, you will experience voices / self talk trying to get you to ease up or even give up. But I also wanted to provide some of the phrases and ways I use to counter that voice. It’s a skill I learned while coaching volleyball to try and keep a team playing hard to the end of match even if all seems lost.

My race was the New Forest half marathon which took place in mid-September. I’d entered it when I was fit and healthy. I’d written a training plan aiming to get under 1hr30, but then July’s training didn’t go well and I picked up a calf problem in early August. Two weeks before the race I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to run it as I was exhausted at the end of my Sunday ‘long’ runs on Sundays and these were only covering 7½ miles at paces close to 9min/mile. Nothing like the 13+ miles I’d need to cover in the half.

Nonetheless in the last week my fitness seemed to return and I went from thinking 1hr45 was a possibility to turning up on race day and deciding to target sub-1hr40 (which is 7min36/mile pace).  Basically I hadn’t run longer than 10-miles since July 19th and almost all my recent miles have been up around 9min/mile so nothing close to where I was actually intending to run. I really didn’t know how it would go.


About 20 mins before the start – I had a 5-min jog at 10min/mile pace [2½ mins slower than race pace] and then finished off with a couple of strides at 8min/mile pace [engaging race pace muscles]. That was my warmup.

In the start funnel I was in the wrong place for 1hr40 due to the way they organised it so I knew I had a few people to get past but just took it nice and easy and told myselfIt’s extra warmup“. With the early bunching of runners and wanting to get past them, I told myselfWait until the gaps appeared then move through them”. The first mile came in at 7min40. The next at 7min30. Everything was feeling comfortable and I was on target.

I continued running at around this pace and it felt ok. Much of the course was on gravel paths at this stage and I felt pretty strong over the next four miles (7min29, 33, 37, 25). So now I’d reached at mile six with things still feeling manageable, but I was also slightly questioning how long will I be able to keep this up given my lack of training?

The watch was beginning to consistently read around 7min25, and I was a little concerned I might be overdoing things given my original 1hr40 intention, . But I decided to just stick with it and take whatever comes. The seventh mile came in at 7min27 and mile 8 at 7min16, but things were beginning to feel tough within my body. We’d also hit a little bit of light headwind out in the open and there were some gradients to go up, but gradients also go down which explains the quicker mile 8.

By this point my accumulated time was putting me in for 1hr37 and I was averaging about 7min25/mile. With only five miles to go, I told myself “Just hang on as best I can and get whatever time that brings me“. Even if I ran a minute per mile slower from here onwards, I’d only be adding five minutes to 1hr37 and finishing in 1hr42. But realistically you aren’t going to slow by that much if you keep putting one foot in front of the other as best you can. So most likely it would be 20secs/mile over the next 2-3 (+1min) and then maybe 1-min/mile over the last two (+2mins) which would still be 1hr40.

When the Mile 9 marker rolled around, I felt like giving up and downgrading to a jog as the legs were really beginning to feel it. But the mile itself clocked in at 7min25 – so no time added to the new 1hr37 goal. I told myselfJust keep running hard and see how far you can get“.

Mile 10 was 7min26 – I told myself3.1 miles to go. Just a parkrun – I do those all the time“.

Mile 11 was 7min25. I was basically running on my physical limit rather than really good pacing. This pace was the leftover from when my training was good in July.

But now with only two miles to go, I DEFINITELY wanted to give up. Told myselfIt’s only 15mins running left.“. Somewhere in the back of my mind a voice was sayingYou’re going to crash and have to walk these last two miles and end up running 1hr50“. I ignored that voice.

I was really beginning to struggle mentally. Then the tail end of the 10K race merged in with us, they were significantly slower and spread out across the path because of where the organisers had placed the drinks station. Mentally it was distracting and frustrating, especially when you’re tired; I wanted to shout at them to “MOVE” but it would be wasting energy. I got past safely after a few hundred yards.

At 11½ miles I glimpsed the finish area through the trees and told myselfNot far to go now. It’s only 1.6 miles, I can see the finish. I do 1.6 miles in warmup all the time.

At mile 12 I felt I was running like a zombie. My legs had slowed, it felt awful. I would have guessed my split time was 8min25 … actually it was 7min40 … within 15 seconds of my other miles. All that had happened is I’d dropped to my marathon pace. So now my predicted time had become 1hr37 and 15 seconds due to the slightly slower mile.

The final mile felt so slowwwww in my legs and it felt like I was jogging. The path became gravelly again, runners around me were starting to leave me behind thereby highlighting my perceived slowness, and although the finish was in sight the course took us on a mile lap around the outside of it. On top of that, one side of the field had a strong headwind to run into. It was all I could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other but that’s what I did and eventually I reached the final finish straight and tried to pick up the pace for a ‘sprint’ finish. I could only top out at 6min25 pace which is my 10K pace! The final mile had felt so slow – yet it came in at 7min30 pace.

So that was my half marathon finishing in 1hr37min07. Well above my expectations of a week before and above what I’d set out to do. On the day I had to give everything to achieve that time. Obviously fully fit I’d have been a much more capable runner but the lack of training put me on my limits.


What can you learn from this?  I want you to understand that when you really run a race to get a PB, it’s going to be as much about having the correct mental attitude as it is to being physically fit. I’ve tried to give you indications on what my self-talk was and what I had to do to hang on in there.

  • Mostly it’s a process of continuing to run as hard as your body will allow, counting down the miles and realising that with the fewer miles left there are, the smaller effect it can have on your overall time.
  • Understand that your mind will tell you anything to try and get you to slow down but you can hang in there and override it to a good extent.
  • When you feel like you’re running through treacle, but you know you’re trying your hardest, the reality is that you’ve probably only dropped by 15-20seconds/mile and ultimately that won’t destroy the time anywhere near as much as you thought it would.

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