Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor

Subtitle: What Do You Think About While Running? (Introduction)

Posted on October 6, 2022

By Olivia Baker

Have you ever wondered what marathoners think about while running a race? As someone who has not run a marathon but has struggled through a 6k cross country race, I certainly have. Much like in track races and shorter road races, headphones are prohibited for those who are competing in the elite division of most marathons and strongly discouraged for those in the subsequent waves (though we all know that person who has snuck in a pair anyway). For most, we just have our competitors, the crowd, and the occasional chime of the GPS watch on our wrists to distract us from the physical pain and potential boredom we may face in the long hours of the competition. I imagine that this is why the marathon is considered to be one of the greatest tests of both physical and mental fortitude and why we can learn so much about life from those who tackle the marathon at the elite level.

In Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor, the 10th book of Runners Who Read Book Club, we will get to take a look more closely at the mental build of a marathoner. Just as important as the physical mileage added during a 16-to-20-week marathon build is the mental training that takes place over the same time period. I chose this book for Runners Who Read in part because it is fall marathon season again and it came strongly recommended across the running community (including from some of you), but also because it uniquely focuses on the mental side of marathoning. I'm excited to learn about some of the more practical ways we can train our minds for endurance tasks and apply them to my own racing. Furthermore, maybe as we discover productive ways to think during our long hauls on the road and track, we'll come across some that will benefit us in the long hauls of life as well.

Discussion Questions:

1. What do you think about when going for a long run, walk, or jog?

2. What are you looking forward to learning from this book?

Subtitle: From Burnout to Balance, Mini-blog #1

PART ONE: Chapters 1-3

Posted on October 11th, 2022

By Olivia Baker

In the opening chapters of Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor, we read about how Kastor got her start in running and the path that led her to her first professional running group. A phenom, she dominated most of her races in high school. She won races and broke records so frequently that her talent became a part of her identity, reinforced by the newspapers, her teammates, and inadvertently by her coaches and parents too. As a result, those rare underperformances became personal failures for which she beat herself up and also felt were out of her control. A fear of failure set in.

Then in college, despite becoming a 4-time SEC Champion and 8-time All-American, she underwhelmed the high expectations placed upon her coming out of high school—namely to lead the University of Arkansas team to an NCAA Cross Country Championship—and struggled to find the motivation to stick with running. Dealing with injury on and off for most of her collegiate career only made matters worse and lead to burnout by the end of her fifth year. Had it not been for a fortuitous introduction to the legendary coach Joe Vigil, she was ready to leave competitive running altogether.

Most of us were not high school sports phenoms, but we all have talents, and can all relate to the feeling of burnout, even when doing something we are good at and that we like. As Kastor found out, when we place our identity in something we are good at it can build us up, but we also give that thing an incredible amount of power to tear us down. It was only once she let go of the notion that talent was the only factor in her success in racing and detangled it from her identity that she could truly be ready to embrace the challenges of professional running yet to come. Thus, this week, as we too prepare for the challenges ahead of us, let's take a moment to examine how the things with which we choose to identify run the risk of holding us back.

Discussion Questions:

1. What parts of your identity are entangled with the things you do (work, hobbies, etc.)?

2. In what way does the aforementioned identity serve you? In what ways can it hold you back?

Subtitle: Building Your Positivity Toolbox, Mini-blog #2

PART TWO: Chapters 4-11

Posted on October 18, 2022

By Olivia Baker

One of the first things that Deena Kastor's coach, Joe Vigil, emphasizes to her going into practice almost every day is to "bring a good attitude". He understood how easy it can be to lose hope and default to negativity when times get hard if we are not intentional about fighting against it. However, as we observe Kastor learn throughout the second part of Let Your Mind Run, aptly titled "GROW", simply showing up with a positive mindset and can-do attitude is only the tip of the iceberg. In order to sustain it, she needed to develop a toolbox of practical strategies to fend off the negative thoughts. Summarized here are some of the tools she picked up along the way:

Replace can't with maybe (Braveys will recognize this one). Rather than start with fully formed thoughts, Kastor begins by replacing words that carry a negative connotation with ones that are more hopeful. Rather than "hard", "cold", and "tired", she would use "challenging", "tough" and "adapting" to frame an upcoming workout (pg# 133).

Choose your focus. Sometimes Kastor needed to distract herself with music, nature, or conversation while running to help pass the time. Other times it made sense to focus inward on her breathing, stride, or arm swing. Wherever she needed to place her thoughts to get through the workout, it was important that she dictated where her mind went rather than letting the feelings and sensations in her body do the steering.

Practice Gratitude. Constantly scanning the world for goodness as Kastor put it, allowed positive thoughts to flow more easily. Traffic, wind, feeling tired, or being confronted with a broken washing machine paled in comparison to sunshine, kindness, and the skills of a handyman (pg#156). Actively focusing on the things we are thankful for leaves less space for the things that bring us down.

Never forget to have fun. Time flies when you're having fun (so they say). Whether it was yelling "Charge!" in her head as she ran up a hill during mile repeats or imagining that wind acts as a joyride for birds on gusty day, Kastor always sought out enjoyment while running. When in doubt, making a difficult task fun can at least make it go by a little faster.

As we can see, positivity in general is not a one-thought-fixes-all tool, rather, it is a toolbox intentionally stocked with a diverse set of equipment that needs to be sharpened, maintained, and ready to use in any moment. While this particular blog post focuses on running, the qualities that build the athlete build the person and these tools can just as easily be applied to life in general. So, as we prepare for the upcoming week, let's be more intentional about identifying the places where negative thoughts can come up and find ways to cultivate positivity in those spaces.

Discussion Questions:

1. Which of these tools are already in your positivity toolbox? Which do you hope to add?

2. What other tools have you added that aren't mentioned here?

Subtitle: The 2001 NYC Marathon, A Case Study in Mental Fortitude, Mini-blog #3

PART THREE: Chapters 12-17

Posted on October 25th

By Olivia Baker

As we transition into part 3 of Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor, we start to move away from discussions of how to build positive thinking into our lives and lean into stories of how Kastor practically uses her positivity toolbox in racing situations. There are many examples to choose from throughout part 3, but the 2001 NYC Marathon stands out because it was her first ever marathon and as we read, no matter how much preparation is put in, there are just some things you have to experience to learn and adapt on the go when it comes to marathoning. Kastor does that excellently here.

Hundreds of miles of physical preparation had laid the foundation for a great race, but she was being asked to run at 5:30/mile, a pace she had only ever held going half as far. The elite women's field was deep and filled with experienced marathoners. Millions of spectators lined the course to watch and cheer. It was unlike any stage upon which she had competed before, and it was not lost on her that this race was taking place in New York City less than 2 months after one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in American history on 9/11. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, the stage was set for this first marathon to be a challenge before even the first step, but at each turn, she put her mental tools to use.

The first trial arose at mile 8 when a blister started developing on her foot. The pain commanded her attention, but she expertly placed her focus on more beneficial things. "It's just skin" she would remind herself and "good thing it's four feet from your heart" (pg# 288) she thought as she dismissed the blister and zoomed in on sipping fluids, tucking in behind the leaders, and listening to the breathing of the pack. Through miles 10-20 as the crowd ebbed and flowed, she found gratitude in both the cheering and the quiet. She drew strength from the energetic display of resilience that the crowds showed as they waved American flags and blew noisemakers. In the quiet, she immersed herself in the hum of the leading motorcycles and light tapping of women's feet across the asphalt (pg#289). When negative thoughts seeped in at mile 23, "God, this hurts," they were immediately followed with encouragement "I'm going to finish," (pg#290). In the final stages, she even manages to find fun in "lassoing" the Columbus Circle Monument and reeling it in as she approached the final mile. In what was "the hardest race she'd ever run" (pg# 291), Deena Kastor ended up finishing 7th overall and running the fastest marathon debut by an American woman.

In marathoning, as in life, there are always factors that are unforeseen and out of our control. However, while we may not be able to prepare specifically for every challenge that life will bring, we see illustrated here that we can prepare the mind with a set of tools to take on any trials that may come.

Discussion Questions:

1. What are some things that you find productive to focus on during a long running, walking, or jogging effort?

2. In what ways have you seen the same strategies used here apply to situations in life?

Subtitle: Peace in the Midst of Disappointment, Mini-blog #4

PART FOUR: Chapters 18-19 and Epilogue

Posted on October 31st

By Olivia Baker

In the closing chapters of Let Your Mind Run, we read about Deena Kastor's final Olympic build-up to the 2008 Games in Beijing and perhaps one of the toughest moments of her career. In the shape of her life, having just recently set the American record a couple of years ago in the marathon, and coming off of major marathon wins in Chicago and London as well, she was a serious medal favorite. However, just about 5k into the Olympic marathon, she felt a snap in her foot and immediately realized that her foot had broken. Unable to go a step further, she was picked up by the medical van and forced to ride the rest of the way to the finish line as the van occasionally stopped for others who also couldn't finish for one reason or another. It was in her meditation in this van that she thought "I didn't win gold and didn't have the answers yet, but here positivity was doing its best work. After a crushing blow, the consistent practice allowed me to arrive at a place of acceptance and relative peace in record time." (pg#399). There in lies the true power of the changed mindset she'd cultivated and one of the main points of this book.

Developing a positive mindset didn't mean that DNFing at her final Olympics wasn't devastating. As an aspiring Olympian myself, I cannot imagine how difficult that moment must have been. Yet, it is in that moment that having such a mindset helped her recover and move forward in a productive manner. The gratitude for what her body had given her, the determination to find the lesson and opportunity in the experience, and the ability to quietly reflect, that she had spent building in the many miles of runs leading up to this point (just to name a few) all allowed her to cope well with the disappointment. Running set the stage to cultivate positivity, but beyond running, that mindset is something that will stick with her for the rest of her life. So this week, let's spend a little bit of time cultivating a positive mindset knowing that we can reap the benefits in the challenges to come down the line.

Discussion Question:

1. In what ways can cultivating a positive mindset in our lives benefit us outside the realm of competitive sports?

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