The Challenge of Training Alone

Contributed by TriTrain Endurance Coaching Athlete Emily Conlon

Alone on the Road: Inside the Mind of an Endurance Athlete Training Solo (how she copes & overcomes)

“Swim sprints at 5:00am in the basement of a 24-Hour Fitness is a very lonely place.”  I remember thinking that to myself in between repeats, as I struggled to draw in is as much chlorine-laced oxygen as I could. There was no one else in the windowless, concrete box so early in the morning. But that was normal. And the fact that I considered it ‘normal’ was in itself a little unsettling. “What the hell am I doing here?”

It was the spring of 2010 and the hell that I was doing there was training for my first Ironman triathlon. After a few years of marathons, ultramarathons and century rides, I decided to try a triathlon. And I figured that since it required so much gear, and you had to get all dressed up for each sport, I might as well do the longest one. No sense in putting on a wetsuit only to get out of it minutes later. So I signed up for an 140.6-mile race. I reckoned that, with the guidance of an experienced triathlete friend and paperback book about the sport, I could coach myself through the 5-month season.

I trained by myself, with the exception of a handful of runs and rides with a friend or two. And so moments like those swim sprint ones were not uncommon. 80, 90 and 100-mile bike bikes were a fixture on the calendar. Working around an uncompromising day job meant getting the workouts done whenever I could. Rarely flexible enough for training buddies to join.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but completing that race – and every day of practice I put into it – was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Not physically, but mentally. Sure, the fatigue of 15+ hours of exercise a week would wear on any mortal. But what movements are harder than a swim stroke, a pedal rotation or a running stride? Setting an alarm for quarter after darkness. Tying shoe laces. Clipping in a bike shoe to finish the final 25 miles of a 75-mile ride.

When triathletes and runners and other endurance athletes prepare for workouts, we arm ourselves with the obvious necessities – hydration, nutrition, proper gear and apparel. We set ourselves up for success against the physical challenge. But during that solo season I lived and learned of an equally important thing to pack – a reason why.

“Have a reason.” It’s another way of asking, “What motivates you?” People plunge into endurance sports for as many reasons as there are flavors of Gatorade. And one of the most important things you can hold onto, as you explore where you think your limits are, is that reason. Running to remember something or someone; to be social and connected; to test perceived limits; to transform. As your water bottle keeps you hydrated, your reasons keep your encouraged.

Your mind is your strongest muscle, your greatest asset, and your own worst enemy. You can talk yourself up to feel like the most prepared and strongest athlete ever to touch asphalt. And you can convince yourself you cannot take another step. Neither belief has to do with your body – it’s all in your head. Remembering why you are doing what you do can carry you through tough stretches.

Some athletes rely on mantras and sayings – words mean so much more than their simple definitions – to power through. I’ve had coaches encourage me to make a list of them. I’ve read suggestions in running magazines. I’ve seen what the professionals tell themselves. But when it comes down it to, you have to find your own words. You have to be in that difficult, painful, sometimes lonely or desperate moment and learn what thoughts or phrases pick you up and get you moving. During that 75-mile bike ride, when I stopped at mile 50 and contemplated cutting short the distance, an odd idea came to me: “What if there is magic in those last 25 miles?” I didn’t know what I meant. I couldn’t have written it down, or planned that mantra ahead of time. It just came from blue sky above me. And it was enough to get me to finish out the day’s commitment. To this day, when I consider pulling up early on any workout, I remind myself that there may be something wonderful or amazing or even ‘magical’ in the remaining miles. And I don’t want to miss the opportunity.

My wetsuit, bike and transition bag now occupy the corner of my apartment. These days, it’s my running shoes that get all the attention. I am halfway through a training plan that will take me to the start line of a 100-mile trail race in February. And as you may imagine, that plan requires hours upon hours of running. And walking. And being alone with your thoughts. Last weekend I spent 5+ hrs of the 7-hour workout alone in the mountains. Sunshine, shade, rocks and trails – after a while even they become less distracting and the fatigue of the experience burrows into your brain. Instead of my brain bouncing from thought to thought like a stone skipping water, it sinks down into my feet, which hurt. And my legs, which hurt. And my brain, which is starting a ‘give it up’ chant.

It’s not easy to deal with. But I know very few runners who run because any of it is easy. Being able to manage your mind and mind your body is crucial. And upon reaching the finish –realizing that no workout and no race is infinite – can be a lasting high that dwarfs the struggle it took to get there. Our bodies have a funny way of forgetting pain. If not, we certainly wouldn’t go running a second time.

To me, Olivier Blanchard sums up the mental strength of endurance athletes really well in his essay, “What Runner’s Usually Make Great Employees (2009):

When you’re tired and sore and hungry but you still have four miles to go, guess what? You still have four miles to go. How you get through these last four miles is entirely up to you. Nobody cares whether you walk those last four miles or run, or hail a cab. Nobody made you set 26.2 miles as a goal. Or 100 miles. Or 144+.

Once you’ve broken past your lack of will and learned to keep going, you are transformed. A similar thing happens to Marines during training. At some point, who you used to be before you went beyond what you thought your limitations were, before you kissed excuses goodbye, before you left all of the bullshit that stood in your mind’s way ceases to exist. You become someone else.

Having a training partner or group of friends to run with is exceptionally helpful. External motivation is a spirited boost. Being a part of a community is irreplaceable. But inevitably for many of us, there are days or weeks or seasons when it’s only two legs, one mind and a constellation of miles stretching down the road. Opportunity. You’re self-powered, you get yourself up that hill or across that lane or over that bridge with your own strength. When you’re tuned into yourself and fighting through, you’re becoming stronger. And when you live through it and realize that there is no climb or mile or moment you cannot grit through, you realize your strength cannot be contained to just running. It’s forever embedded in who you are.


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