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On the Mark, Get Set . . . Use Your Head

February 11, 1986|JAMIE HARRIS

Jamie Harris, a supervisor in The Times' Marketing Research Department, has run eight marathons with a personal best time of 2 hours, 46 minutes. In the following article, he describes some of the barriers facing participants in the March 9 Los Angeles Marathon.

It takes more to run a marathon than just physical training. Psychological and emotional factors play a large role. Unfortunately, first-time runners may not make this discovery until they're well into the race.

By now--a month before the start of the first Los Angeles Marathon--runners should be logging a minimum of 50 miles a week and be in pretty good shape to take on the challenge of running the 26.2-mile race. They must also be prepared to endure the psychological rigors of the race. This applies especially to first-time marathoners.

"If they have a brain in their head, they should be scared, questioning and full of self-doubt before, during and after the race," said David C. Casal, a research scientist with Hyberitech Inc. of San Diego. Casal, a sub-3-hour marathoner, is an expert in the field of exercise physiology.

Emotional Roller Coaster

During the training period, typically 12 weeks long, a runner may experience a roller coaster of emotions about the race ahead. In the early part of the training schedule, the increased running chisels weight from the body. Self-confidence grows, and the spirit is bolstered.

But usually by the third week, the feeling of elation is replaced by the dread of carrying on with the training program, according to Dr. Sonny Cobble, co-director of the Sports Medicine Clinic at Los Angeles' Orthopaedic Hospital, the official hospital for the Los Angeles Marathon. The feeling of dread may be accelerated by the addition of long runs to the training schedule.

"Runners must learn to tolerate the isolation that accompanies longer runs," Cobble said.

Long training runs of 18 to 20 miles once a week take upwards of four hours to complete. "Runners should schedule training runs with others, especially the long runs, and talk through anxieties with fellow runners," said Jack Goldfarb, a clinical psychologist and director of the department of health psychology at Orthopaedic Hospital.

With first-time runners, even a cocktail party can lead to depression. A simple boast about the time it will take them to run the marathon could set them up for fear and failure, Casal said.

Emotions also play a large part during the race. At the start, many first-time runners get swept away with faster runners. The gun sounds and they take off like jackrabbits. In the excitement, they don't realize they're running faster than they should. When they remember they still have 25 miles to go, apprehension sets in.

Later, the monotony of feet pounding on pavement may lead to boredom and fatigue. To combat both these conditions, Goldfarb suggests the use of relaxation techniques.

Focus on Weary Muscles

"To distract oneself from fatigue one must focus on colors and music to help get to the finish," he said. "One should focus one's mind on weary muscle groups and feel them relax."

The last part of the run will likely be the most difficult physically and psychologically. Thoughts of being inadequate, incapable of finishing or even taking another step can monopolize a runner's thoughts.

Visualization is also recommended to overcome these feelings of inadequacy during the last few miles. "Picture yourself running smoothly and comfortably, passing the last few mile markers and finishing the race," Goldfarb said.

When the race is done, the emotional trauma may continue.

"The runner disqualifies his achievement by setting a higher goal, almost as he crosses the finish line," Casal said. "As a result the runner is never, ever satisfied."

Another Letdown

In addition, after a minimum of 600 miles of running to prepare for the race and run it, there is another kind of letdown. "Fifteen minutes after the race," Casal said, "the runner asks himself, 'What was this three or four hours of effort for? Is this it?' "

Experts agree that the runner should be aware of his limitations, setting realistic goals. The race is not just for one day. It is a process--before, during and after the race--that includes both physical and psychological preparation.

Orthopaedic Hospital, 2400 S. Flower St., will offer free lectures on marathon preparation every Saturday at 9:45 a.m. until Feb. 22.

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