Train your body and conquer your mind – Running Life Lesson #4
It was a beautiful spring Saturday afternoon at the United States Naval Academy my senior year as a West Point Cadet. I was scheduled to compete in the 5,000 Meters to help Army beat Navy in our annual head-to-head Army/Navy Track Meet.
No matter what would happen every season, our number one goal was to always beat Navy in every sport. Navy had a proud Track & Field tradition and so did Army. The Army/Navy Track Meet was in full swing that day and both of our teams were competing well. The track was lined with Midshipmen and other Navy supporters cheering on their team to beat their rival Army.
There were three of us Army runners that were scheduled to run the 5000 meters that day, Mike Bernstein, Jack Swift, and myself. We were all seniors and wanted to end our Army running careers on a high note by beating Navy one more time. I will never forget the look on my head coach’s face and the feeling I had in my gut when he notified us that we were in a dead lock with Navy and that we had to place at least 1st and 2nd in our 5000 meter race if we were going to beat Navy as a team that day.
I had practiced hard that season and was running well. I did not realize it at that time, but that year I was in the best shape of my life. I was not known for having a strong kick at the end of races and lost a few to other runners who were faster and stronger than me in the last 200 meters of a race. I was determined to gain an advantage over my competitors so I could hang on and win. In practice, I began to train myself to start my kick 600 meters from the finish so I could pull away from the pack, which would give me some space to hold off surges from my competitors in the end. This was a risk, since most runners could not withstand a kick for more than 400 or 300 meters from the finish. I trained my body to accept this surge, with 600 meters to go, and programmed my mind to accept the mental challenge of going to a higher gear a little earlier than normal. It was hard to maintain a surge for 600 meters, but I practiced, and trained all season to fine tune my body and mind for the challenge of kicking hard for 600 meters.
There were six competitors in the race that day at Navy. Three of us and three of them and we had to take the top two spots to win the Track Meet. The gun went off and we jostled for position and stayed in a tight pack for the first mile or so. My friend, Jack, took out the pace and kept the race moving at a nice speed. Mike and I waited patiently as we tucked in nicely in the back of the pack. Navy had two dangerous runners that were a real threat to us that day. Bruce Frame, the senior veteran, who had beaten me before and their fast and gutsy freshman that would not let us win easily.
With a mile to go, there were only four of us left in the race; the other two runners had dropped off the pace. Bruce and the Navy freshman were leading, with Mike and I tucked in behind them. I was tired and could feel the fatigue in my legs and the burning in my lungs, but I felt strong and waited in anticipation for when I planned to make my move. We swiftly passed each lap around the track with the crowd roaring and cheering us on, most of them in complete understanding that this race would determine the outcome of the entire meet.
It was time to put my training and body to the test as we approached the point with 600 meters to go in the race. I had trained all season for this moment and so I made my move! I surged without hesitation and breezed by the freshman, who looked at me with surprise and then I passed Bruce so fast that it felt like he was standing still. Mike went with me and we both put some distance between us and our Navy rivals. I could feel the wind rush against my face and thunderous cheers of the Army fans as we rounded the home stretch. The Navy runners could not respond to our surge and we widened our gap. My body responded to the many months of training and allowed me to finish 2nd behind our Team Captain Mike Bernstein that day. Army won the meet and I ran my fastest 5000 meters in my life, 14:18.
That race was probably one of the most significant races of my life, because it taught me one simple principle that I have never forgotten. My mind is the master over my body and my body will do whatever I train it to do. It took guts and sheer determination to start a kick early in a race and to start 600 meters out was no easy task, but over time, my body began to accept this task.
That defining race was a capstone of a successful four year varsity running career, for me, at the collegiate level. I ran my fastest race ever, but most importantly, I conquered my body and trained it to run the way I wanted it to run through dedication, consistent training, and perseverance. Today, I am not running sub fifteen minute 5ks, but I am continually training my body and conquering mind to overcome the daily obstacles in life. And you know what? My body always responds to what I train it to do and so will yours.