In this past week’s “If We Were Riding” newsletter, Kelly O’Mara and Sara Gross debated whether physical training or mental training is more important. Immediately after reading it, I sent this reply:

“I’m with Sara. 

Mental training is way more important. 

You need to be mentally strong in order to do the really, really, tough physical stuff. 

You don’t necessarily need the physical training to do mental training.

I absolutely believe that a good chunk of mental training is done while physically training (I can hold this pace even though I feel like I’m gonna die) – but without mental toughness, physical training will only take you so far. “

After today’s race, I believe this more than ever.

Leading into today’s half marathon, I was feeling physically strong. My swimming and biking mileage have been way down (and thus, slow) but I was feeling confident in my run.

I’ve been consistently running 40-50km per week for over a year, with 20+ km long runs almost every week, and my pace has been steadily improving. Based on my training pace, my coach and I had set a goal of a 5 min+ PB for the distance, more if I happened to have a particularly good day.

And then…….

Thursday night, my partner went into the hospital with an infection; he was diagnosed with urosepsis. I spent most of Friday and Saturday at the hospital with him.

I debated not racing, but things were looking pretty good by Saturday afternoon, and the plan was for me to bring him home Sunday morning. So Jim said “go race!” so I planned to go and then bring him home right after.

Sunday morning, I knew something wasn’t right. Jim’s tone was off, and it was clear that things weren’t going as expected. He wasn’t saying much, and encouraged me to go race.

I got dressed, ate, and headed down to the course, determined to just get it over with and get to the hospital to see what was going on.

The first 4K felt strong. I was holding my exact target pace, and my body felt good. I was careful not to rush and settled into a steady rhythm.

As I approached the 5k mark, something snapped in my brain.

“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the hospital? There are more important things to worry about than a stupid race!”

For the next kilometre, I debated leaving. I could walk to my car, get to the hospital and see for myself how Jim was doing. When I reached an intersection in Beacon Hill Park, I did just that.

I was careful to completely step off the course and remove my bib; I didn’t want to be accused of cutting the course. I stood and watched for a few seconds as runners went past. So many people that I had been passing only a few minutes before.

And then I remembered Daniela Ryf; only 24 hours before, she had finished Kona – in 13th place – having won the race the 4 previous years.

“Not finishing wasn’t an option.”  She posted on Instagram after the race.

I thought of Paula Findlay, whose race to last place in the 2012 Olympics remains an inspiration to me.

She put one foot in front of the other and finished the race.

I thought of my own coach, who knows me better than most people do, and how he would tell me to suck it up and just keep going.

“No one gives a shit, Karmen.” Is what he would say.

I put my race bib back on and got back on the course, being careful to return it exactly where I stepped off.

I continued for another couple of kilometres before it hit me again.

I didn’t have to finish. I could literally walk off the course and no one would care. At this point, I was about 5 blocks from my car. I was ready to cross Cook Street and pull myself from the race once and for all.

I had tears streaming down my cheeks and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was done.

And then, I saw the one person who could convince me to keep going.

I doubt she knows how much I look up to her, but Abby Speirs is one of Canadian Junior athletes that I have the privilege of training with here in Victoria.

She’s an athlete that never quits. She puts her head down, does the work, and carries herself with dignity that I can only aspire to.

In Kelowna this summer, I watched these young women race at Nationals. It’s a fierce competition, as most of them are looking to the 2024 Olympics, and will need to secure sponsorships and funding to continue to train at an elite level.

Abby isn’t the fastest, but she’s the one that doesn’t stop. Doesn’t complain. And doesn’t make excuses.

Abby and her father, Brad, were standing on the corner.

I don’t remember exactly what Brad said, but I replied “I could use a hug.”

I stepped off the course, and got big hugs from both Abby and Brad.

“You can do this.” said Abby.

They couldn’t have possibly known what was wrong. But in that moment, their belief in me meant everything.

I knew that I was minutes down from my target time, and that I had no hope of hitting my goal. But if Abby and Paula and Daniela could finish, so could I.

I put one foot in front of the other, and I kept going.

It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fast.

I walked every aid station, and a lot of time in between them. But I kept going.

I remembered the conversation between Sara and Kelly, and there was no debate in my mind.

Because physically, there was absolutely no reason I couldn’t finish the race. I had been running at least 20km every Sunday for months, and ran 32km only a few weeks earlier.

I woke up that morning with a headache, but nothing that a handful of painkillers couldn’t fix. My legs were fine. Good even, after sitting for 2 days straight. In that moment, nothing hurt. Even my heart rate was lower than it should have been.

But mentally, I wasn’t in the game. It took every ounce of mental strength just to keep going.

I began thinking of the race as a mental training day. Because I wanted to get something out of it. So that the next time I hit a wall in a race, I could remember pushing though this.

Mental toughness is everything. If you aren’t mentally strong, you can’t even do the really hard physical stuff.

Because when things get tough, you give up.

So given the choice, I’d rather be mentally strong. That’s what I want to work on over the next few months.

Just keep going.

Huge gratitude to Abby, Daniela, Paula, Sara and Kelly for the motivational push; to Kristin for being the best training partner; to Clint for not taking any of my shit, and, as always, to Jim, for being my rock.

By the way – I finished the race.

It wasn’t pretty.

But I finished.