I’m finishing up lunch on Friday, the first full day of the Runner’s World Half and Festival, with a small group of bloggers invited to attend the weekend of events.

This meal in particular has everyone excited. Not for the food — though the vegan avocado pasta is delicious — but for the special guest.

Just as dessert plates are push aside, Deena Kastor stands up to greet the 15 or so people in the room, and informs us she isn’t prepared to actually speak.

“No problem,” I think to myself. “Just tell us war stories from your bronze medal run in the 2004 Olympic Marathon. Or how you became the only American woman to break 2:20 in the marathon. Of even better, about your Chicago Marathon race just one week prior, when you ran a 2:27 and set the U.S. master record!”

Any one of those stories would have the entire room engaged and excited.

But talking about your accomplishments is easy, and Deena has something else on her mind.

Mistakes. And negativity.

She begins by talking about times she went out too fast, a nightmare most runners know far too well, and races where side cramps hit her like a ton of bricks. Then she shares her thought process when it comes to dealing with those potentially race busting problems.

There stands Deena, one of the most accomplished American marathoners of all time, addressing a room of eager bloggers not about big wins or training hard, but about her mistakes, negative thoughts, and the mental side of running.


Flipping Negatives into Positives

Think back on the last time you were really in the pain zone. Maybe during your last race, or maybe it was a recent training run that just didn’t go as planned.

You hurt. You’re discouraged. And you start questioning the run.

What was going through your head? What were you telling yourself? Maybe something like:

“This hill just won’t end. Don’t slow down.”

“I’m off pace. I can’t blow this now.”

“I can’t let this leg cramp ruin my race!”

That’s the kind of statement most runners think all the time, including myself. But do you see anything wrong with these statements? At first glance, it might not be obvious because:

  • You’re addressing the problem, and that’s a good thing.
  • You’re encouraging yourself to push through, also a good thing.

But here’s where you get into trouble, everything you’re saying is negative. Think about it:

  • “Don’t slow down”
  • “I can’t blow this”
  • “I can’t let this ruin my race”

Almost every one of those words are negative when it comes to running. Subconsciously, all your mind can’t handle are the negatives, even if the intent is to encourage. If you’re trying to will yourself forward, that negative tone forms a cloud that just won’t quit raining.

As Deena told our group, if you want to succeed, you have to flip those negatives into positives.

Instead of “Don’t slow down,” flip it to “Keep running strong.”

Instead of “I can’t blow this,” flip it to “Focus and take control.”

Instead of “I can’t let this leg cramp ruin my race.” Focus on how strong the other leg feels, and tell it to continue pushing.

See what we’re doing? Our natural instinct is to almost always go negative. We have to train ourselves to do the opposite. Remove the doubt, and only positive thinking remains.

Association vs. Disassociation (Which is Better?)

This positive thinking approach keeps you engaged, or as Jeff Brown puts it in The Runner’s Brain, associated.

Jeff says that with an association style, you’re constantly running in the moment. You’re focused on breath, stride, pain, pace, or repeating a mantra.

The opposite, of course, would be disassociation, or escaping by not thinking about the run. Maybe distracting your mind by thinking about your job, family, or that bump’n tune blasting through your earbuds.

Disassociation may be your preferred approach, and one Deena admitted to using when things got really difficult.

I believe there’s a time and place for both. To get through a 50 mile ultramarathon, for example, you damn well better disassociate for at least part of the race (I’ve perfected my favorite way of disassociating, dedicating miles to loved ones and thinking of them for that mile).

So which approach is better?

According to The Runner’s Brain,

“Studies of marathoners note that predominantly associative thinkers tend to post faster times and confirm that most top-placed finishers in races have reported that while they did switch between associative and disassociative thoughts, they spent a far larger chunk of time tuning in.”

Association allows you to remain in the moment. When you’re in the moment, performance will likely be stronger, managing nutrition easier, and nailing paces less difficult.

But that inward thinking better be positive.

Putting it Into Action

About three hours after lunch with Deena, I toe the line of our first race of the weekend, the sold out Altra 3.8 Mile Trail Run on South Mountain. It will be the first of 4 races over the weekend (trail run on Friday, 5k and 10k on Saturday, and half marathon on Sunday), and I know it will be the only race where I’m focused on running hard.

Sure enough, with just over 3 miles down and a giant hill in front of me, my thoughts turn negative. Immediately Deena comes to mind.

“I can do this. Keep running strong,” I tell myself.

Just then, Golden Harper, co-founder of Altra Running shoes, and the winner of this race comes jogging back towards me having already finished.

“You’re in the top 15! Finish strong!”

“I can do this. Keep running strong! I can do this. Keep running strong! I can do this. Keep running strong!”

There’s no denying that I slowed that last mile, but I know that through positive association, I was able to hang on more than my body wanted to. I finished 12th, wiped out and pleased with the run.

The remaining three races are a total blast. Instead of chasing PRs, which I know are out of reach and far less fun, I take a playful group-run approach, and tag along with great friends new and old, (mostly Matt, Dani, David, Nancy, and Brian, another Altra co-founder).

This is a different type of positive association: Having fun. Something I don’t focus enough on while running.

I’m not the type of runner who will do that for every race — I like competition too much — but if I can tap into that joy when fighting up a hill, I’ll have an edge no one can take away.

Spin Your Next Challenge

There will be another painful run. There always is.

So the next time you find yourself throwing out negative thoughts and doubts, I challenge you take Deena’s lead and spin it into a positive.

If she can put so much emphasis on the mental side of racing, I can too.

And so should you.

Admin Note: Runner’s World sponsored my participation in the Runner’s World Half and Festival, and all the events associated with the weekend. They did not, however, have any influence over this post.


Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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7 thoughts on “Running With Your Brain: How Deena Kastor Saved My Race

  1. Great post. She was definitely an inspiration and has helped give me a new outlook on what’s ahead with running. I hope we can meet again soon!

  2. I enjoyed this post. You know, there’s an exact yoga sutra of Patanjali that mentions turning negative thoughts into positive ones. I use it a lot.

  3. I’ve been asking myself WWDD since meeting Deena. If I learned anything from her it’s that the body of a champion includes the mind of a champion. And it’s that mind that powers the whole thing. Great post to come back to when I need a reminder!

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