Imagine you've been running and racing for a few years and have been improving so rapidly, that it's hard to gauge what you can do in any race. Four months ago, you ran a marathon, felt great at the half-way mark, which you reached in 1:33, and thought you might break three hours. Somewhere before the end you discovered what people mean by "the wall" and were forced to slow to what seemed like a crawl. Yet, you crossed the finish line in 3:28, much faster than ever before. You wondered if you could've run faster if you'd started slower.
Now you've entered a marathon planning on running 3:15. This marathon has pacers for different groups and they've chosen a sub 2:30 marathoner known as "the metronome" for his uncanny ability to run even pace to pace a group hoping to run 3:15. You hope to stay with him as long as possible.
The gun goes off and you take a few minutes to get to the starting line and up to racing speed, wondering if you're already behind schedule. You stick to your pacer's side and don't think about the race, just taking in the crowds, the scenery, the music at various points. You notice that there's a pack with your pacer, with some people falling back, some catching up; there's a teenager who looks like he's in his first marathon, two guys who never stop talking to each other and a few others that you'll see all day.
Before you know it, you've passed a clock at the 10 mile mark, reading 1:15:20. Your pacer seems to be on target. You've run this far at this pace in training, so it's no big deal. At the half-marathon mark, that teenager sprints ahead and checks his watch; you'll see him standing at the next aid station and never see him again.
At 15 miles, you think about where you are and how you feel for the first time, wondering if you can really run this pace to the end. On an uphill stretch, you notice your breathing has sped up. At 16 miles, you're breathing at this faster rate continuously. You look around and see your pacer looks exactly like he did at the start (he could at least break a sweat!), but the others look like they're faring at least as badly as you are - except the two guys talking to each other, who're starting to get on your nerves. At this point, you let the pacer get ahead of you on the uphills and catch him on the downhills, running the shortest possible route, even though the pack you're with sticks to one side of the road. You're still with the pack, just more loosely affiliated.
At 18 miles, you think you must be speeding up. Each mile from here is more difficult than the previous one. You know that if you slow down to normal training pace, you'll still set a personal best; you have to force yourself not to slow down. At 20 miles, the clock reads 2:30 - you're still on pace! You're starting to see people walking. You're passing people and the pack you started with is dwindling. 22 miles comes and you really want to slow down, but you know you're going to finish, unlike a lot of people you see - especially at the aid stations. The guys who've been talking grow silent and look serious.
At 24 miles, if you had a heart rate monitor, it would show you're at or very near your maximum. Now things seem desperate. You're breathing as fast as you can; maybe you speeded up, maybe you just started taking short choppy steps so you could breathe faster - you don't know and it doesn't really matter. You've run at this heart rate for the last two miles of 5K races, so you know you can do it, but trying it at after having run for hours is new territory. And it's scary. This is where you fell apart in your last marathon. You tell yourself you can survive the next 15 minutes, no matter what happens.
Somewhere before the 25 mile mark, there's an aid station. You worry that you're going to stop there for a second and you won't start again. You decide nothing there's going to help you much in the last few minutes, so you'll pass it by. Somehow, you end up with a sponge someone held out; you don't recall taking it; you wipe it across your brow and toss it. You've left the last of the pack you started with behind you.
Just as you see the 26 mile mark ahead, you're in big trouble. You start breathing more and more deeply and your strides are getting longer again. You're passing people like they're standing still. Each step is agony, but the crowd's cheering you on. The end is coming!
You see the finish line 100 yards ahead. The clock read 3:14:48. You know that these clocks are notoriously inaccurate, but it's going to take everything you have to break 3:15. Suddenly, it's like you're struck by lightning and shot out of a cannon at the same time. You've found a faster gear. And a faster yet! The world grows silent and dim. This isn't about finishing, or time, or place, or mind over matter; it isn't about you at all, but something beyond... something mystical (for the atheists out there, this is the final conscious act of a brain shutting down during asphyxiation).
You just bulldozed four people in the finish chute. You think someone's asking if you're okay, but you're not sure. What's really important is that you forgot to stop your watch and you won't know if you broke 3:15 until the results are posted.
Someday, you may run a faster race, but you'll never run a better and you'll always remember this one.
If you look at it, the same stages in experiment one are in experiment two, just in reverse order. I chose a 3:15 marathon because it fits best, but other races are similar (except ultras and trail races!). I've actually run a few races like this, maybe 5 out of more than 500.
And now you know what to expect if you're ever side-by-side with me at the end of a race!
This visualizing of a race is about 90% of how I mentally prepare before a race.