When it comes to the marathon, the thinking is that those 26.2 miles are a celebration of your training. But merrymaking as you tick off the miles isn’t always easy—especially if you feel your PR getting further out of reach with each step.

Des Linden, a two-time Olympian, the 2018 Boston marathon champion, and Brooks’ Chief Running Advisor says she’s gotten to the starting line of a race with the mentally that she’d miss her goal… even before she started running.

“I can think of dozens of examples where this was the mindset heading into the race, before the gun even went off—including a first race back after returning from an injury, less than ideal weather conditions, subpar training in the buildup,” she tells Runner’s World. That’s when she reminds herself (and us) that “you have to run and compete where you’re at right now, not where you want to be.”

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So how, exactly, do you keep your wits, motivation, and commitment to the race when it just isn’t your day? (Because sadly, even marathon days are sometimes not our days.) Linden, along with other running experts, including coaches and exercise psychologists, offer midrace marathon motivation tips so you can make it through those hard miles.

Have Multiple Goals

One super important thing to do before you head to the start: Consider your goals. To help keep a runner focused on their effort and performance, regardless of the results, multiple (and adjustable!) objectives are a must, says Stephen Gonzalez, Ph.D. , assistant athletics director for Leadership and Mental Performance at Dartmouth College and an executive board member for the Association of Applied Sports Psychology. “For example, have an ‘A’ race time, ‘B’ race time, and ‘C’ race time so that you can calibrate what a great day, good day, and average day look like,” he explains. This gives you multiple options for goals to keep in mind, and can keep you motivated, knowing you’re able to achieve what your capable of on that specific day, he adds.

Keep Fighting

Over the course of 26.2 miles, there will be a highs and lows. Hit a rough spot? “You can’t stop believing that your next good patch is right around that corner,” says Linden. “If you settle, or give up for a second, it could end up being the second you miss your goal by.” Not to mention, our thoughts and our inability to navigate them are often our biggest obstacles, adds Percell Dugger, a Nike running coach and certified strength coach. “Just because you don’t feel like a PR is possible, doesn’t mean those feelings are valid,” he says. “Reset and remember those hours and moments where you didn’t feel like it, but still had a good training session.”

Remember the 3 Ps

Hone in on thoughts that are purposeful, productive, and offer possibility, says Gonzalez. This “can help combat ineffective thoughts that could seriously derail a performance and instead enable a good effort to come out of the day.” Also, be smart.Do what you can with what you have and where you are,” Gonzalez adds. “Take the conditions, your body, and the course as they are. Do not try to make something happen that is not there, as it adds to the frustration.” Some factors are out of your hands (like terrible weather conditions), so be malleable and adjust what you had in mind for the race to better meet what you’re facing.

Linden recalls having to do just that during the 2022 Boston Marathon. “I was still on the comeback trail from some aches and pains, I knew it wouldn’t be a PR day, or even a very competitive day,” she says. “My goal was to make my personal floor better than most peoples’ ceiling. I wanted to find out, how good can I be on one of my most subpar days?”

Focus on the Process—Not the Outcome

Process goals are the granular actions or behaviors that lead to the outcome goal of a time or place—and they are things you can actually control, says Gonzalez. For Linden that means run smart and calculated for the first 20 miles of the race, do a good job of getting in the proper nutrition every 5K, and don’t settle or be afraid to push hard after 20 miles. “They are the right steps to make sure I’m taking care of myself and also setting myself up to compete well when the racing really starts,” she says. It sounds cheesy but it’s true: Take time to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

Split the Race Up, and Celebrate Each Segment

Gonzalez says to remember WIN: what is important now. In the moment, that means things like getting to the next aid station or telephone pole, passing the next three people, or simply focusing on the current mile. “Mini tasks that you can accomplish will change your mindset from negative to positive as you complete each one,” adds Linden. While it may not make it a PR effort, Linden says it’s a lot more fun to have little success along the way, rather than focusing on how bad you feel.

Detach from the Moment

Whether you are imagining yourself squishing your boss’ face with each step or as a gazelle prancing gracefully through the finish line, Meghan Kennihan a RRCA- and USATF-certified run coach and NASM-certified personal trainer says that dissociation can be a handy tool. “It allows you to disconnect yourself from pain or fatigue by thinking of anything but running,” she explains.

One caveat: She advises it be used “sparingly during tough spots in your race because when you don’t pay attention to the body, you lose touch. When you lose touch, you lose control.” Take yourself out of the moment when you need it, then get back in the game when you’re feeling better.

Know Your Worth

If this marathon isn’t a PR, that doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of it in the future. So, be kind to yourself. “Tell yourself that pushing the envelope and coming out short is a part of growth,” says Gonzalez. After all, a PR is merely a fraction of your identity as a runner and person, adds Dugger. “Finishing a race is still an accomplishment one can be proud of.”

Plus, “tough races offer an important lesson in dealing with the realities of life where you are constantly bombarded with disappointments, successes, and tough decisions in the moment,” adds Kennihan. Remember: There will be more races. “Consider this one a productive stepping stone for the next one down the line,” says Linden.

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