It’s a chilly day in November and while we celebrate his birthday, Mr. Casey Buckman has graciously agreed to let me pepper him with questions about his experiences as a serious recreational runner. I’ve intentionally kept the initial questions broad because I’m a relatively curious person, learning anything about a topic or a person is rewarding investment of my lunch time. But also because I’ve discovered a new wealth of curiosity about the experiences of recreational athletes. I find myself wondering how the field of sport psychology understands and supports the mental training of these athletes. Do we need to teach the skills differently? Design the interventions more specifically? And vice-versa, how do recreational athletes understand mental training and sport psychology? For those who aren’t training for the Olympics or professional sport, but still take their athletic pursuits very seriously, is mental skills training useful? Necessary? Sought after?
This topic was not covered in great depth in my graduate or subsequent training; it’s not an area about which I find much additional discussion when I attend larger conventions or professional gatherings. As it would happen, my favorite way of learning is by talking and sharing stories. And D. Rowe’s has excellent sweet potato fries. Sign me up!
Casey’s history of entering the sport is similar to others who run for fun and not profession. After “dabbling” in 5K’s, he found a growing appreciation for the challenge that comes from increasing milage. He joined the Columbia Multisport Club; in 2007 he followed up with the idea to train for a 1/2 marathon, then a triathlon in 2009. He laughs as he tells me that he didn’t own a bike or know how to swim – at least not laps – when he agreed to try it out.
Although he considers himself at one time a decent high school athlete, it’s easy to appreciate that perhaps there’s more going on than he allows. It takes a certain amount of adventurousness, openness to do things that have been never been previously done. And certainly agreeing to run a marathon involves agreeing to a decent slice of physical discomfort. While a professional athlete might tolerate physical (and mental) pains in service of a paycheck, the recreational athlete seeks out these challenges largely just for the experience of it. Sometimes it might be hard for those around the serious recreational athlete to appreciate why they do what they do. Casey has one brother who’s active in similar ways and another brother who maintains that he “doesn’t do K’s,” (as in 5K, 10K, etc). Never fear, Jay, no one who has known you for more than five seconds would ever accuse you of such foolishness… 🙂
Now it’s 8 marathons later and Casey has a wealth of knowledge on training, outlining in clear detail what works for him to adequately prepare for all of those miles. He pragmatically talks about the significant changes he makes to eat and properly prepare his body to run a marathon. Casey isn’t the type that just wants to finish – but to really push hard for drops in time. Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is the next adventure on his list.
He also has two (utterly adorable) boys and an extremely successful photography business. Should you check it out? Of course you should! http://www.caseybphoto.com/wp/ . Like many other recreational athletes, time management is essential. Training has to fit around time for family and work; it’s a balancing act that sometimes results in having to skip training runs or work around less than ideal circumstances. Casey’s attitude about a sub-optimal training routine is equanimous. For someone who says and genuinely seems to enjoy “suffering for a purpose,” he also possesses the highly desirable attribute of maintaining perspective and composure when things aren’t going as he had initially planned. Being highly invested in an activity while still not getting your feathers overly ruffled when you have to do something else in its place is obviously a critical skill.
Casey’s belief (and my shared observation) is that work and kids are also a protective factor. Not every race has gone smoothly. In the months leading up to a marathon earlier this fall, he was working through a niggling knee injury that required several weeks of complete rest. I’ve seen the exact same look on the face of my collegiate athletes when they talk about how quickly months of training can seemingly disappear in the space of injury. But there’s not a lot of time for self-pity when he feels invested and balanced by other activities. In more psychological terms, Casey’s self-identity is not solely tied to his athletic achievements. To further emphasize the point, he shares that it is scarier to attempt new ventures in photography than it was to sign up for his first triathlon. “What’s the worse that can happen?” he asks.
Of course, there are other potential obstacles. Casey relates that when he first started running competitively, it was easy to have uncomplicated fun. As he became a more experienced runner, expectation crept in. While he emphasizes that every race is a learning opportunity (how much does Renee love that?!), he also has to work a little harder to remind himself about the importance of just having fun – despite the improvements he wants to see in his performance.
He also speaks throughout our lunch about the friendships and connections that running has brought him. The CMC and other organizations help create teams out of otherwise isolated individuals. Undoubtedly, teams like this help support the achievement of athletic goals because training partners create accountability and encouragement for the rough patches. Athletic pursuits, in turn, help like-minded people find each other. For Casey, the people that join him for those crack-of-dawn training runs are a secondary family, just the same as any professional athlete might hope to experience.
When I inquire into what other specific types of mental skills training he might regularly utilize, Casey shares that it’s an area about which he could learn more. Suggestions like creating a pre-competitive routine or learning more about visualization work make sense, but obviously it’s difficult for people to know how to do this without some sort of educational opportunity. Understandably, recreational athletes may not have funds to pursue individual work with a sport psychologist, unlike professional athletes as teams and athletic departments are more often hiring people to work with athletes.
As lunch winds down, Casey wonders if there will ever come a time when he doesn’t want to devote himself to training at this level. And I get the sense he’s not the type who can do things “half-arsed” if he knows that he’d be capable of doing better. For the time being, he allows himself time off after big races to eat whatever he’d like – a treat! – and waits for The Itch to return. Although he ponders the possibility of burnout, he also lights up when talking about the possibility of spontaneously leaving for a weekend race without planning months in advance. We briefly calculate how many days it would take for him to run across the state of Missouri. Or, even better, run some absurdly grueling race like the Badwater Ultramarathon through Death Valley.
Knowing this guy, I’m not ruling anything out. Another year older, another year of learning under that water belt, especially now that he’s got that whole helmet-facing-the-right-way thing settled.