Media  Oct 07 - Runners' mental hurts

Runners' mental hurts massaged
by Isabel Teotonio
The Toronto Star, October 17, 2007
Ian Wineberg limped, dejected, into the medical tent, wincing from the pain shooting from his left knee.

The agonizing ache forced the 34-year-old to pull out halfway through the 42-kilometre Toronto Marathon yesterday. Soon he was hobbling into the makeshift tent set up in Queen's Park, just metres from the finish line that he had hoped to reach in triumph.

After 10 months of intense training for his first full marathon, the disappointment was clearly etched in Wineberg's face.

Luckily, it's a look that the 30-member "Psyching Team" is trained to spot. The volunteer corps of sports psychologists is at both the start and finish lines, ready to give pre- and post-race counselling to help runners achieve their goals and grapple with feelings of failure.

Two Torontonians were winners of the full marathon, which had 8,350 entrants. Among the men, Charles Bedley was quickest in two hours, 21 minutes. Leslie Black came first on the women's side in two hours, 58 minutes.

For the hurting Wineberg, meanwhile, a sports psychologist was by his side within minutes of his arrival at the medical tent.

"It was fantastic," the runner said later of their 30-minute discussion (or "intervention," as team members put it). "Otherwise, you've got people sitting around feeling like failures. It's easy to get stuck in that head space because we (runners) are so goal-oriented."

The Psyching Team's success has surprised even race director Jay Glassman, who was lukewarm to the idea when Toronto psychologist Dr. Kate Hays approached him with the idea nine years ago. The Toronto event remains the only Canadian marathon with a Psyching Team.

"A lot of runners were skeptical about it at first," said Glassman of the team's use of such techniques as visualization exercises. "But people eventually bought into it and realized how much it can help them."

Now, Glassman routinely spots runners at the finish line touching the swatch of orange ribbon given to them by a Psyching Team member. The ribbon is meant as a reminder of the advice they received and symbolize the finish line they're striving to reach.

"We want people who've completed the half-marathon and full-marathon to come away with the most constructive experience," said Hays, who proposed the idea after participating on a team at the New York City marathon.

"We talk to people about their goals, how realistic they are, help them with strategies, help calm them down and help them remember how they've overcome things in the past."

Dr. Dan Egli, a clinical psychologist from Williamsport, Penn., drove up to Toronto to volunteer. He said after running 10 marathons himself, he understands the mental duress a runner can experience.

"To have someone to talk to, to have that external ear, is huge," said Egli, who cycled alongside runners looking for non-verbal signs of distress to alleviate with words of encouragement as one of the team's "Pyschs on Bikes."

"What percentage of this difficult physical challenge is mental? Many would say most of it is," said Egli, adding runners often find the mental hurdles more difficult.

In recent years the Psyching Team has become a key component of the medical team, said Dr. Christopher Woollam, the race's medical director and another former skeptic.

"At first I thought they'd be rubbing the backs of runners," he joked. "But they've really been extremely useful when we've had to deal with some of our own crises," he said, referring to the event's three deaths in five years.

"When there are situations of major physical duress, the Psyching Team is there to explain to family members what's going on."