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The marathon experience and its psychedelic connection

Posted by Ty Velde  April 8, 2012 10:24 PM

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Anyone who has trained for and run a marathon will tell you that it’s a life changing and dare I say, mind-altering experience.

In many cases, we are pushing our bodies beyond previously known physiological boundaries and in doing so we are simultaneously testing our psychological will. Upon completing a marathon, it is not uncommon for someone to refer to it as “life changing,” because they have accomplished something that they previously questioned their ability to do. In doing this, marathoners state that not only are they in much better shape physiologically, but they now approach life with a much greater sense of confidence and vigor.

This second factor clearly speaks to the psychological and mind-altering aspect that training for and running a marathon provides.

However, what are the factors that influence the marathon experience? Are there particular aspects that can determine whether the experience is positive or negative? Why is it that some people decide to run a marathon, but so many people choose to sit on the sidelines?

While there are many factors that one may look to, I recently came across two factors, that I believe have very big influence on determining the overall outcome of the marathon experience …. the “set” and the “setting.”

I did not come across these ideas via a running magazine, training guide or anything related to running at all. Rather, I was reading a book on the 1960s counterculture and one of its key architects, Dr. Timothy Leary. When speaking about the psychedelic experience, a key 1960s countercultural component, Dr. Leary stated that it was influenced by two overriding factors … the set and setting, which were defined as follows:

'Set' is the mental state a person brings to the experience, like thoughts, mood and expectations. 'Setting' is the physical and social environment. (Source: Wikipedia)

As I read this, I could not help but to think about the marathon, as my mindset (or set) has always played a huge role in my experience, whether I’m training or on race day, and likewise my running environment (setting) has always been a very influential factor as well. Therefore, I thought to myself, could there really be a connection between the psychedelic experience that Leary was referring to and the experience of running a marathon?

When looked strictly from the perspective of “set” and “setting” I thought to myself that the answer was definitively yes.

The set
Your mental state when preparing for and running a marathon is extremely important. To simply decide to run a marathon, you need to possess, and approach it with, confidence. You have to believe in yourself and your ability to overcome the many challenges that will be put forth. Simply stated, if you thought there was no way you could complete the race, would you have even registered to begin with? Yes, you may have initially approached running a marathon with doubts or fears, but not with a mindset bent on failure.

As for training, if you approached each run with a sense of dread, would you have really stuck with it? Most likely the answer is no. When it comes to race day, while you may be anxious, are you really questioning your ability to finish the race? Again, my guess here is that the answer is a resounding “no”. Whether you realize it or not, your “set” throughout the entire marathon experience has played a huge role in getting you to where you are today. It’s given you the confidence to register, ensured you stuck to your training and will play a huge role in making sure you cross the finish line on race day.

The setting
On the most basic level, this can be viewed within the context of your physical surroundings. Who can deny the power and pull that a beautiful day can have on how you experience a training run or its impact on a race day performance? Additionally, where you choose to do your training can be a big influence. I’m one who has to run outside (the thought of a treadmill just makes me shudder), and this setting really defines how I perceive my training experience.

Furthermore, the impact of choosing to train and run in groups or with teams can provide a social setting of camaraderie, support and kinship that for many helps to define and enable a successful marathon experience.

Finally, when it comes to race day, who can deny the influence of the awesome setting that Boston provides…the history, the course, crowds, the energy! I have run many marathons, and while each setting is unique and motivating, I still have yet to find one as inspiring as Boston. Needless to say, when training as well as race day is viewed through the lens of the setting, it’s hard to deny its influence.

However, the set and setting are not two isolated factors. Rather when it comes to the marathon there is definitive interplay between the two. A negative mindset can turn the most beautiful and inspiring setting into place you want to flee. Likewise an uncomfortable setting, can quickly lead to a mindset of frustration and confusion. Therefore when it comes to running a marathon, it’s important to look at both your set and setting as unified whole. Understanding and evaluating both will enable you to formulate a solid race day plan.

With the above being said, while I certainly cannot predict what your “set” will be on Monday, April 16, I can say with close to near certainly that the “setting” will be incredible. The Boston Marathon is truly an amazing experience and the setting is one of complete inspiration.

As for Timothy Leary, while he certainly was not thinking about running a marathon when speaking to impact and importance of the “set” and “setting,” he did understand their impact on what can lead to a mind altering experience … and when it comes to Boston, it's more than just a marathon, it's truly a mind altering experience!

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Look for updates, news, analysis and commentary from the following.
  • Steve Silva, Boston.com senior producer, two-time Boston Marathon sub-four hour runner.
  • Ty Velde is a 16-time Boston qualifier who's completed 12 consecutive Boston Marathons and 25 marathons overall. Ty is now training for his 13th Boston run and will provide training tips for those who train solo and outside, no matter what temperature it is.
  • Rich 'Shifter' Horgan is a 19-time Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team member who runs in honor of his father, who died of colon cancer. He will provide updates on local running events with a focus on the charitable organizations that provide Boston Marathon entries for their organization's fund raising purposes

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