When you are in the total ass-kicking miles of an ultra, what mental tactics do you use to keep moving? How do you will yourself through the dark times? What keeps you from convincing yourself that it is not worth all the pain? If physical training is the key to running a successful ultra, then mental toughness is the hand that guides the key into the lock and turns it. If you lack the required strength of mind, there will eventually come a time when bodily endurance and your Greek god physique is not enough to allow you to escape the darkness and emerge into the light of the finish line – where you can bask in your glorious achievement.
What do you do to pass the hard miles? Of course music or audio books are a popular alternative seen at basically every race 5K and up. Here are a few suggestions taken from my own personal arsenal – the key is finding what works for you. As an ultrarunner, experienced or aspiring, you should have plenty of opportunities to put it to the test.
Repeat a mantra. I have had times where I was repeating a chant such as, “Next step. Next Step…” for what seems like forever to keep myself moving. Once, after almost barfing my guts up on an aid station worker, I gobbled a few Tums and kept telling myself, “I WILL feel better” until I actually did. I believe this is basically hypnotizing yourself and moving your focus off the pain until the pain subsides – or you finish (which sometimes does come first).
Fantasize! Use the power of your mind and take yourself somewhere else. If the “now” freaking sucks, get the hell out! Fantasize about something so interesting and engaging that it becomes more real than the giant blister on the ball of your foot that just ruptured. Use your imagination and paint a mental picture of your perfect vacation, winning the lottery, or maybe being stranded in Antarctica. Think about every detail and then details about details. It doesn’t matter what you think about… just think about something. This will pass the time, and once again divert your focus away from your current struggles.
Make a new friend. Talk to the other runners. Chances are that unless you are a world-class elite speedster, you will be moving at speeds that will easily allow you the ability to continue speaking. Use this humanly ability to your advantage. Ask other runners questions, tell stories, shoot the shit… This might not work in some ultras (I have been solo for HOURS before), but if and when the opportunity is there – use it. It is a great way to pass the time and get past a rough point in a race. I have made some great friends in my time running ultras, and most of them I met WHILE on the trail.
Focus on smaller, more manageable distances. When the thought of another 20 miles just seems too much, break your run into chunks. Focus on running to the next aid station, mile section, or electric pole- hell, even just the next step. These smaller incremental victories will add up and eventually you will be crossing the finish.
Finally, one thing I do when I really struggle is to completely disassociate my mind with my body. Having a techie background, I think of it as putting my brain in “standby mode”. I focus on thinking of nothing. My complete attention goes to listening to my own breathing, my vision on a blurred fixed point about 4 meters in front of me, reducing my body to a biological machine processing oxygen and sending blood to where it is most needed. There have been times when hours have passed and I realized I had literally thought of nothing. On a technical course I may try to get myself so hyper focused on my next footfall that it becomes the only reality – figuring out where my next foot should land, noting else.
The key is never letting negative thoughts invade your mind. If they do, a runner needs ways to immediately cast them out. You can literally talk yourself into DNF’ing a race that your body was fully capable of completing. Excuses at the time that seem perfectly reasonable will make you want to punch yourself in the face for quitting the following week. Don’t let all the time you spend training your body go to waste because you haven’t conditioned your mind.
Until next time…