I’ve been asked quite a few times in recent weeks about the issue of mental strength as it relates to ultra marathons. I’ve never thought of myself as particularly strong mentally, but if you know me well you’ll also know that I have been faced with some fairly tough life events.
It turns out that these really didn’t prepare me for the force of will you need to finish some of the races we enter. So how did I go from being an unremarkable runner to a still unremarkable runner who has done some gnarly races who only has 2 DNF’s to his name? (Let’s analyse those DNF’s later)
- Hang around people who have the strength you need. I was very lucky to meet Jane Trumper early in my ultra career. Humble, unassuming but with a will of steel- you can see she has the perfect temperament for being a nurse. Loads of empathy, but no sympathy for time wasters and laggards. And it turns out that all of the other super tough people I have met through running are the same. You never know if you are going to finish an ultra, but these people don’t have excuses- they occasionally have reasons– like ‘I had to get helicoptered off the mountain’ but no excuses. I will never be that tough, but I’ve learned that your feet being sore is not a reason to give up- it’s an excuse, and we don’t do excuses.
- We all trick ourselves into faking it- how many times have you heard ‘it’s not a 100 mile race, it’s a series of half marathons between checkpoints’. Breaking it down into sections isn’t just smart- it’s pretty much essential if you’re going well beyond a marathon. In essence, ALL you need to do is make it to the next checkpoint. And then the next one, and the next. It’s as simple as that.
- Somewhat less reliable is the reward system- having a lush snack in your checkpoint bag. I definitely run for food, but I no longer do it during races. Whenever I finish a race of 100km or more I get KFC, but that serves more to keep my KFC intake down rather than my finish rate up.
- Read race reports. You can learn a lot from the DNF stories, and you can learn what sections of the race are going to be diabolical by reading other peoples experiences. This can give you some insurance against chucking your toys out of the pram when it gets tough.
- Plan. Know how far between aid stations. Know the course profile, know the cutoffs. I usually carry a piece of paper in a waterproof sleeve with these details, all because of a mistake I made a couple of years ago (more below). I sweat the details because it works for me. I can’t imagine going in to a race without this but I guess for some people, ignorance is bliss. Doesn’t work for me!
- Be adaptable. Brendan Davies ran Coast to Kosci a few years ago and was on course record pace for much of the race. Then something went wrong and his suffering went from epic to off the scale. He could have chucked it in knowing that he’d already achieved a whole bunch of special things, but what did he actually do? He had a sleep, got up, dusted himself off and finished the race. That’s a superbly gutsy (and classy) thing to do!
- When you let negative thoughts have space in your head, they multiply. Chase them out by having food, changing the subject of conversation or simply smiling to yourself- it works!
- Don’t do anything stupid. If you look at my race history you’ll see that I have carefully picked each race and hopped from smaller to larger distances without going for the biggest race available. I recently made a post about Spartathlon on FaceBook, lamenting that I would never be able to do it. A whole bunch of people said ‘yes you can!’ and I’m grateful for the support, but when you look at it rationally I would have a VERY poor chance of finishing. I’ll take on monumental challenges, but I want a chance of success!
- Work on your mental positivity. Recently for the Great North Walk 100s I had missed out on a bunch of training while supporting at Badwater, and the people I normally train with had made such enormous progress that I could not simply pick up training with them when back in Sydney. I had to focus on finishing rather than excelling in this race, because I badly needed a finish to qualify for Coast to Kosci. I found myself making publicly disparaging comments about my own performance. I spent about 2 weeks turning that around before the race and telling myself that I could finish and I’d be fine. My Coach agreed- he said ‘your preparation hasn’t been perfect, but you’ve done enough’ and that became my catch cry- ‘you’ve done enough!’. Sure enough, I had.
- Do more long races. Familiarity might breed contempt, but it sure as hell makes you ready for the next long race too! I am not naturally an adventurer, but after 6 years of running I am now comfortable running through the bush at night alone. If I have to.
- Have someone take your keys, car or both to the finish line. If you don’t make it, you don’t go home. Brutal, dangerous, but effective?
- This one from Wayne ‘Blue Dog’ Gregory- where is your inner mongrel? Your feet are like fat sausages full of mince, your knees are an unnatural shade of purple, you’ve been throwing up for hours, the chafing is so bad you can no longer wear pants- what to do? Find the part of you that doesn’t want to give up. Make it angry. Tell it you no longer give a f@ck about anything but finishing. Run naked. Tell your crew you’ll kill them if they take pics, but be secretly proud when they turn up on Facebook…..
So, my 2 DNF’s? The first was at Great North Walk 100 miler in 2013. Yes, the ‘hot year’. I made a lot of mistakes but the worst was this- I had added up how far the last 2 sections were and got 52km. I knew I had 9 hours of race time left and I decided that I couldn’t make 52km in 9 hours. I was mistaken- it was only 42km and I could have made it. Bugger. And THAT’S why I carry notes on me now…..
The second was at Buffalo Stampede 2015. I had entered the 75km ultra marathon, and it was my first experience with ‘Skyrunning’. Damn those hills were steep. I got to the marathon mark and decided that it would be stupid for me to jeopardise my race at Ultra Trail Australia in a few weeks simply to go over a few more hills. I feel justified that I made the right decision there because I had a brilliant race at UTA, and a friend who went the whole distance didn’t. But I do feel kind of stupid because I should have entered the marathon in the first place.
As you do more races you’ll meet all of the superstars of the sport. All of these people are super generous with their time. It’s a sport where we can speak directly to world beating athletes, but don’t fuck them around. Don’t say ‘I’d love to do XYZ race, but I have a bad upper flange gasket…’, ask them about their experience with that race. Don’t ask them for a diagnosis of your injury, go to a doctor! Ask them if they loved that race last month in Borneo/ Albania/ Nepal etc.
If you just have a whinge about how your knee hurts they will probably find a sudden need to be somewhere else. No excuses.