Ultrarunning Mind Games | January 23, 2011
Ultrarunners are fond of saying that you run the first half of a hundred mile race with your legs, the last half with your mind, or that an ultra is 10% physical and 90% mental. It’s one of the great ironies of ultrarunning that this most physical of challenges often comes down to a mental struggle. In almost every ultra, you will come to a point where your energy is gone, your legs are shot, the fun meter is all pegged out, and your body is telling you, “No more!” To finish, you will have to overcome these negative feelings and summon up the attitude and determination it takes to keep going. In other words, let the ultra mind games begin.
First and foremost, you want to keep things positive. If you allow your mind to dwell on negative thoughts, you open up the door to fear and self-doubt, which in turn can cause you to tighten up and make it even harder to continue. Your fear of failing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sports psychologist JoAnn Dahlkoetter has some great advice on keeping things positive. She says to acknowledge the pain and fatigue you are experiencing, but accept them as signs that you are indeed running a hard race. You should be feeling this way. This is what a good effort feels like. It also helps to realize that your fellow runners are dealing with the same issues that you are. You’re not alone. Give yourself some chances for positive feedback by focusing on short range goals, such as reaching the next aid station, getting to the next turn in the road, or even just taking care of some immediate issue like drinking some water or taking some salt tabs. Rather than worry about how far away the finish is or how many hours more you will be running, stay in the here and now. Ask yourself, “What do I need to do for myself right now?” Then focus on the small adjustments that will help you keep going.
A great way to divert negative thoughts is to have a mantra, a short meaningful phrase, which you can repeat to yourself when you feel the need for some refocusing of your mind. You can borrow a phrase, such as, Nike’s universally applicable slogan “Just Do It!” which has the qualities of being both very inspiring and very pithy, or you can come up with your own phrase. Long ago the mantra I formulated for myself was, “Infinite patience, steely determination.” It reminds me to be patient when I start to feel overwhelmed by an event, and it also reinforces the fact that more than anything else it is determination that I can rely on to get me through to the end. And now that I’ve been using it for so long, it has the power to remind me of a slew of different times that I have been in tough spots and used it to good effect. It works.
There are still other ways to use your mind to boost your performance. Imagine that the runner ahead of you is pulling you along or you are feeding off other runners’ energy. If you find yourself in a line of runners, imagine that you are just being carried along in the “train,” like your own running is practically effortless. Imagine some object at the top of a hill pulling you upward. One runner friend told me whenever the race course turned off of a paved road and headed onto a singletrack trail, he would imagine that the bare earth was giving him extra strength. Visualize yourself running along strongly or visualize yourself crossing the finish line with energy to spare. You can also get yourself into a much more relaxed frame of mind by concentrating on each part of your body beginning at the top of your head, and while you’re running along, tell yourself to relax each part of your body as you work your way downward. Repeat the whole sequence every time you feel yourself tightening up. It will kill time, keep your mind occupied, and keep you from unconsciously tightening up.
All of these mental techniques for keeping you in the race assume, of course, that you are not injured or facing some serious health issue. It also assumes that you have adequately trained for the event you are in and that you’re not attempting to tackle a distance or pace that is way beyond your fitness level. If you have an injury or health issue, far from using your mind to push your body beyond its limits, you should be erring on the side of caution and backing off of your effort if you are experiencing any unusual signals from your body. There will always be another day and another ultra. On the other hand, if you are facing “normal” ultra issues, such as, severe fatigue, sore muscles, aching feet, blisters, or a general feeling that you would kill to spend five minutes stretched out in a soft bed, then you will be amazed at how your mind can get your balking body to keep going on. As Ken Chlouber, past race director of the Leadville 100 Mile always said before the race, “You’re tougher than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can.”
My own great lesson in mind over body came during my first one hundred mile run at Angeles Crest. I had done most of the climb up Mount Wilson, which starts at 75 miles into the course and is the longest climb in the race, when I sat down on the trail and gave up. I was totally beat. I thought it was over. But after awhile I saw a string of lights floating up the trail behind me and soon a group of runners and pacers went by. They were all talking and laughing, excited to be there, happy with the race and just enjoying life. I watched them disappear up the trail ahead of me and suddenly I just became so angry. I was angry at the course for beating me up, angry at myself for quitting, angry at the other runners because they were having so much fun and I wasn’t. As it turned out, all that emotion got me going again. It got me refocused. I stood up and started walking and the strength was there and I just kept going over the top of the climb and on to the finish. It was pure mind over body, and now I believe that if all else fails, well, I can always get angry.