Working Your Mantra | October 17, 2012
Late in a race, when hours of running really started to take a toll, I used to have a problem with flat sections. As long as the elevation was changing, I felt more or less okay. Going up, I had to walk anyway so I could tell myself that I was resting, preparing for the last big push to the finish. Going down, I was running, of course, but gravity was helping and it seemed like I could make good time without too much strain. But then I’d hit a flat.
I would struggle. I had to work to keep running. I could feel the deep fatigue in my quads, calves, and hamstrings. I felt drained of energy and even the slightest uptick in pace seemed to require an enormous effort. A mile of flat trail would go on forever. The suffering seemed way out of proportion to the progress I was making.
Moreover, once I’d convinced myself that I had this problem with flats, I started anticipating the flat sections, dreading them and knowing they would be tough. When I hit a flat section, it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’d flood my mind with all sorts of negative thinking, and then, big surprise, I’d struggle. I decided to do something about it.
I came up with a mantra, targeted to my problem: “Flat is good, flat is fast.” Now when I come to a flat section in a race, I work the mantra, crowding out the negative thinking with the positive message. Using the mantra has worked so well that I no longer expect to have a problem with flats. Why should I? Flat is good, flat is fast!
Mantras can be an indispensable weapon in your mental arsenal against the negative thinking that can subvert your success in running an ultra. Allow fear and self-doubt to take hold in your mind and your body will respond by tightening up and making the going even harder. The reasons for slowing down or quitting will weigh more heavily on your mind and become more convincing. Replacing the negative narrative in your mind with a positive, affirming narrative can break the downward spiral that leads to a poor performance or a DNF.
A mantra is like a shortcut from somewhere down along the negative spiral road back to the positive high road, where you may be suffering, but you’re also enduring, getting it done, hanging tough, focusing on what needs to be done right now, and pushing away fear and self-doubt and replacing them with confidence and determination.
What makes a good mantra? Will just any positive phrase do? Perhaps. I’ve seen lists of ready made mantras that went on for pages, but I tend to believe that the more personal and targeted a mantra is the better it works for you. A mantra that has stuck with me for many years is one I made up as I came to recognize my own shortcomings as an ultrarunner. In the past my reaction to the tough later stages of a race would be to push it even harder, to hurry up the process. It was like I would go into panic mode. I couldn’t stand the way I felt so my reaction was to get things over with fast. Sometimes the result would be pushing myself right over the edge into a total meltdown and a DNF. To combat this tendency, I came up with “Steely determination, infinite patience.” These were the two qualities that I lacked.
Using the mantra circumvented my slide into panic mode. It reminded me that I needed to be patient, very patient. It also reminded me that the key to finishing was determination, and not just any determination, but a special kind of determination: steely determination.
Contrast that mantra with a few of the ready-made mantras that strike me as much less effective. For example, consider “Failure is not an option.” Well, actually, failure is an option; it is in fact the key option, so to me repeating something to yourself that seems objectively untrue is not that reassuring. Another example would be, “Doing good, feeling fine.” Again, the reality of how one typically feels in the middle of an ultra is at such odds with this message that it seems unconvincing, even phony. You are, after all, trying to help yourself, not fool yourself.
Lately, I’ve had good luck with constructing a mantra for a particular event. Before my last hundred mile attempt, I was reflecting on the fact that I hadn’t had a chance to do a lot of specific training for the event but at least I wasn’t sick, had no injuries and was well rested from my last big race. It also occurred to me that when I start a hundred miler in that condition, that is, with no deficits up front, I usually succeed. So I decided to build my mantra around that very positive notion. I came up with “HURU,” which stood for Healthy, Uninjured, Rested, and Unafraid. I added “Unafraid” as sort of a stop gap against a natural tendency to be a little fearful about attempting any hundred miler. But my thinking was if I was indeed healthy, uninjured and rested, then I had nothing to fear.
During the race, whenever I felt my confidence flagging or my attention wandering, I would focus on “HURU,” and then slowly repeat each word to myself, reflecting on the notion that being healthy, uninjured and well rested, along with a lot of patience, would equal success. And thus reassured and confident that I could handle whatever the race threw at me, I was indeed unafraid. I worked that mantra all night and into the next morning, and eventually my mission was accomplished. I crossed the finish line three hours ahead of my projected time that was on my race plan, much to my own surprise.
The mental component of running an ultra is crucial. It’s no wonder that some ultrarunners claim a race is 10% physical and 90% mental. A felicitous mantra could be just the thing to get you to the finish in record time, carry you through a long dark night, or make the difference between a hard earned finish or a disappointing DNF.